It’s interesting that El Niño, an accumulation of warm water in the Pacific that presages a wet winter, has a nickname that refers to a savior of humanity. One special portion of mankind, skiers and snowboarders, now prays most heartily they’ll see that type of meteorological salvation come to pass.
Our last snow season was stalled by a different kind of entity, a kind of demonic troll that crouched offshore, taking the form of a ridge of atmospheric high pressure and batting storms away from California.
The upshot was a snowpack that did not show hefty depths until February, and a corresponding plummet in visits to our state’s winter resorts. Bob Roberts, president and CEO of the California Ski Industry Association, estimates the total was below 5 million visits, well down from the five-year average of 7.5 million. (Exact numbers are difficult to come by. Resorts have become chary about releasing hard figures, regarding them as proprietary.)
Whether or not our weather will be influenced by El Niño-like conditions this season is an open question. Warm water is present in the sea, just not as intensely as predicted six months ago. Early flurries have dropped dustings that stuck, a recent weekend dump helped considerably, and snow-making continues at full roar whenever temperatures drop.
However, one answer that’s not blowing in the wind is how California’s winter resorts will react. Heavy investment in capital improvement has been put on hold. Instead, this season, resorts will devote themselves to creating new strategic alliances, fine-tuning services and crafting special events.
“After looking at their last season, resorts will only make capital improvements that look modest at best, especially when it comes to big items like new lifts or lodges, or greatly expanded snow-making,” Roberts says. “They’ll focus their spending on necessary maintenance. The bright spot is that preseason sales of passes are actually quite strong, even better than last year for many resorts. Which proves that visitor demand is still healthy.”
And another trend is discernible. More of those season passes also will enable holders to score discounts on summer lodging and activities. Should winters continue to grow shorter and summers longer, it makes sense to encourage your very best clients to see you as a year-round resort.
What’s new for 2014-15
Vail Resorts (Northstar, Heavenly and Kirkwood): The Epic season pass that grants access to a dozen prime resorts in California, Utah, Colorado, Minnesota and Michigan now includes Park City Mountain Resort, which Vail deftly snatched away from POWDR this year, after that corporation happened to be late with a lease payment. The Epic Pass ($769) also includes free ski days in France, Switzerland and Japan. Other options include the Epic Local ($589), the Tahoe Local ($499), and Tahoe Value ($449), which provide varying amounts of access and holiday blackouts.
▪ Heavenly will add a trio of Puma SMI automated fan guns to bolster its snowmaking. The High Roller Terrain Park is adding beginner and intermediate lanes to its venue of expert features. Crowd-pleasing events are going on the calendar, such as a Winter Ignite week (Dec. 5-13) that includes parties on-mountain and at MontBleu casino, where the all-girl mountain adventure film, “Pretty Faces,” starring Lynsey Dyer, premieres Dec. 12. “Tailgate parties” will be held at Tamarack Lodge through January, with big screens displaying pro football games. The “DJ Cat,” a rolling music platform, will tour various sites on the mountain.
▪ Northstar plans a heightened focus on services. “Mountain Table” will be gourmet dinners at the Zephyr Lodge occurring twice monthly. “Primo Private Lessons” will offer customized combinations of every athletic, dining and service option the resort can provide.
▪ Kirkwood will greatly expand terrain offered in its Expedition Kirkwood program, guided off-piste explorations in the bowls behind the resort’s Glove Rock.
Bear Valley: This mountain resort on Highway 4 is 130 miles from Sacramento, and you don’t have to cross a pass to get there. For a long while, though, a disadvantage has been lack of new infrastructure. Solution: Bear Valley is a few short moves away from acquisition by Skyline International Development, a sizable Toronto-based firm with extensive recreation service experience. And Skyline has already hired Benno Nager as the resort’s new general manager.
Nager, who boasts decades of winter recreation experience in Europe and California, promises: “We will pay close attention to basics this season, with improved maintenance, events, food and lodging services. We’re not ready to talk in detail about the big plans yet, but Skyline did buy Bear Valley because it has an approved master plan for this ski mountain and the village. In a nutshell, we will focus on bringing this place up to the next level.”
KSL Resorts (Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows): Season pass rates for the combined resorts will now include four free ski days at Sugar Bowl and four at Sierra-at-Tahoe for the Gold pass ($809), and two days at each for Silver ($579).
▪ Squaw Valley introduces a new service, mountain exploration and off-piste adventures with The North Face Mountain Guides for groups of up to four, intermediate to advanced, starting Dec. 20, $699 per day. Resort’s opening day is Nov. 26.
▪ Alpine Meadows starts a new dining experience, starlight snowshoe hikes to the mid-mountain Chalet lodge, followed by gourmet European-style dinners, on peak weekends and holidays, $69 per person.
Diamond Peak: In another sign of the expanding strategic alliances, season pass holders at this Tahoe resort will also get 16 bonus lift tickets – four each for Boreal, Homewood, June Mountain and Red Lodge Mountain. Holders also score discounts at the Woodward Tahoe bunker. Season passes are $449; midweek passes are $309; show a season pass for another resort, and get a lift ticket for $35. New this season at Diamond is the Flex Pass, for those who don’t need a full season pass. Buy several days of any-time skiing, from two days for $128, up to seven days for $308. Opening day is Dec. 11.
