RIGA - Latvia is a topographically challenged nation. The country boasts only a few bumps in the landscape that are high enough even to be considered hills, and the largest of these rises only to about 312 meters. Despite the lack of mountainous terrain however, skiing and snowboarding are surprisingly popular. More than 40 ski resorts in the country shuffle enthusiastic skiers up and down slopes every year, and usually manage to turn out a decent profit in the process.
But this year's unprecedented strange weather has been a dilemma for ski industries all over Europe, and Latvia's modest slopes are no exception. Zagarkalns, one of the biggest and most popular ski resorts in Latvia, has seen attendance down by as much as 40 percent.
"Last season we had roughly 80,000 - 85,000 people visit the resort. This year it will probably be some 50,000 or 60,000 people," said Martins Mednis, general manager of the resort.
Other resorts are seeing the same trends. Janis Vanags, a member of the family-owned Baili ski resort near Valmiera, noted that at his resort "if you compare [this year] to last year, when the weather was much better, we will have maybe half the income."
Warm weather early in the season is mostly to blame for the bad business. Vanags said that this was when Baili suffered the most. "We had this bad start with very high temperatures and we couldn't make snow. Usually the beginning [of the season] is very important for business," he said.
According to Mednis, Zagarkalns also endured the heaviest losses during the early season; it was only able to stay open sporadically through November and December. The season did not start in earnest until after Jan. 1, as the normally profitable Christmas and New Year's Day brought only rain.
Fortunately the temperature finally dropped below zero in February. The freezing temperatures produced a complete turnaround in business for Zagarkalns. "We could finally make snow, then February became the best month in a long time. We were setting new records because people had been just waiting for the snow," Mednis said.
Cooler temperatures in February have almost been enough to make up for the slow start to the season. Mednis noted that by the end of the year, it should almost balance out. "This February was good money. It will not leave us in the positive, but we will also not be in the negative," he said.
The frigid February was a mixed blessing for Baili, however. While the low temperatures finally meant some snow for the resort, the minus 20 degree weather was hardly ideal for business. Vanags explained that the drastic change was too much for people to wanted to venture out to the mountain. "It was quite cold in February. The conditions were still not normal for people," he said.
Such hectic weather all winter means that resorts are now experiencing some of the best skiing and snowboarding of the season. Most resorts plan to stay open into the beginning of April, surviving on the artificial snow that they made in February. "It was really good that we could make lots of snow for the end of the season," Mednis said, "We still have a few meters of snow and if it is not raining, we may even be able to stay open into the middle of April."
Vanags was a little more hesitant to predict how long they could operate. "As long as the people are coming we will stay open. If it's going it's going," he said.
Of course, everything depends on the weather. Sun and temperatures just above zero make for great spring skiing, but a few days of rain could ruin whatever is left of the snow.
One thing is clear though: With winter fading fast and no-one quite sure when it will end, now would seem the perfect time to take the boards out for one last ride.