The first skiers of the season hit the slopes of New Mexico

Freshly made snow fills the air as Alan Sweetman and other Ski Santa Fe employees prepare Wednesday for the planned November 24th ski resort opening day. Most snow guns can only be operated at temperatures below freezing. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE — Six months ago, crews at the Sipapu ski resort near Taos deployed their snow machines to help fight off a massive wildfire.

Eventually the fire came within about 1½ miles of the area boundary.

With smoky skies now replaced by fresh flakes, Friday’s ski resort became New Mexico’s first to open for the season — thanks to blizzards and early-season snow-making efforts — but memories of the tight reputation have not faded.

“We are so grateful to the firefighters and everyone who helped hold the line,” Christiana Hudson, marketing manager at Sipapu, said Friday.

She also said some eager skiers and snowboarders showed up on the mountain before 6 a.m. on opening day — with cooking stoves and breakfast burritos in tow — hoping to catch the first chairlift of the season.

Chad Schermerhorn rides a snowmobile while a snow machine helps cover ski Santa Fe in this Wednesday photo. New Mexico ski resorts are facing increasing challenges in the form of warmer temperatures and earlier snowmelt, although early snow conditions this year are promising. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

However, ski resorts across New Mexico could face future challenges due to a hotter, drier climate.

Specifically, state climate experts have said that New Mexico is likely to face earlier snowmelt, higher temperatures, and a drier climate over the next 50 years.

New Mexico state climate scientist David DuBois said Friday that this year’s winter had started well based on readings from snow monitoring stations in the northern mountains, but added that there was a higher-than-usual chance of another early snowmelt.

“Even if we get big (snow) piles, we could lose that quickly when it warms up again,” DuBois told the Journal.

Early snowmelts can also have ripple effects later in the year, as evidenced by the state, which this year recorded its two largest wildfires in recent history — the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, which burned more than 320,000 acres in northern New Mexico, and the Black Fire near Silver City.

Additionally, Elephant Butte Reservoir near Truth or Consequences is currently at only about 8% of its capacity, DuBois said.

Some ski resorts in New Mexico have already taken action to combat climate change.

The Taos Ski Valley, for example, thinned trees on 320 acres of forested land this year to reduce the risk of fires and watershed damage. The state’s largest ski resort has also installed electric vehicle charging stations around the resort and purchased more than 200 high-efficiency snow guns to reduce energy and water use.

These steps helped the ski resort to be certified as a carbon neutral company.

Isaiah Parilla, who helps build and maintain the fun park at Sipapu Ski Resort, jumps on Thursday. The ski resort opened to the public on Friday, just six months after a massive wildfire forced widespread evacuation of surrounding areas. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

“While we still have work to do to meet our carbon emissions reduction goals, we are very pleased to have reached this significant milestone on our journey,” said David Norden, Chief Executive Officer of Taos Ski Valley, in an explanation.

But other ski areas are also threatened existentially.

Sandia Peak ski resort outside of Albuquerque plans to remain closed this winter for a second straight year, with the resort’s general manager in September attributing the decision to less snowfall, shorter winters, staffing problems and financial difficulties.

In the Sipapu ski area, which lies between Peñasco and Mora, those responsible are hoping that the good conditions at the beginning of the season will herald a long ski season full of powder snow.

“You can’t be in the ski industry and not be hopeful in New Mexico,” Hudson said Friday.

However, DuBois said the climate trends the state is facing are making it increasingly difficult for ski resorts, adding that making enough snow to offset snow caused by evaporation and sublimation will be a challenge for them lost or when ice turns to vapor due to dry air or winds.

“I would say get out there, hit the slopes and enjoy it while we have it,” he said of the recent snowfall.