The three marooned snowmobiles on an island of snow at Donner Ski Ranch serve as a clear indicator of how little snow has fallen in the Sierra this winter.
The six chairlifts of this mom and pop operation stand idle. Just two automobiles occupy the parking lot, and the aging lodge is locked up tight.
Donner ski area and two cross-country areas, Royal Gorge and Tahoe XC, are closed, victims of the lack of snow.
While it’s just not feasible to manufacture snow for the broad terrain of a cross-country ski area, downhill resorts with deeper pockets and the ability to make snow seem to be faring much better. Still, concern is growing as the clear days march on.
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“It’s important that we get snow right now,” said John Monson, a spokesman for Sugar Bowl ski resort.
Sugar Bowl – like most larger Sierra resorts – relies heavily on snow-making operations. About a mile from Donner, Sugar Bowl was open Wednesday – sort of. One quarter of the 100 runs are available for use. Parking was a breeze with less then 100 cars in the lot. Just one restaurant/lodge was open, and only one of its four registers was open. The woman working the register had time to restock the napkin dispensers.
“You get here early and it’s almost like a private ski area,” said Joe Cunningham, of Colfax, as he took off his ski gear after a visit to Sugar Bowl. “Very few people are coming up. I’m retired so I figured it was better than staying home and watching Nancy Grace try to convict somebody.”
He said the man-made snow wasn’t so bad.
Mark Faulkner, snowboard/ski coach for Placer High School, said thanks to snow-making his team is getting its training despite the conditions.
“We haven’t missed a training session,” Faulkner said. But he added that things might get tricky once the season starts, with multiple ski leagues competing for limited snow.
Monson said Sugar Bowl will continue to make snow to improve coverage of runs that are already open. The resort also has ski patrol members using hockey sticks to bat rocks from the trail.
Monson said one big storm could set things right.
Linda Hagan, of Soda Springs, took a break on the outdoor deck at Sugar Bowl to check the weather forecast. She’s hoping for more snow and soon.
There is a chance conditions will improve slightly, said National Weather Service meteorologist Holly Osborne.
Osborne said there was a chance of a light dusting of snow late Wednesday and into today, but a better chance (40 percent) of more significant snow Saturday.
“It’s something … but it’s not a real wet storm,” Osborne said.
The storm could produce up to 5 inches, officials said.
Truckee Mayor Patrick Flora, who also spends a lot of time looking at weather forecasts, exuded mayoral calm Wednesday.
“I don’t know that anyone is ready to panic,” Flora said. “I don’t think people will start to get really concerned unless it goes a little longer (without more snow).”
He and others say the tourists – the life blood of many resorts – showed up in December and January, mostly keeping reservations they had booked far earlier. The question on the minds of resort owners and employees is: what happens when the bookings dry up?
“What happens going into Martin Luther King weekend, Presidents weekend … we are going to see more impact the longer we go,” Flora said.
Hagan said she can already see the impact around town.
“Living here you can see the effect the drought has on people,” she said. “These young kids are expecting to work at the ski resorts. A lot of them have been laid off. They are hoping to get called back.”
Officials at Sugar Bowl, which runs Royal Gorge, said they kept the cross-country resort open without much snow for as long as they could.
“Unfortunately we closed (Tuesday). We can’t maintain the trails any longer. We’ll reopen as soon as we get a foot of snow,” said Rob Kautz, CEO of Sugar Bowl.
Years in which there are Winter Olympics are normally boon years for ski resorts. But one event celebrating Lake Tahoe’s historic past as host of the 1960 Games will be altered because of the lack of snow.
David Antonucci, of the museum of Sierra Ski History, was to lead an interpretive cross-country trek this weekend, following the same near-lake-level route as the Olympians.
“It’s going to happen, but it’s going to be a hike,” Antonucci said.
Editor’s note: This story was changed Jan. 10 to remove a reference to Soda Springs ski resort. The resort is not closed for lack of snow. It remains open.