Freshly made snow fills the air as Alan Sweetman and other Ski Santa Fe employees prepare Wednesday for the ski area’s planned Nov. 24 opening day. Most snow-making machines can operate only if the temperature is below freezing. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

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SANTA FE – Six months ago, crews at Sipapu Ski Resort near Taos used their snow-making machines to help fend off a massive wildfire.

Ultimately, the blaze ended up coming within about 1½ miles of the area’s boundary.

With smoky skies now replaced by fresh flakes, the ski area on Friday became the first in New Mexico to open for the season – thanks to early-season snowstorms and snowmaking efforts – but the memory of the close call hasn’t faded away.

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

She also said some eager skiers and snowboarders had showed up at the mountain before 6 a.m. on opening day – with cooking stoves and breakfast burritos in tow – in hopes of catching the first chairlift of the season.
Chad Schermerhorn rides a snowmobile as a snow-making machine helps blanket Ski Santa Fe in this Wednesday photo. New Mexico ski areas are facing increased challenges in the form of warmer temperatures and earlier snow melts, though this year’s early snow conditions are promising. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

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

Specifically, state climate experts have said New Mexico is likely to face earlier snow melts, higher temperatures and a more arid climate for at least the next 50 years.

New Mexico state climatologist David DuBois said Friday that this year’s winter is off to a good start, based on readings from snow-monitoring stations in the northern mountains, but added there are higher-than-usual chances of another early snow melt.

“Even if we get big (snow) dumps, we could lose that quickly if it gets warm again,” DuBois told the Journal.

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

Some New Mexico ski areas have already taken steps to address climate change.

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

Those steps helped the ski area become certified as a carbon-neutral company.

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

“While we still have work to do to achieve our reduced carbon emission goals, we are thrilled to achieve this significant milestone on our journey,” Taos Ski Valley Chief Executive Officer David Norden said in a statement.

But other ski areas are facing existential threats.

Sandia Peak Ski Area outside Albuquerque plans to remain closed this winter for a second consecutive year, with the ski area’s general manager in September attributing the decision to reduced snowfall, shorter winters, staffing issues and financial difficulties.

At Sipapu Ski Area, located between Peñasco and Mora, officials are hopeful the good early-season conditions are harbingers of a long, powder-filled ski season.

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

But DuBois said the climate trends facing the state are making it increasingly hard on ski areas, adding it will be a challenge for them to make enough snow to offset the snow lost to evaporation and sublimation, or when ice turns to vapor due to dry air or winds.

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