Ski resorts battle for first to open

Last Friday, temperatures dropped in the mountains of Colorado just enough for Loveland Ski Resort to turn on their snowmaking machines for the first time this season. This Friday, the temperatures have risen again, putting a temporary halt on snowmaking, but Loveland still swears they'll be the first ski resort in the country to open: They're shooting to have three runs open by mid-October.

"Once the snow guns start buzzing you know that a new season is just around the corner," says Loveland's marketing director John Sellers. "Check your edges and find your gloves because we are going to be skiing and riding in a few short weeks."

Loveland, of course, isn't the only resort striving for bragging rights as the first ski area to open. In fact, Oregon's Timberline Ski Area on Mt. Hood has announced that they will open two chairlifts on Friday and stay open weekends through October, thanks to late spring snow and summer grooming on the Palmer Snowfield. Colorado's Arapahoe Basin, located just over the pass from Loveland, is also in the running, although they haven't started making snow yet. When asked about Timberline's early opening, A-Basin's marketing director Leigh Hierholzer said, "I think the ski area really has to be open every day [of the week] for the season to count."

The rivalry between Loveland and A-Basin has been ongoing for years.

From 1999 to 2005, Loveland was on a six-year winning streak as the first resort to open. A-Basin took the lead in 2006, beating Loveland by one day. In 2007, A-Basin opened first again and in 2008, the two resorts tied for opening day. Last season, Loveland opened -- as the first resort in the U.S. -- on Oct. 7. A-Basin, plus Nevada's Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort and California's Boreal, all followed closely behind.

The earliest Loveland has ever opened was in 1962, when the resort got a huge early season dump and opened on Sept. 30 (but it then closed and re-opened in October). A-Basin's earliest opening was last year on Oct. 9.

In separate interviews with the marketing directors at Loveland and A-Basin, they echoed each other when asked the same question: Sounds like you guys are putting your hat in the ring to become the first to open?

"Putting our hat in the ring?" Loveland's Sellers responded. "We are the defending champs!"

Arapahoe Basin's Hierholzer said the same thing. "Putting our hat in the ring? We own the ring."

There are other contenders in the match as well.

Last year, California's Mammoth Mountain opened on Oct. 16, although their average opening day is late November. "A Basin and Loveland are a lot higher in elevation and Colorado is a lot drier, so they're able to make snow earlier than we are," says Mammoth spokesman Dan Hansen. "It's rare that we beat them, but we always have the chance of getting a big early season storm." Hansen says Mammoth gets their bragging rights by staying open later in the season than any other resort -- last year Mammoth closed on July 5.

In Utah, the earliest opening days were Brighton on Oct. 31 and Snowbird on Nov. 4. Solitude opened last year on Halloween, but then closed and re-opened later in the fall. "We don't put emphasis on the beginning of the season," says Ski Utah's Jessica Kunzer. "But this year could be a good early season year for us, if the predictions about La Niña are correct."

Putting our hat in the ring? We own the ring.

--A-Basin's Leigh Hierholzer

On the East Coast, place your earliest opening bets on Maine's Sugarloaf or Sunday River or Vermont's Killington. Last year, Sunday River had its longest season with an opening date of Oct. 14. "Last fall was the third year in a row for Sunday River to open first on the East Coast -- and we had one of our earliest openings in well over a decade," says Sunday River's director of communications Darcy Morse-Liberty. "It's hard to say if we'll get the weather we need to do it again, but it's always fun to think about."

In the end, though, which resort opens first hardly matters. "Whether Loveland or A-Basin wins the race," says Hierholzer, "it still means ski season has started and that's good for the entire ski industry."