California’s last ski season was knocked flat by a double punch – weeks of warm weather, coupled with a sheer lack of precipitation. When clouds did drift above the state’s mountain ranges, they tended to dribble rain instead of snow. That resulted in swaths of brown, bare earth instead of sleek white slopes, prompting many early closures by winter resorts.
The dreams of drought-plagued skiers and snowboard riders had to be deferred to another season: this one. Modest dumps from our last two storms, and the arrival of nights cold enough to let resorts crank up their mist-guns for snow-making, have both stoked hopes and prompted a question: Is this the year when California’s long drought ends and winter manifests as an actual wonderland?
The answer: a definite maybe.
This year’s El Niño – the nickname for a huge mass of warm seawater in the eastern Pacific – now boasts another moniker: “our great wet hope.” In past seasons when we saw a big oceanic blob like this (1982-83 and 1997-98), our state’s mountain resorts were slathered by snowfall far deeper than average.
“We’ve all seen the stories about how it’s the Godzilla of all El Niños,” says Mike Reitzell, the new president of the California Ski Industry Association. “That’s food for optimism. We hope storms will be cold enough to blanket all our resorts, from highest to lowest, because the last four seasons have been a bit challenging.”
It’s ideal for a stream of tropical El Niño moisture to collide with cold arctic air. That makes snow dump heartily up and down the Cascade and Sierra Nevada ranges. In another optimal scenario, a high-pressure atmospheric ridge could vanish from the California coast, allowing cold storms to sweep in from the Northern Pacific like the one dropping nearly a foot of white stuff last weekend.
More than five years ago, hope also took the hard shape of a string of resort acquisitions and mergers, as well as multimillion-dollar additions to mountain infrastructure. That went on hold, as winter visitation plunged and resort income stalled. (A standout this year was Mount Rose, which spent $1.2 million.) Managers switched to emphasizing new customer services and events and nurturing year-round (read, “summer”) programs.
For the 2015-16 winter season, managers are emphasizing collaboration with other resorts – sometimes worldwide. It rewards loyalty not only to a resort, but an entire sport.
What’s new for 2015-16
(Northstar, Heavenly and Kirkwood) – The Epic season pass ($809) that grants unlimited access to a dozen prime resorts in California, Utah, Colorado, Minnesota and Michigan continues. After you buy lodging at Verbier in Switzerland, it includes five days there. All passes grant six discounted ski-with-friends tickets, and participation in Epic Mix – an app that records your day on the hill. At the budget end, the Tahoe Local Pass grants access to the three California resorts with few blackout dates ($519). It now includes five days of non-holiday access at Utah’s Park City (recently combined with Canyons to form the largest ski resort in the U.S.), as well as at Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and A-Basin.
▪ Heavenly’s summit elevation of 10,067 feet (Tahoe’s highest) helps it snare and retain snow up high, even if a storm is warm. For insurance, the resort boasts a robust snow-making system that expands each year. There’s new infrastructure like the Alpine Coaster, an elevated, rail-mounted sled ride above terrain near the Tamarack Lodge; managers hope to run it this winter. It’s Heavenly’s 60th anniversary, prompting a string of parties from Dec. 4 to 12 that include the roving DJ snowcat (with sound system) and a concert featuring the alternate hip-hop duo Matt & Kim.
▪ Northstar’s main infrastructure improvement is a total revamp of its Big Springs Express Gondola’s base stations and cars. The Mountain Table gourmet dinners at the Zephyr Lodge lists six events for this year. The “Primo Private Lessons” will expand, based on guest feedback, as will the daily Tost – free champagne service on the mountain.
▪ Kirkwood will make the most of a prime asset, its rugged landscape, to expand the Expedition Kirkwood program, using the terrain to teach mountain navigation skills. It includes a Discovery program for beginners. Expert courses are: The Steeps, Explore Cornices and Bowls, and Navigating Chutes. A new shuttle service will whisk kids to and from lessons, freeing up parents. The resort is now linked to the overall state power grid, so stalled lifts should be a thing of the past; generators will remain available for backup. Long-awaited new lifts are not yet in the cards, but word is that if snowfall is robust, there will be moves to study the possibility.
(Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows) – The combined resorts offer a Tahoe Super Pass that includes four free ski days at Sugar Bowl and four at Sierra-at-Tahoe with a Gold pass ($829), and two days at each for Silver ($599). The Gold pass also offers 50 percent discounts on tickets to the vast “Mountain Collective” – 11 destinations that include multiple resorts in the U.S., Canada and Australia. Squaw and Alpine both offer enhanced snow-making and grooming this season. A new option, the Super4 Pass, offers four days skiing or riding at Squaw and Alpine, with no blackouts, for $289.
▪ Squaw Valley ramps up its Siberia Express lift with a new high-speed six-pack chair. The resort has inked a solid deal to finally build a gondola link to Alpine, so far without a start date. In the interim, daily shuttles between the resorts will continue at 20-minute intervals. New webcams are up and online, sharing 360-degree views of mountain conditions to augment snow reports. Also new is a Burton Ride and Relax program for women looking to raise their boarding skills via a two-hour group lesson followed by lunch and a spa session. A new family-friendly terrain park with lower, safer features is also planned, as are “farm-to-mountain” dinners, featuring locally produced foods, followed by feature movie nights.
▪ Alpine Meadows will continue a popular program launched last season, its Moonlit Snowshoe Tour & Dinner dates, held monthly at the resort’s mid-mountain chalet. Groups are limited to 50 people; reservations required.
(Boreal and Soda Springs) – Boreal continues an All Access season pass ($499) that includes unlimited skiing at Boreal and use of the Woodward Tahoe bunker (indoor training and stunt facility). New this year is a M.A.X. pass ($269) that can be added on, providing five unrestricted days at 21 resorts across North America. There’s also a stand-alone M.A.X. ($719), which adds five days at Boreal to the total. The Unlimited Pass for Boreal ($299) is good every day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. For a great beginner deal, try Take 3, Ride Free – a package of three half-day lessons ($349) with a season pass at completion.
▪ Perched at a small but easy-to-reach spot atop Donner Pass on Interstate 80, Boreal makes the most of its 380 acres with full snow-making (upper slope capacity expanded by 30 percent this year) as well as a half-dozen terrain parks and large tubing park. The Neff Land park alone offers 30 pirate-themed features for jibing; a new airbag landing zone will be installed to ease big-air jumps. The Playland Tubing Park adds two new lanes for a total of 10, and offers day passes ($44) or two-hour tickets ($34). Add $5 on holidays.
▪ Soda Springs, Boreal’s family-friendly sister resort at Norden, opened the new West Meadows Lodge with food service and gear rentals at the Planet Kids snow play area, featuring tubing lanes for older children and carousels for toddlers. Tube Town now has 20 runs served by a 400-foot surface lift. A season pass to the ski area costs $199; tubing and snow play go for $34 for a child age 8 and up with one adult, add another adult for $10.
Sugar Bowl/Royal Gorge
Sugar Bowl has a new CEO, and he’s stirring it up. Greg Dallas, former operations officer at Mammoth Mountain, will expand year-round operations, particularly summer mountain biking on Royal Gorge’s nordic ski trails. Winter will see a new terrain park with multiple runs at the base of Lincoln – mild fun runs accessible from the Christmas Tree lift and the more advanced routes from Lincoln lift. A new Village Station to anchor the east end of the Royal Gorge nordic trail system opens near the Bowl’s classic downhill lodge to supply rentals, ski tunes and passes.
▪ Sugar Bowl also is enhancing its pass portfolio. The unrestricted adult pass, $659, includes four free tickets for use at either Squaw or Alpine and free tickets at Sun Valley or Grand Targhee when you buy lodging there. A new Sugar Bowl/Woodward pass (for access to the indoor stunt facility at Boreal) is $779. The Advantage Pass breaks new ground: pay a $25 one-time fee and score $15 off every lift ticket you buy forever after (and $5 off a Royal Gorge pass); plus it records charges electronically, so you don’t need a ticket window; you can use that same pass to make all purchases at both resorts.
▪ Over the past two years, Sugar Bowl has brought back to life the adjacent Royal Gorge Cross Country Ski Area, but its 200 kilometers of trail had to shut down prematurely last January due to flooding. Robust summer grooming installed drains and culverts to keep rainfall from collecting and hurting snow; now Royal Gorge is poised for a better season. An unrestricted pass costs $339; add full Sugar Bowl access for $809.
