Storms this week could bring desperately needed snow — or disastrous rain — to the Mt. Ashland Ski Area.
Snow over the weekend boosted the snow depth to 11 inches at the ski area, which still leaves it short of being able to open for the season, Ski Area General Manager Kim Clark said Monday.
More rain and snow is forecast for today through at least Sunday in the Siskiyou Mountains.
Ashland Daily Tidings
With snow in Southern Oregon scarce, local competitive skiers and snowboarders have traveled to Mount Hood, Mount Bachelor and Lake Tahoe to practice and compete.
"As you can imagine, there's been a significant impact on our ability to train," said Troy McCrae, operations manager for the nonprofit Mt. Ashland Racing Association, which is separate from the Mt. Ashland Ski Area and the Mt. Ashland Association.
MARA works with youths ages 6 through 18 years old, McCrae said.
MARA athletes have traveled this winter to the Mt. Bachelor Ski Resort in Central Oregon and Lake Tahoe, which straddles the California and Nevada border, he said. Mt. Shasta Ski Park is also closed by lack of snow.
Other ski areas are working to accommodate the Southern Oregon athletes, he said.
"The lack of snow has brought a lot of camaraderie out," McCrae said. "People are trying to share resources. It's good to see everyone working together."
Gary King, head coach for the Southern Oregon League of the Oregon Interscholastic Ski Racing Association, said league athletes have been training hard on land and traveling to other ski areas.
"Now some of the kids are saying, 'Are we a ski team or a dry land team?'" King said.
Some athletes who are new to racing had to be taught via chalkboard how to navigate courses, he said.
The athletes need to have a certain number of races under their belts to qualify for state championships in early March, so dozens of kids from different local schools traveled to Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort to race in late January, King said.
The kids' land training paid off, with boys' and girls' teams for Ashland High School and St. Mary's School in Medford qualifying for state, King said.
The Phoenix High School boys' team also qualified, he said.
The Ashland girls won the team championship last winter, while Kailey Flockoi of Crater High School in Central Point was state champion in the slalom.
Although the trip to Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort paid off in terms of athletes qualifying for state, the trip ate into the funds the teams would normally use for their state championship trip. Teams raise money through fundraising, King said.
Skiing and snowboarding is a club sport that is not funded by local schools, he said.
Many kids used their own money for a trip this past weekend to the Mt. Bachelor Ski Resort, which offered discounted tickets to help the Southern Oregon athletes, he said.
"We're trying to be proactive instead of just giving up," King said.
On Wednesday, the National Weather Service forecasts that the snow level will rise to 7,000 feet. The ski area's base elevation is 6,338 feet and its summit elevation is 7,500 feet.
"That puts the snow level up pretty high. There will be more rain than snow probably," said Charles Glaser, a data acquisitions program manager for the National Weather Service.
A rain-on-snow event is unlikely to result in flooding in the valleys because of the lack of snow and low river levels, Glaser said.
In 1997, a rain-on-snow event caused major flooding locally.
Clark said he has been reading conflicting forecasts, with one calling for 2 inches of rain and another predicting 6 to 12 inches of snow for the mountains.
The latest the ski area has ever opened was Feb. 17 in 1977.
Clark said it would be disastrous if the ski area cannot open this winter.
"It could potentially close the area," he said, adding that a season-long closure could spell the end of the Mt. Ashland Association's tenure as operator of the ski area. "Could any business survive a year without income?"
The nonprofit Mt. Ashland Association has been operating the ski area since the early 1990s.
A company that previously owned the ski area had been on the verge of dismantling the ski lifts and moving them to a different location when community members raised $1.6 million to purchase the property. The state added in $500,000 in economic development funds and the Mt. Ashland Association was formed to run the ski area as a nonprofit.
Currently, only a handful of ski area employees are working part-time, Clark said.
The ski area is continuing to pay its bills while earning no revenue, he said.
"We continue to watch our reserves dwindle," Clark said.
Some season pass buyers have begun asking for refunds.
Clark said no refunds are being offered at this point and the ski area has no policy to issue refunds if it never opens for the season.
"Our primary focus is to get the doors open," he said.
However, the Mt. Ashland Association is exploring options to deal with the refund issue, he said.
After-school ski and snowboard programs for almost two dozen public and private schools throughout the Rogue Valley have been on hold.
Clark said the ski area has not cashed the checks that were paid to it to cover the after-school programs.
He said it will be up to the school programs to decide whether to issue refunds.
The Ashland After School Ski and Snowboard Program is not issuing refunds at this point, organizers said.
The program is normally scheduled to last five weeks and has had a delayed start, said Dan Shulters, coordinator for middle school-age students in the Ashland program.
If the ski area isn't open long enough to host the Ashland program for five weeks, the program could issue partial refunds, he said. If the ski area never opens this winter, participants would get most of their money back, Shulters said.
"There has never not been a ski season. We just have to wait it out," he said.
With about 130 Ashland area students served by the program, Shulters said he has received only three requests for refunds.
Farther south, the Mt. Shasta Ski Park reported needing another 12 to 14 inches to open. The ski park had 10 inches of snow at its base and 14 inches at its top on Monday. It opened earlier in the season but later closed due to a lack of snow.
For updates on the Mt. Ashland Ski Area, visit http://www.mtashland.com or call the snow phone at 541-482-2SKI.