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Expected snowfall could give ski season a boost

Mother Nature may dust many local valleys with snow and dress the mountains in a shiny new coat of white by Saturday, potentially heralding an early ski and snowboard season.

"Both Mount Shasta and Mount Ashland (ski areas) should be pleasantly surprised by this early accumulation," observed Mike Ottenweller, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service station at the Medford airport.

Up to 8 inches of new snow could fall in the higher elevations by the start of the weekend, he said.

"We are going to have a series of cold fronts coming through, each one colder with more precipitation," he said. "Snow levels will be dropping.

"There is a good chance by late Friday into early Saturday we could see snow flurries as low as 1,500 feet."

At 1,382 feet above sea level, Medford may skirt the dusting, but Mount Ashland, which had a base of 12 inches on Tuesday morning, can definitely expect more snow in the coming week, forecasters indicated.

The snowy predictions are good news for the ski and snowboard area, observed Rick Saul, marketing director for the Mt. Ashland Ski Area.

"To open, we'd like to have between 24 and 36 inches of packed snow on the ground — that's snow after the groomer has packed it down," Saul said. "We've operated on less, but it all depends on the density of the snow."

The ski area usually opens around Dec. 10, with a pre-Thanksgiving opening as rare as a white Christmas in Medford. The earliest opening in memory was Nov. 16 in 1995. It opened Nov. 22 in 1989, Nov. 25 in 1999 and Nov. 30 in 2002.

The Mt. Ashland Ski Area opened Dec. 3 last year and Dec. 17 in 2009.

"From an operational point of view, we are always ready to go by Thanksgiving," said Saul, referring to the hiring and training of seasonal staff, installing new equipment and other preparations.

"But we need at least 48 hours once we have enough snow on the ground to prepare the ski area for opening," he said, adding that time is needed to order food and give the new staff a heads-up.

If there is enough snow to open the ski area later this month, it would be open Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until Dec. 17, then it would be open seven days a week until Jan. 1, he said.

However, a solid base of wet snow would be better than a blanket of dry snow, he said, noting the latter doesn't pack down as well.

"What we want is wet, gloppy snow for the base," he said. "But we are excited about the snow that is forecast. Everything we get from here is good news.

"As long as we open by the holiday break, we don't consider ourselves late," he said of opening before Christmas.

Meanwhile, although Saturday afternoon and Sunday are likely to be partially clear after the first storm, Thanksgiving week is predicted to bring more snow, meteorologist Ottenweller said.

"The longer-range models are showing Tuesday and Wednesday (Nov. 22 and 23) with another cold front moving in," he said. "We could see decent amounts of accumulation with that."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.