Mount Rose: A Premier Season Pass ($499) allows purchase of two “bring a friend” passes for $49 each, as well as discounts on food, drinks, lessons and repairs. The Off-Peak Pass ($399) is good six days a week, with holiday blackouts. This resort caters to beginners age 13 and up with a pair of programs. A “Dip Toe in Snow” pass ($99) allows access to beginner lifts until Dec. 19, with unlimited group lessons, plus gear rental. A “Move Up the Mountain Pass” ($399) allows two private lessons, unlimited group lessons, gear rental and partial lift access until Feb. 17, with unlimited lift access after. If the first program goes well, participants can upgrade to the second. Opening day is Nov. 21.
POWDR Resorts (Boreal and Soda Springs): Boreal offers an All Access season pass ($598) that includes unlimited skiing at Boreal and use of the Woodward Tahoe bunker (indoor facility), as well as three free days at other POWDR resorts: Mount Bachelor in Oregon, Copper Mountain in Colorado, Killington in Vermont, and the Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard Resort. The Unlimited season pass for the slopes alone ($299) includes the same POWDR days, plus four free days at Diamond Peak. Early Night season pass ($169) allows access 2:30-9 p.m. daily; Regular Night pass ($149) goes 3:30-9 p.m. daily. College students and active duty military can score $15 lift tickets on Fridays. New for this year is the All Access day ticket (adults, $86, or teen, $76) for the slopes (9 a.m.-9 p.m.) and the bunker (11 a.m.-8 p.m.).
Since this season is the 50th anniversary of the founding of Boreal, and the 80th of Soda Springs, check the websites for special celebrations. Soda Springs opening day is slated for Dec. 12. Boreal has opened.
Homewood: Ground-breaking on long-anticipated re-development of base and mid-mountain areas, as well as installation of new lifts, is scheduled for the spring of 2016. Meantime, the resort announces new programs to better utilize present terrain and infrastructure. Season pass holders ($509, or $1,049 for a family of four) will get special vouchers for “first-tracks” runs on selected days and weekends, occurring 7:45-8:15 a.m. Also new, snow-cat tours to expert terrain and intermediate glades on the flanks of Ellis Peak. Groups of up to 10 skiers and boarders can join Homewood Snowcat Adventures for $399 per person (includes all necessary safety gear). In addition the resort will now offer free intermediate or advanced group lessons, Sundays through Fridays, to anyone on the mountain.
Sugar Bowl: This prime alpine resort continues to partner with one of the nation’s top cross-country ski resorts, the revived Royal Gorge. That’s reflected in the season pass offerings. An unrestricted downhill pass ($619) can be coupled with a cross-country pass ($769), or nordic skiers can just focus on their sport ($339). All passes, even the discounted ones, provide for a free day with lessons and gear rental at Royal Gorge, as a sort of appetizer. All passes also provide for free skiing at Sun Valley in Idaho and Grand Targhee in Wyoming (when lodging there). Also, pass-holders get up to four free tickets for use at either Squaw Valley or Alpine Meadows.
▪ At Sugar Bowl, the new Crow’s Peak chair, a fixed-grip triple installed in February accesses 250 acres of mostly expert terrain. Meanwhile on the central mountain, Lincoln, new equipment facilitates snow-making from the peak to the base, for 1,500 feet of connected vertical. It’s one reason the resort can target Nov. 27 for opening day. Special events include the Rahlves Banzai finale coming March 14-15 (after earlier stops at Alpine Meadows, Feb. 21-22, and Kirkwood, March 7-8). It’s the resort’s 75th anniversary, so look for parties, galas and special music events through the season.
▪ Royal Gorge saw $750,000 in structural improvements and will host the Village Nordic Cup races on Dec. 28 and the Gold, Silver, and Bronze Rush races on March 15. Snow-kiting options at Van Norden Meadows will increase.
Sierra-at-Tahoe: The resort belongs to a far-flung network of opportunity, called the Powder Alliance. Buy an unlimited season pass ($399), and you also score three lift tickets to a dozen other resorts ranging from Silver Star in British Columbia to Crested Butte in Colorado and Angel Fire in New Mexico, for a total of 36 extra tickets. Pass-holders can score “first-tracks” on selected powder days, and also get four free ski days at either Squaw Valley or Alpine Meadows. Three-Pack specials, for three lift tickets at Sierra, cost $177 now and go to $189 on Dec. 15. The Solstice Plaza base area development is now complete, with a “healthy options” café, indoor/outdoor bar, new fire pit, and Golden Bear Terrace restaurant. Ski/snowboard instruction can now be “experience-based” meaning that lessons are offered on special terrain park features, and can be combined with a mountain tour. The Burton Star Wars Echo Base instruction area now can serve kids ages 7-12. The snowcat fleet has been expanded by a state-of-the-art Prinoth Bison for improved grooming.
Mammoth Mountain: This massive resort on the Sierra’s fabulous east side has neatly forged its own strategic alliances by purchasing the Southern California resorts of Bear Mountain and Snow Summit, adding these to its other operation, June Mountain. The combination deserved a new, Cali4nia Pass (regular, $799; or premium, $869, with no blackout dates). The passes provide access to a total of 240 runs served by 61 lifts on nearly 6,000 acres of terrain. Mammoth itself will be served by more flights into the local airport, with United now flying from Denver, and Alaska from Las Vegas. Previous service, United from San Francisco and Alaska from Los Angeles and San Diego, will continue. For today’s opening day, life tickets will be $50, and the resort will have live music, refreshments and parties. through the weekend.
Dodge Ridge: The resort’s Dodge Ridge Sports Shop is open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Mount Shasta: This ski park, which relies almost wholly on natural snowfall, was only open four days last season. Season pass holders for the 2013-14 season will be allowed to roll their passes over to this season for just $25. Daily lift tickets on weekends go up to $49.