Ski Season 2013: A look at what’s new and noteworthy around Tahoe and beyond

One might imagine that it’s all about snow and nothing else. But optimism is just as valuable a resource these days for skiers, snowboarders and resort operators in and around the region.

Last winter, both were in short supply. A few early storm dumps, backed up by snow-making, enabled an adequate holiday season. But New Year’s Day led straight into the dry months that left ski conditions marginal by March, forcing an early season closure on many slopes.

However, this fall meteorologists predict a mild El Niño – in other words, an “average” winter, and an improvement from the previous season. That notion is seconded by folklorists who cite signals as varied as early acorn drops, the coats on caterpillars and the gloss on black bear fur. The resorts are back to cultivating optimism and hoping for a robust run.

“Last season was challenging,” said Bob Roberts, CEO and president of the California Ski Industry Association. “I’d estimate we had a fall-off of about 12 percent (from the previous year’s attendance), for a total of less than 7 million visits to our resorts. Yet economic yields were still good, since early season-pass sales now establish a solid base. And new efficiencies in services, as well as expansion into summer operations, increasingly help most resorts to stay profitable.”

In preparing for the coming months, California resorts have generally been burnishing their appeal by expanding programs and making facility improvements, rather than by championing big-infrastructure additions that won headlines in seasons past. However, there are notable exceptions, including Sugar Bowl and feisty up-and-comer Sierra-at-Tahoe.

Here’s a rundown of what’s new and noteworthy this year at Tahoe-area resorts (organized alphabetically and by ownership):

Boreal and Soda Springs: Half of Boreal’s terrain at Donner Summit now has snow-making capabilities. Guns began to roar at the end of September, with an eye on opening before Nov. 1.

Full coverage on terrain parks at this snowboard/twin-tip-ski mecca is a top priority. An unrestricted, adult-season pass now goes for $249 (price will jump Nov. 1). A pass to use the sprawling Woodward Tahoe Bunker (indoor athletic training facility, with its new espresso cafe) is $289; access to both is $458. Ski/stay packages at Boreal Inn start at $89/night.

As a new program this year, anyone with a teen or youth-season pass can ski or ride free at five sister resorts: Copper Mountain, Killington, Bachelor, Park City and Las Vegas. Another: Take three ski or ride lessons and get a free season pass.

Soda Springs, the kid-and-family-friendly sister resort at Norden, has a completely rebuilt base lodge and expanded Tube Town, with multilane tubing runs nearly 400 feet long. Also, take one lesson here and two more at Boreal, and you’re good to go with a full season pass.

Diamond Peak: Infrastructure advances include a 50 percent jump in snow-making capabilities and forest thinning for improved tree-skiing. Season passes, $399 unrestricted and $249 midweek (prices good through Oct. 31), now include four free days skiing at Homewood, as well as four at Red Mountain in Montana (with some blackout dates). The popular “Last Tracks” program (ski or ride from 2 from 4 p.m., then party with wine, craft brews and gourmet snacks at the mid-mountain Snowflake Lodge and shoot down a fresh-groomed slope at 6 p.m.) has added dates. The cost is $34, or $29 for pass-holders. Reservations recommended and private groups can now book an exclusive Last Tracks event.

Donner Ski Ranch: Fresh infrastructure improvements include a day lodge on the back side, serving the base of chairs 2 and 5 with refreshments and hot beverages. Affordable “Learn to Turn” ski or snowboard lessons include equipment, beginner group lesson lift ticket for adults (ages 18 and up) $68; teen (13-17) $62; child (7-12) $52. But the real head-snapper is a program called the “Old School Days – prices from the past,” which begins Jan. 2, on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. On those days, adult lift tickets cost $30. Add another $15 for full equipment rental (Feb. 19-21 are blackout dates).

Heavenly, Kirkwood and Northstar: Heavenly’s “Unbuckle” après ski parties are scheduled to occur daily, with giveaways, half-price drinks and even go-go dancers (on weekends). These festivities have grown so popular – a third of attendees ride a gondola up to the mid-mountain party and don’t even ski – that they will spill outside Tamarack Lodge and onto the deck.

Celebrations of a more athletic kind light up the World Cup and Gunbarrel runs on the California side when the U.S. Freestyle National Championships return March 29-31. More Olympic-caliber athletes will jam the same location for the High-Roller Hold ’Em snowboard contest, scheduled for the first weekend in April.

Brought under the umbrella of Vail Resorts two years ago, the famed “skiers’ hill” of Kirkwood is striding back to stardom. Big news here is completion of a ski-patrol/snowcat station atop Lift 10 (“The Wall”) to ensure this dramatic terrain can be opened quickly after a dump.

There’s also a new, sheltered, outdoor “K-Bar” with food and beverage service opening up on the Village Plaza, and a remodeled Cornice Grill at Lift 6. You’ll also find consistently upgraded grooming, even on high-angle slopes.

Expedition Kirkwood will offer back-country tours, lessons and trips. EpicMix Academy allows skiers and snowboarders – and their instructors – to link and track their progress at visits to all of Vail’s 10 resorts in California, Utah, Colorado, Minnesota and Michigan. And yes, an Epic Season Pass grants access to all of these ($709). The economy-minded can focus on California sites with a Tahoe Local Pass ($459) or Tahoe Value Pass ($419).

