A dry winter with scant snowfall presented die-hard skiers and snowboarders with shut-down lifts and icy, obstacle-strewn runs. But a robust series of spring storms brought major depth to snowpacks and belated smiles to mountain resort managers.
They now face the bittersweet task of salvaging the season with snow that can be reckoned in feet rather than inches. So they'll try their best to turn white into green before the grass grows.
This means April is shaping up as the best month this season for snow sports, both in terms of snow quality and in terms of the deals offered to lure customers.
Go to resort websites to find remarkable deals for 2012-13 season passes that allow unlimited use during the last weeks of this spring season as a bonus.
The 2010-11 season had snow depths two to three times deeper than normal, and skier-boarder visits at California resorts reached a hefty 7.7 million total, according to Bob Roberts, president and CEO of the California Ski Industry Association. This season is running only about half of normal in snow depth, and most of it coated the slopes only in the past six weeks.
"No one knows exactly how this season will wind up," Roberts said. "Probably only between 6 (million) and 7 million visits. One thing is sure: There's a ton of pent-up demand out there, and resorts will go all-out as they seek to appeal to it. Any skier or snowboarder who feels ready to make the most of spring will discover a lot of very attractive deals."
Eyebrow-raising discounts are most apparent at the two new giants now duking it out for supremacy in Sierra snow sports: the combination of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows under the aegis of KSL; and the troika formed by Northstar, Heavenly and Kirkwood under the management of Vail Resorts.
The Squaw-Alpine combo presents skiing and boarding on 6,000 acres and 270 trails served by 43 lifts, with the two mountains connected by a free shuttle running every 30 minutes. The spring deal offered is the Tahoe Super Pass, available for $429 (with 19 blackout dates next season), price guaranteed through May 7.
The Northstar-Heavenly-Kirkwood combination offers skiers and snowboarders 10,100 acres and 254 trails served by 63 lifts. The new Tahoe Local Pass for access to all three mountains is $419 $80 less than the equivalent Epic Pass from last season (with 11 blackout dates).
Lest you be hypnotized and dazzled by the smooth moves of these behemoths, it behooves a value-conscious fan of snow sports to go online and see what the medium- and smaller-size players are up to. For example, Sierra-at-Tahoe (which was left at the altar with corporate spouse Booth Creek when Vail hooked up with Northstar) has a $249 "Keepin' It Real" pass with zero blackout dates, good through next Sunday plus the 2012-13 season.
Sierra's mountain offers 2,000 acres and 46 trails served by 14 lifts, and like Bear Valley, Sugar Bowl and Shasta Ski Park you can get to it without driving over a pass. It is the snow sports destination easiest to reach from Sacramento and the Bay Area.
There are several hints for enjoyable spring skiing and snowboarding:
Check weather reports for your target resort. Generally, you want a freezing night at the base elevation and warm days. Get enough of these in a string, and the snow will metamorphose to "corn" which becomes one of the world's great sport surfaces as it softens in the sun.
Tune your skis and boards. Sharp edges handle early-morning ice much better than dull ones.
Be there when lifts open. Pick the slopes first hit by the sun. You can tell when the slopes are softening when the s-k-r-i-t-c-h sound of steel edges turns to the sigh of easy turns.
Study the trail map and figure out which runs will soften in sunlight next. Work your way around the hill in this fashion.
Wear a day pack or fanny pack and layered clothing. As the day warms, put layers and warmth accessories in the pack.
Sunscreen and lip balm. 'Nuff said. And, oh yeah, hydration.