ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
For late December, it was a warm and wet day in much of the Northeast today with temperatures in some areas topping 40 degrees. If you hate shoveling snow or paying big heating bills, that's good news, but for people who love winter sports and for thousands of businesses that rely on snow for winter tourism, this month's October-like weather has been painful.
North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports from New York's Adirondack Mountains.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: It's late afternoon and winter darkness is falling over Big Tupper Mountain. What hasn't been falling is snow. The slopes outside would normally be packed with skiers by Christmas week, but this year, they're autumn brown and empty.
When I ask about the warm, wet weather, mountain managers Bill Mozdzier and Cliff LaMere hang their heads.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOBBING)
CLIFF LAMERE: Is that a good answer? I mean, really.
MANN: For ski mountains and cross country ski centers across the Northeast, the season's start has been brutal. In good years, Mozdzier says that resorts hope to open by Thanksgiving, by Christmas at the latest.
BILL MOZDZIER: Christmas week is a third of your business. The snow gods - we just need snow.
MANN: Big Tupper is the mom and pop mountain operating on a shoestring. According to LaMere, every day without ticket sales means fewer dollars for upkeep.
LAMERE: We need products for groomers and stuff like this and we have to watch what we buy, so we've got to pinch things. Once the season starts and we start bringing in day tickets, then we can start looking at fixing things up better, upgrading things.
MANN: Sean Doll, a ski industry expert who teaches at Lyndon State College in Vermont, says soggy weather also means a lot of employees standing around with nothing to do and no money coming in to pay their salaries.
SEAN DOLL: There's the challenge right there. You want to keep your staff around, but at the same time, you don't want to give everybody so many hours when you're not really making all that much money. It's a pretty fine line between financial success and failure.
MANN: An hour's drive away, Bruce McCulley is riding the gondola up Whiteface Mountain outside of Lake Placid. He says it's not just ski mountains that hold their breath this time of year. Whole communities from Maine to New York's Catskill Mountains rely on snow to draw in winter tourists.
BRUCE MCCULLEY: It can be stressful. You're coming up to a big week where the hotels, everybody - you know, we're expecting crowds and so – yeah, it's hugely important.
MANN: Like a lot of the big resorts in the Northeast, Whiteface Mountain is fighting back using snow guns to open as many trails as possible with manmade powder. It's not exactly winter wonderland, but for diehard skiers like Jim Kucapek, it's better than nothing.
JIM KUCAPEK: It's been warm, rainy, sun. We made snow. They lost snow. They made it again, but it's really a terrific effort on their part. They're suffering from the vagaries of the weather just like every other ski area in the Northeast and somewhat in the West.
MANN: Industry expert Sean Doll says even when resorts do manage to open, it's difficult to draw tourists if it's still warm and rainy down in the cities. If it feels like October, he says, people just don't think about hitting the slopes.
DOLL: We've had a saying in the industry that, if it's not snowing in their backyard, it's just not snowing and that's always been a problem. If it's not snowing in Boston, it might as well not be snowing at all. They're not going to come. Nobody feels inspired.
MANN: There is snow in the forecast for parts of the Northeast tonight, though some reports call for a mix of rain. If there's a silver lining here for skiers, it's that some resorts will be offering discounts and special packages after the holidays, hoping to get visitors back in the winter mood.
For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann in New York's Adirondack Mountains. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.