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  • RANDY PENCH / rpench@sacbee.com

    Skiers gather their gumption last winter for the launch downhill at Alpine Meadows.

  • RANDY PENCH / rpench@sacbee.com

    A skier makes his way downhill in February at Alpine Meadows, which has combined operations with Squaw Valley.

  • DAVID B. BARKER / Reno Gazette-Journal

    A snowboarder heads back uphill on a lift at Boreal, near Truckee. Boreal has upgraded many of its indoor facilities; officials hope there is enough snow there for outdoor operations to begin Oct. 31.

Lots of development down, snow to come at Tahoe ski resorts

Published: Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1H
Last Modified: Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012 - 1:56 pm

To crib a line from Shakespeare, a colossus or two has come to bestride the Sierra Nevada.

One would be the combination of the Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows winter resorts under ownership of the KSL Corp., producing an entity that supplies 6,000 skiable acres served by 43 lifts, with the two mountains linked by a free shuttle; the other is Vail Resorts, combining Northstar-at-Tahoe, Heavenly and Kirkwood to present skiers and snowboarders with 10,100 acres on three mountains served by 63 lifts.

Not far behind is Sugar Bowl, which is nearing a deal to take over and manage the huge Royal Gorge landscape on the west side of Donner Summit.

This does not mean that all smaller resorts must peep about between the legs of giants to find themselves unprofitable marketing positions. To further crib a line from supply-side economists: This rising tide can lift all boats. Or it can spin all ski lifts. Something like that.

Heavy investments flowing into Sierra infrastructure from big players will advance Tahoe's stature as a winter destination for both national and international travelers. More modest resorts can dip their cups into a swelling stream of visitors by competing on the basis of service, price point, cordiality, family-friendliness, local cachet and nimble offers of special deals.

"Tahoe as a whole is on the way to international stardom as a destination," said Bob Roberts, president and CEO of the California Ski Industry Association. "The Vail resorts and the KSL resorts don't seek to divvy up a pool of local customers as much as lure people in from afar. The ultimate result could be a region on a par with the best of Utah or Colorado."

The 2011-12 season generally offered snowpacks that didn't attain satisfying depths until spring. That left lingering frustration on the part of resort managers and pent-up demand on the part of skiers and snowboarders. However, meteorologists say the 2012-13 season might be fortified by a new El Niño storm pattern.

If so, Sierra resorts could see greatly improved infrastructure slathered early and often by deep snow – a recipe for happiness on all sides.

Here's what to look for at many California resorts.

Squaw-Alpine

The $50 million in upgrades by 2015-16 KSL promised two years back has been sweetened to $70 million, thanks to the acquisition of Alpine and the need to jack up infrastructure and services there.

At Squaw, you'll find major lift improvements on the upper mountain. The old High Camp lift is to be replaced by a new Big Blue Express, dropping skiers atop the Shirley Lake ridgeline for swift access to Shirley Lake, Solitude and Granite Chief – good news for experts.

Also, the Links double lift is being replaced by a triple called Mountain Meadow, taking customers over to the top of Solitude and Silverado lifts – good news for inter- mediates and beginners.

A modern rope tow, the Park Pulley "telecord," will access the Belmont terrain park and upper meadow.

More snow-making is added at the base between Squaw Creek and Gold Coast, with computerized triggers installed all over the hill to optimize production. Also there will be bar and ski-snowboard shop upgrades, including the launch of a Burton "Learn-to-Ride" center.

At Alpine, snowboarders and twin-tip skiers will be stoked to find a new, mile-long terrain park that links Terry's Return with Dancefloor, a beginners park on the Subway run, and a new "jibbing" area in view of the base lodge. Alpine also wins a snow-making upgrade and better ticket windows.

Passes will be good at both mountains, which will be linked by a continuous shuttle.

Northstar-Heavenly- Kirkwood

Vail's biggest recent capital infusion was the spacious Zephyr midmountain lodge built at Northstar last year.

The $30 million also established the new Promised Land detachable quad lift on the mountain's back side, adding two broad inter- mediate runs, Castle Peak and the Island (which has 21 tree islands down its length, for those who like to dip in and out of groves). The Sawtooth Ridge gated-access expert area will add cat skiing and backcountry tours this year.

For young would-be snowboarders, there's a new Burton Riglet Park, with leashed equipment to introduce 3- to 6-year-olds to the art of sliding.

Heavenly last year replaced its Galaxy fixed-grip lift on the Nevada side with a high-speed detachable, providing swift access to Comstock, Mineshaft and Outlaw runs – as well as to tree-skiing and introductory powder runs.

The après-ski "Unbuckle" parties at the midmountain Tamarack lodge became so popular that they will now be put on every evening.

Resort managers have enough confidence in their robust snow-making that they promise a Nov. 16 opening date this season, that the Tyrolean terrain park near the California lodge will be fully operational with competition-quality cover, and that the U.S. National Freestyle Championships will ignite the air over Gunbarrel run next spring.

At recently acquired Kirkwood, long-needed upgrades to restaurants, bars and restrooms are installed.

Skier and snowboarder traffic and preferences will be studied this season to prioritize future lift and run improvements.

Meanwhile, a new cat road will bolster access to expert terrain for the Expedition Kirkwood program. The resort also gets the same EpicMix program for automatic vertical tracking and photo-sharing that's been a hit at other Vail resorts.

Sugar Bowl

If the Truckee Donner Land Trust and Trust for Public Land succeed in saving the 3,000-acre Royal Gorge cross-country Mecca, Sugar Bowl will run the operation, improve trail links between the two resorts and issue a combination season pass.

The outcome is to be known by December.

