Jim Engel had a simple explanation for his plan Thursday to play golf during the day near his home in West Bend before traveling to Little Switzerland in Slinger for some night skiing.

“I’m doing it just so I can say I did it,” said Engel, president of Skiing Wisconsin Inc., an association of state ski areas and industry businesses.

The rare opportunity to play golf and ski on the same December day this year in Wisconsin is courtesy of El Niño, the warming of waters off the coast of South America that affects weather around the world and usually leads to mild winters in Wisconsin.

After one of the warmest Novembers on record, temperatures in Madison have averaged 11.6 degrees warmer than normal through the first 10 days of December, according to the National Weather Service. That has lent credence to weather experts’ predictions that this El Niño could rival the strong one that occurred in 1997-98 that led to such a mild winter in Madison that mosquitoes were biting in January, tulips were pushing through the soil in early February and nobody was ice fishing and ice skating on area lakes or ponds.

That is good news for the nearly dozen golf courses in the area that are earning some extra revenue by staying open, or re-opening this month. Pleasant View in Middleton had more than 170 golfers show up to play Dec. 5 and the Oaks near Cottage Grove had more than 100. “I never could have predicted that we’d be that busy,” said Pleasant View general manager Jeremy Cabalka.

But it’s bad news for the ski hills, most of which are closed in Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of Michigan. Midwest ski resorts lost a combined $120 million during the 1997-’98 El Niño, according to a 2000 report by the Illinois State Water Survey. The report said total estimated losses by the ski, ice fishing, snowmobile and other winter-related industries in the Midwest was around $750 million.

“I remember that winter was rough,” recalled Joe Vittengl, general manager at Devil’s Head Resort in Merrimac for the past 26 years. “We opened Dec. 20 that year. That was the latest we ever opened, and we closed sometime in February.”

But it wasn’t a financial disaster, Vittengl added. He said the key to survival for ski hills during mild winters is to open before Christmas and keep enough man-made snow around to stay open through the holidays and every weekend in January and February. “Those are the money-making times,” Vittengl said. “The rest of the time you’re just hoping for profits to cover expenses.”

What worries ski hill owners this year is that nobody is sure if they’ll be open for Christmas. While Little Switzerland and some other hills have runs open for skiers, snowboarders and mountain bikers, most ski hills in the state and Michigan’s upper peninsula will stay closed until temperatures drop into the 20s for at least 12 hours and they can make enough snow to supplement what’s already on the ground.

Christmas Mountain in Wisconsin Dells has already used 3.5 million gallons of the 5 million gallons of water it needs to cover the resort in man-made snow, but it can’t open until it fills the gaps, said Matt Vohs, director of retail recreation. “Those nights of single-digit temperatures are what we need to complete the job,” Vohs said. “We can’t miss Christmas. That would be a significant hit. We could lose 25 percent of the revenue for the entire winter if we miss Christmas season.”

Workers at Tyrol Basin in Mount Horeb were hoping to keep one run open over the weekend while finishing work on a new people mover that has replaced the old rope tow on the bunny hill. The hill is a weird combination of man-made snow, mud and lush green grass. “Until it gets cold, we’ll try to stay open on the weekends but to what extent I don’t know,” said Jason Cushman, the outside operations manager.

Once the hills open, warm weather will help generate revenue, said Engel, who owned Sunburst Winter Sports Park in Kewaskum from 1984 to 2012. He said the man-made snow gets packed down and insulates itself in warm weather, and it’s easy to prepare it for skiers because of improvements in the grooming equipment.

For instance, Sunburst was open for just 86 days during the 2009-10 winter — a moderate El Niño year — but it attracted 90,000 skiers that season, or about 10,000 more than average, Engel said.

“We made money because there is still a demand for skiing during mild winters. While we might not be open for as many days, we are really busy on the days we are open,” Engel added. “It shows that the industry knows how to react to El Niños. It’s not all gloom and doom. Sub-zero temperatures and big snowstorms wiping out our weekends are bigger threats.”

Some of the biggest problems during El Niño winters involve seasonal help, Vittengl said. For instance, when Devil’s Head finally opened five days before Christmas in 1997, Vittengl said his staff didn’t have time to train the hundreds of seasonal employees needed to work at the resort’s ski hill, restaurant and hotel before the holiday rush.

“During mild winters, you have to cut expenses if you hope to make money so you send the seasonal help home. Some of them don’t tell you they found another job when you finally call them back to work so you have to scramble to fill positions. That’s what makes it really difficult,” Vittengl said.

If this winter continues to follow a similar course as the 1997-98 winter, skiers from Madison might be able to take the Merrimac Ferry from Okee in Dane County across the Wisconsin River to Merrimac and Devil’s Head in Sauk County. It usually closes toward the end of November but it stayed open until Jan. 22 and re-opened on Feb. 16 in 1998, according to Chris Ohm of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.

The ferry started crossing the river again in 1998 just days before the ski hills began closing and just after the completion of the American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race near Hayward that was shortened from 52 to 25 kilometers because of a lack of snow. It also was about the time that the ice on lakes Mendota and Monona was disappearing. Mendota was iced over for just 47 days and Monona for 49 days that winter. Even Lake Winnebago, which usually has close to 4,000 shanties on it every winter, had just a couple hundred that winter because of thin ice. That led to a poor sturgeon spearing season.

Many golf courses opened in February 1998, too.

Unlike Madison area courses, Devil’s Head and Christmas Mountain aren’t opening their golf courses to supplement lost revenue from the ski hills this month. “It can’t make up what we’re missing from the lost ski revenue,” Vohs said.

Skiing generates more revenue than golf at resorts that offer both, Vittengl said. “On a typical Saturday in winter, we’ll have 3,000 to 4,000 skiers. In the summer on a typical Saturday, we’ll be lucky if we get 150 golfers. Figure it out. There’s more overhead for skiing, but not that much more,” he said.

Skiers also fill the resort’s hotel during the holiday season and every weekend in January and February. Golfers fill about 50 percent of the hotel during summer weekends and the resort books weddings to fill the rest of it, Vittengl said. “You can’t underestimate the importance of skiing to this resort,” he added.

Since some of the hotel rooms are already reserved through weekends in February, Devil’s Head has an extra revenue source to count on this winter if the snow doesn’t show up. But Vittengl wants it to show up, the sooner the better.

“This is what it is,” Vittengl said. “You have to remember that you have no control over the weather so you can’t beat yourself up over it.”


Rob Schultz has won multiple writing awards at the state and national levels and covers an array of topics for the Wisconsin State Journal in south-central and southwestern Wisconsin.