On Lake Tahoe’s east shore, this resort plans to hold the line on adult season passes, at $449, but expand rewards by adding 24 bonus lift tickets at other destinations – four each for Boreal, Homewood, June Mountain, Red Lodge and Whitefish (both in Montana) as well as Lee Canyon (north of Las Vegas). Putting 10 more high-tech snow guns on the hill will help them open top to bottom soon. Other news includes approval of a master plan by the resort’s board of trustees. Outcomes should include an expanded Snowflake Lodge at midmountain, added lifts and terrain, and a robust move into summer operations.
This resort put its money where its mountain is, adding $1.2 million in capital improvements for the season. Besides nine new Polecat snow-making guns to guarantee an early opening date, its Ponderosa lift was improved, moved and named the Wizard lift, to deliver kids and parents to new beginner runs in terrain dubbed the Enchanted Forest Family Zone. A Premier Season Pass ($479) allows the chance to buy two “bring a friend” discount tickets; early loading (8:30 a.m.) on the Blazing Zephyr six-pack chair, as well as discounts. A creative option is the My Pass: Pick out that single, midweek day when you prefer to ski or ride, and do it on that day all season long, for $279.
Although the $500 million redevelopment project for base and midmountain areas has hit “pause” (due to a legal complication), fresh pass and access programs are up and running. If you held a 2014-15 season pass, you get this year’s chit ($534) at 25 percent off. You can also score a First Tracks Breakfast, with early liftoff at 7:45 a.m.; regular ticket holders get this benefit for $40. Snowcat drop-offs atop Ellis Peak will add 2,000 feet of vertical to a full day of runs; pass holders score this for $299, otherwise it’s $399. Special group season passes include the Family Pass ($1,099, two adults and two teens) and Heritage Pass ($1,439, two adults, two teens and two children).
This resort on the Sierra’s west side has bolstered its snow-grooming fleet with a new Prinoth Bison X for sculpting terrain and enlarged its menu of organic options at the Solstice Eatery – arrive before lunch to enjoy free yoga sessions. An Unlimited Season Pass ($409) also hooks you to the Powder Alliance, a collective that includes 13 other North American resorts from Whitewater in British Columbia to Angel Fire in New Mexico; you score three lift tickets at each. The bargain option, a Value Pass ($279), grants access to Sierra slopes Sunday to Friday (with some blackout dates) and two free ski days at Squaw Valley and Alpine on selected days. Ramped-up mountainwide Wi-Fi enables use of the Sierra Mobile App, to keep track of your tracks on the hill. A vintage board, the Burton Backhill, will be available at terrain parks and the Blizzard Mountain snow-play area.
The link-up with recently acquired and improved operations at Bear Mountain and Snow Summit in the south state is done. Visitors can ski them with a Cali4nia Pass ($799) offering unlimited access there as well as at Mammoth itself and June Mountain; five bring-a-friend vouchers and discounts on gear, food and lodging are included. For globetrotters, there’s a Mountain Collective pass ($399) with two days of skiing at each of 15 resorts in the Americas, Europe, Japan and Australia; added day tickets will be half-price. A Tamarack Cross Country ski area pass ($309) grants access to 30 kilometers of groomed forest trails; naturalist-guided tours available each full-moon evening. A 53 Kitchen & Cocktails bistro has just opened, and the popular Skadi restaurant has relaunched.
For skiers and boarders aiming to fly in, United offers flights in from San Francisco and Denver; Alaska Airlines flies in from L.A. and San Diego. Free shuttles from the airfield to the resort.
After this mountain resort on Highway 4 came under the wing of Skyline International Development in Canada, a great leap in modern infrastructure was predicted. Well, not yet. But the resort did boost snowmaking terrain around its lifts to 100 acres, and booted up the rental/teaching gear with new Head skis and new Burton boards. An adult season pass ($599) adds the ability to buy one discounted buddy ticket per day with no blackouts. In the next off-season, you can score a Forever Pass here, which locks in a ticket price (essentially) for the rest of your life and has abundant other perks.
This place might be lower than Heavenly (at 8,200 feet) and smaller (862 acres), but it’s scrappy, family-friendly, and boasts a loyal fan base. The season pass sale price ($399) extends until Nov. 30. The Progression Pack, for beginners, provides a full season of group lessons, gear rentals and lower-mountain lifts for $219; for $319, add a new pair of Elan skis.