At Sugar Bowl, ground was broken on a new campus for the academy that trains youths for high-level competition on skis and snowboards; it will be completed in 2013.

Also, Sugar Bowl now offers free gear rentals and group lessons with a daily lift ticket.

The Rahlves Banzai Tour, a race that combines free- skiing with skier/boardercross, arrives for a March 16-17 finale on the classic Silverbelt Run – that should be a grand show.

Boreal

The resort's new, 33,000- square-foot indoor facility, Woodward Tahoe (nicknamed the Bunker) was jammed all summer. Young (mostly) athletes learn how to huck big air by training safely on the trampolines, ramps, foam pits and skateboard/BMX center.

Snowboarders and skiers can click in to wheeled rigs and be coached through tricks and stunts. During snow season, indoor features will be replicated in the outdoor terrain parks.

A core membership and introductory lesson is $49; subsequent sessions are $25. Annual enhancements of snow-making make the resort reasonably confident of an Oct. 31 opening; that is also the last day a season pass will be available for $279.

Diamond Peak

An intimate resort near Incline Village has bolstered snowmaking by 20 percent for this season, and summer-groomed open terrain for glade skiing. A kid-friendly terrain park, designed for those age 10 and younger – called Pete's Playground – is new. The popular Last Tracks program, which treats skiers to wine and cheese at midmountain, then lets them ski a freshly-groomed run at day's end, continues.

Passes that can be loaded for two to seven days of skiing are the top bargain; get seven and you ski for $38 a day.

Homewood

Plans for new infrastructure on this classic hill on Tahoe's west shore have been stymied by a lawsuit, but the resort hopes to have the matter resolved by December.

Operational improvements for the coming season include a pledge to run all lifts every day (instead of closing some at midweek, as most resorts do); a $44 special for first-time skiers and snowboarders that includes lift tickets, gear rentals and lessons; and a new Burton learn-to-ride center.

Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe

OK, technically this resort is in Nevada. A lot of Californians still go there.

A $23.5 million infrastructure plan will add 99 acres of skiing on the north side of Highway 431, with a skier bridge and long lift over the roadway, with new vistas and an expanded lodge and mountaintop restaurant.

Work won't start until 2013. Meanwhile, Mt. Rose will compete on ambiance and price points: lift tickets on Bonus Mondays, $49; on Two-for-One Tuesdays and on Ladies' Day Thursdays, $29.

Sierra-at-Tahoe

This resort's innovative Burton Star Wars Experience learning park targets ages 3-6; it opened last spring and will enchant youngsters throughout the coming season.

Experts will benefit from the new Huckleberry Canyon Sno-Cat tours, which offer guides and backcountry training in off-piste terrain ($79).

Season pass holders will find added value with free access to Mountain High in Southern California, Stevens Pass in Washington, Monarch Mountain in Colorado and Grand Targhee in Wyoming.

Free membership in My Sierra Rewards program adds more perks. The innovative Ski-Stay-Soar package offers two nights of lodging and lift tickets, plus two 20-minute helicopter rides ($265).

Soda Springs

This family-friendly place near Norden has grown its popular Planet Kids snowplay site every year since it was launched; now it's 10 times its original size. Facilities include a play mountain called the Volcano and a tube carousel for children under age 8. For age 8 and up, there's a Tubetown with multilane runs, including a "TuberCross" area for those in search of additional excitement.

A mere $25 gains entry; parents or guardians must supervise.

Tahoe Donner

In the Euer Valley just northwest of Truckee, this operation combines a 120- acre downhill ski area with a cross-country area holding 100 kilometers of trail. Both areas got new vehicles for improved grooming in the coming season.

Kid-friendly downhill instruction for ages 3-6 is the TD Tykes program.

The cross-country area will host the Nordic SuperTour contest.

Season passes, $289 for the downhill, $304 for combo to both areas, remain on sale until Nov. 30.

Bear Valley

As of this writing, there was no confirmation as to whether the downhill area near this mid-Sierra resort village would open this season.

However, the Bear Valley Cross-Country Ski Area, a separate operation with its headquarters in the village, vows to be up and running.


OPPORTUNITIES FARTHER AFIELD ...

Winter sports enthusiasts aren't confined to the greater Lake Tahoe region of the Sierra Nevada to find fun. Here are three options a bit farther afield.

• Mount Shasta Ski Park, about four hours north of Sacramento, is on the mountain's south side. Generally it is open December through April. The main draws this season are events: a New Year's Eve celebration with night skiing, 3 p.m.- midnight with a fireworks show and music ($20); a Rail Jam contest Jan. 26; Slopestyle, Feb. 23; Big Air, March 30. Lift tickets are $29 (Mon.-Thurs.) and $44 (Fri.-Sun.), night skiing (3-9 p.m.) is $20, and available throughout the Christmas holidays.

• Mammoth, in the eastern Sierra, will open with a new focus on serving families. However, its related June Mountain facility will remain shuttered this season. New offerings at Mammoth range from a family-style Italian restaurant in the village, to an "Unbound Playground" – an entry-level terrain park with low features and instructional signs built near the Canyon Lodge. Programs are being developed for a new Mammoth Kids Club. Known for sure: Lift tickets for ages 7-12 will cost $30, an offer good every day of the season.

• Dodge Ridge, a family-style Sierra resort up Highway 108 northeast of Sonora, has added appeal to both ends of the snow sports spectrum. The Second Summit backcountry area has been improved with installation of a tow; the new T-bar lift adds 1,000 feet of vertical and eliminates the long uphill slog that experts were once forced to take. For kids, there's a new Burton Riglet Park at the base, with soft skis and boards, and instructors able to supply introductions to snow for kids ages 2-5.

– Paul McHugh

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Paul McHugh



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