CONWAY — With 2½ weeks until the official start of spring, skiers are rejoicing and snow shovelers ... not so much. In fact, many are cursing Punxsutawney Phil for his so-far-erroneous prediction for an early end to winter back on Groundhog Day (Feb. 2).
On the sunny side of those deep, deep snowbanks, virtually every ski trail is open at local areas. Bretton Woods tops the season total with 204 inches, with Wildcat (154 inches), Great Glen Trails (160 inches) and others close behind.
The season began in October with a half-inch of snow in North Conway, and more in the higher elevations — Wildcat Ski Area had its earliest opening on Oct. 27, beating the old record by a day. November in the village saw 21.6 inches of snow, surpassing the 30-year average of 3.8 inches and setting a new record to get valley ski areas off to a good start.
In December, North Conway got only 5.9 inches versus the norm of 17.1 — but January bounced back with 37.9 inches compared with the 30-year average of 20.8. February was on track with 17.7 inches, down slightly from the average of 18.1 inches (and well below the record 54.2 inches set in the snowy winter of 2008.)
A season with snowfall after snowfall after snowfall also has been a boon not just to ski areas but also the contractors who make a living manning plows and shoveling rooftops and walkways. “It’s been busy for my four-man crew throughout the valley, for sure,” said Chris Munn of Absolutely Affordable of Tamworth.
Making it tough are “the layers of ice and the layers of snow,” he said. “You can literally count the storms by the deposits of snow when you dig into it, like a geologist looking into the dirt. It’s heavy and like frozen cement.”
Jeff Burke of Gordon T. Burke & Sons Inc. of Intervale said his crews have been working 50-to-60-hour weeks to keep up with the pace.
Usually, he said, there are lulls and layoffs during a season, “but this year we’ve had a steady stream of storms, so we’ve kept the guys busy.”
Burke added, “The thing we’ve had trouble with this year is finding people to do the sidewalk shoveling — we pay $25 an hour, but it’s been tough finding and keeping them.”
Conway Village Fire Chief Steve Solomon agreed that ice buildup made this year’s snow particularly challenging.
“The big difference is there has been less melting over the course of the winter,” he said.
“On top of that, we have had rain, and that gets absorbed into the snow and turns it into blocks of ice and increases the weight.”
That, he said, is why we’ve seen a few roofs cave in, including the one in Birch Hill last month and another in Intervale this past week.
Narrow snowpaths also have made it difficult for first-responders manning stretchers to get to homes during medical calls, Solomon said.
Because of the busy snow season, at the deliberative session of Conway Town Meeting Monday, voters agreed to a request by town officials to increase the operating budget for the Town Highway Department by $104,000 due to the impact of increased plowing and snow removal this winter on fuel ($24,000), overtime ($20,000) and salt ($60,000).
“We prepare (our budgets) pretty much for an average winter, so when we have an extraordinarily harsh winter like this one, it taxes our resources,” Conway Town Manager Tom Holmes said Wednesday.
“We hope taxpayers will understand that every so often Mother Nature surprises us and that we’re doing our best in terms of responding to calls and cutting down snowbanks (to improve drivers’ visibility) and that they will be patient,” Holmes said.
Dr. Eric Kelsey, assistant professor at Plymouth State University and director of research at Mount Washington Observatory, and Brian Fitzgerald, Obs’ director of education, agreed it’s been an unusual season.
It started out strongly with early snowfall in October and November, and after that, mixed precipitation event have just kept adding to the base, with little melt so far.
“The most common storm track that has occurred pretty regularly this winter is to our north and west,” said Kelsey on Wednesday.
Fitzgerald said that, as of Thursday, the National Weather Service’s North Conway weather station (NCON3, located on Pine Street) had recorded 87.1 inches of snow since the start of the snow season in October. This compared with a 30-year average of only 62.5 inches.
According to Fitzgerald, the 30-year average for the entire July-June snow season is 80.2 inches — North Conway’s 87.1 inches as of March 7 already surpasses that season total, with most of March and April still to come.
Reporting from his West Side Road Home, Ed Bergeron, local cooperative observer for the U.S. Weather Service, reported 99 inches for the snow year to date since October, surpassing the 30-year season snowfall average of 80 inches.
An avid skier, Bergeron isn’t complaining. Neither are the weather enthusiasts on Mount Washington, where the Observatory made news for a recorded wind gust of 171 mph on Feb. 25, the eighth-highest on the summit since 1932 and a new February record. In terms of snow, the Obs crews recorded a total of 246.6 inches as of Thursday, well on the way to a season average of 281.2 inches.
That total was boosted by the 52.3 inches the mountain received in October and a record-breaking 59.6 inches in November. The trend continued with 29.8 inches in December, 60.4 in January, 37.6 in February and 6.6 inches so far in March.
“We are 54 inches ahead of pace for the snow year to date,”said Fitzgerald, though adding that it is “well below the all-time record of 566.4 set in the snow year of ’68-69.”
(By comparison, the Boston area has had little snow: Even with Sunday’s storm, Boston had recorded only 26.5 inches for the season to date.)
For her part, Sharon Schilling, president of the non-profit Obs, noted: “It’s been quite a winter.”
Referencing the world record wind gust of 231 mph recorded at the Obs in 1934, she said she has been calling the February 171-mph gust “the ‘big-ish wind’ because, as you may know, our real Big Wind was at 231 mph.”
In fact, she said, “We will be celebrating the 85th anniversary of that wind this year on April 12th with an all-day Open House event at the Weather Discovery Center in downtown North Conway.”
The winter’s weather has been a cause for celebration for some, and for the others waiting for relief, perhaps they may want to find relief in points south.
Dreaming of a White Easter, come April 21? We hope not — but then, there’s always spring skiing.