The atmosphere on the ski slopes around Lake Tahoe was giddy this week as beleaguered resort operators planned their earliest opening in years, a response to November storms and cold temperatures that allowed them to supplement nature by making snow.
Heavenly and Northstar will open Saturday – six days ahead of schedule. Alpine Meadows is getting started even sooner. Thursday’s opening comes a full four weeks earlier than planned. Boreal Mountain Resort in Nevada County and Mount Rose, across the state line in Nevada, have already begun greeting their first skiers of the season.
“It’s a sense of relief. This is what we do. This is what Tahoe is about and it’s really exciting to be able to show that off as a region,” Liesl Kenney, spokeswoman for Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows resorts, said Wednesday. “We are coming off three really lean years. Now, people get to see that winter does live in Tahoe. It’s a huge lift to the spirits around here.”
On a bright Wednesday, Alpine Meadows was at “full throttle,” Kenney said, with snowmakers taking advantage of the cold weather to churn out new powder. “There’s a flurry of activity around here,” she said.
Alpine’s planned opening – a month earlier than its initial Dec. 11 start date – is the resort’s earliest opening day in a decade, Kenney said. The last time Alpine Meadows opened so early was during the 2004-2005 ski season.
Both Squaw and Alpine will have limited openings with a handful of lifts, Kenney said, but plan to open more terrain soon with the help of Mother Nature and snow-producing equipment.
At Boreal, a combination of early snow and improved snow-making capabilities allowed the resort to open from top to bottom for the first time since 2004, said spokesman Tucker Norred. On Wednesday, six of Boreal’s 36 runs were open. Norred said the resort plans to open more runs through the weekend.
“This is the best opening we’ve had in more than a decade,” Norred said. “We’re excited about ‘Godzilla El Niño.’ ”
Weather forecasters predict more snow will fall as early as Sunday. By noon Wednesday, National Weather Service forecasters in Sacramento were mapping a Sierra-bound cold system expected to drop snow levels to about 3,500 feet Sunday and Monday with accumulations of up to 8 inches at pass level, and up to a foot of new snow at the higher peaks.
The cold storms could provide a big lift to ski resorts, which in recent years turned to other forms of recreation as the snowpack dwindled.
California traditionally attracts the second-largest number of ski visitors in the country, behind only Colorado, said Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association, a Denver-area trade group that represents ski area owners and operators. Berry also led Kirkwood, south of Lake Tahoe, from 1980-1992.
In normal years, California could be relied on for about 7 million ski and snowboarding visitors a year – a full 7.8 million visited California resorts in 2004-2005, Berry said. But years of California drought have had a dramatic economic impact, dissuading millions of annual visitors and the dollars they pour into the lucrative skiing industry and the region’s economy.
The drop in ski visitors nationally is “directly attributable to the California drought,” Berry said. But a strong winter season could quickly change those fortunes, Berry said. If California gets consistent snowfall this ski season, he expects a “comeback of some significance.”
“If you’re an area operator in California, when the storm door opens, it’s a joyful event,” he said. “When it opens, it is everything. There is huge pent-up demand. In order for skiing to reach new records, California has to be in the game.”
Operators are banking on people like Chase Halleck, a Chico State University student who was visiting Boreal on Wednesday. He figures he will be snowboarding a lot more this season. Wednesday was already his second trip to the Nevada County resort.
“It’s actually a lot better this year than last year,” Halleck said of conditions on the slopes. Last year, he skipped buying a season pass “because the snow wasn’t so good,” but he has already purchased one this season.
Trey VanDyke, who is stationed at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville, didn’t know how bad conditions really were last year. The Texas-bred VanDyke is a snowboarding novice. He hit the snow – what there was of it – every weekend last season. But on Wednesday, he could already tell the difference.
“This feels like January last year,” he said.
VanDyke and another Air Force member took advantage of Veterans Day by hitting the slopes. The resort offered a military discount, making the lift ticket $15.
“I’m going to have so much fun this year,” VanDyke said.