Northstar’s on-the-ground improvements include the opening of more tree-skiing areas and widened trails around the Promised Land express lift and a new slope-side, outdoor restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton, dubbed “The Backyard Bar & BBQ,” that will serve up blues, brews and wood-fired oven pizzas.

Also, take an early peek at high-flying Olympic athletes as they arrive to vie at this North Shore resort Jan. 6-12 for the Sprint U.S. Snowboarding (slope-style and half-pipe) and Visa U.S. Freeskiing Grand Prix events, held on the mid-mountain terrain. Expect competitors to go all-out at this qualifier.

Homewood: Improvements include more facilities and outdoor seating at the Big Blue View Bar at mid-mountain (with some of the best views of Tahoe, weather permitting) and the North Patio BBQ, at the north base area.

Plus, the resort has brought a new creativity to its season passes: a regular adult pass ($479) and college pass ($239) have no blackout dates; there’s a family pass that covers two adults and two youths ($999), and even a Heritage pass covering two adults, two youths and two seniors ($1,299).

Adult and senior pass holders also score: In addition to guest pass and rental discounts, they receive four days of free skiing at Diamond Peak (some blackouts), plus unlimited skiing at Red Lodge Mountain and five free days at Whitefish (both in Montana), and 50 percent discounts off lift tickets at Alta in Utah.

Mount Rose: The great hope of establishing new ski terrain for this Nevada resort remains in the planning phase. So this season, improvements are modest: expanded mountain-view dining, better access to parking, wider Wi-Fi coverage.

The big deals are the deals. Specials that include: “Ladies’ Day Thursdays,” with a $29 lift tickets (purchased online), plus $20 for a two-hour lesson in snowboarding, skiing or telemarking; or “Two’fer Tuesdays,” when you can score two adult lift tickets for the price of one.

The resort also offers “Silver Ski Clinics” in which skiers ages 50 and up, from low-intermediate to advanced level, can enhance skills and learn new movement patterns for the modern skis. The clinics begin with a continental breakfast, followed by a two-hour group lesson, for $20.

Sierra-at-Tahoe: This resort on the Sierra’s western slope has just put $5 million into enhancing guest experience with a new base-lodge plaza, restaurant, retail center and deck.

Unlimited season pass holders ($389 for adults, $289 for college and young adults, prices good until Oct. 31) will also score dozens of free ski/ride days at Squaw or Alpine (black-outs apply) as well as three days each at 11 other resorts, including Snowbasin, Crested Butte, Mountain High and Angel Fire.

On select powder days, pass holders can get on lifts up to 30 minutes early, to score the first runs under the “Early Loads” program.

Its snowboarding camp kids ages 3-6, The Burton Star Wars Experience, has been expanded from Yoda’s Riglet Park to include a facility for 7- and 8-year-olds called Echo Base.

Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows: The trend to link resorts so skiers and boarders can get more bang for their pass-buck continues, as demonstrated by Squaw’s “Super Tahoe Pass” which grants unrestricted access to Squaw and nearby Alpine Meadows (now linked by shuttle) as well as Sierra-at-Tahoe on the west slope.

CEO Andy Wirth (check out his star turn as an “Undercover Boss” on YouTube) utilizes guest surveys to fine-tune investments in the resort’s $70 million, five-year “Renaissance” plan. Last year, that plan built the Big Blue Express and Mountain Meadow lifts. This year, it produced the new Wanderlust Yoga Studio at the end of the Village.

Other innovations include new food trucks, named “Mtn Roots,” serving gourmet, locally sourced grub in lots at Squaw and Alpine; the transformation of Alpine’s mid-mountain lodge, The Chalet, into a Bavarian-style Sierra Beer Garden; and program innovations such as “Teaching Tykes,” a workshop that helps parents instruct their toddlers in taking up skiing and snowboarding.

Sugar Bowl/Royal Gorge — This midsize, cooperatively owned outfit on the west side of Donner Summit tends to be praised more for its classy style than its grandeur. But this season, the resort makes several eye-catching advances.

A new Crow’s Peak Lift now accesses a 7,954-foot summit with a fixed-grip, triple-chair to open up 1,600 more acres of terrain laced by a pair of intermediate as well as several diamond and double-diamond runs. Good tree-skiing is included at no extra charge.

Other improvements include a youth academy that opens in December and a sport house and yoga facility that opens in February with a two-lane lap pool that will be ready by next summer.

Meanwhile, the restoration of adjacent partner Royal Gorge Cross-Country Ski Resort proceeds apace.

All of its 200 kilometers of groomed trails, warming huts, and rope tows should be open this season, managed from the remodeled Summit Station lodge. Fresh attractions include kite-powered skiing on Van Norden Meadow, mountain bikes with snow tires and revival of the famed Gold Rush race in March.

Three ski trails hook up Royal Gorge with Sugar Bowl; they’re also connected by a new, unrestricted season pass to both resorts for $848. At the other end of the spectrum, a midweek pass to Sugar Bowl is $249, and a one-day learn-to-ski or snowboard pass (gear, lesson and lift ticket) is $89.

Tahoe-Donner: This tranquil resort on the north side of I-80 near Truckee combines a 120-acre downhill area with two lifts, and a cross-country area with 100 kilometers of groomed trail. It prides itself as place for families to learn both sports. Added this year is a 700-square-foot, slope-side warming yurt and a revised and enhanced instruction curriculum.