For skiers and snowboarders, the winter of our discontent is now something else. It may not achieve glory, but it’s way past acceptable. Two winter storms in early February – followed by a warm “Pineapple Express” bearing some rain – managed to fatten resort snowpacks while frosting trees and peaks.
Such beauty seems only skin-deep if it shrinks under rain, as it did at Tahoe’s lake level. But uphill from base lodges, especially above the 7,500-foot rain-line, visitors will discover fresh snow groomed into slopes on ski runs already thickened by frequent snow-making. Mother Nature hasn’t yet served up the complete winter sundae, which would put powder on top of last weekend’s sticky base, and fully open double-diamond chutes for the brave, as well as halfpipes for the willing. However, that’s no reason to stop yourself from digging into your favorite fluff.
Case in point: Mount Rose, on the Nevada side of Tahoe, has the region’s highest base elevation, of 8,260 feet, and likes to proclaim, “Altitude is everything.” But only two weeks ago, Rose had less than a third of its terrain open on the north side, with just four runs down from its summit. The resort had to focus on marketing lessons and beginner packages. Then recent storms awarded 4 feet of fresh snow, enabling Rose to open its east side Slide Bowl down to its spiffy new Winters Creek Lodge, as well as that side’s high-speed six-lift to the summit. Opening the double-diamond “Chutes” area by the weekend is under discussion.
Meanwhile, Dodge Ridge in the mid-Sierra opens today with skiing on the upper mountain, Badger Pass in Yosemite finally opened last weekend, and Bear Valley is running three lifts rather than one, and has five beginner, six intermediate and two expert runs open. As of Tuesday, cross-country ski area Royal Gorge had 24 tracks open and groomed, with 35 kilometers available. Tahoe-Donner cross-country resort opened Wednesday.
Current weather predictions call for both more flurries and more showers, with a chance of high winds on passes and summits through Presidents Day weekend.
“I tried to go out last Sunday for a run at Alpine Meadows,” said Tim Cussen, 33, customer service manager at Porter Sports in Truckee. “They just had one lift open during the storm, to mid-mountain. The groomed stuff was OK, but off-piste looked sticky and slow. Even so, the storm dropped exactly the base we were looking for, and it’s going to let us ski into April. Any new powder on top will make it just right.”
On Tuesday, Alpine Meadows reported seven of 11 lifts running, with 18 intermediate runs open, 20 expert runs open (including Wolverine Bowl) and two beginner runs (13 runs are groomed). Its sister resort just over the ridge, Squaw Valley, had 15 of 29 lifts running, including Solitude and Shirley Lake Express on the upper mountain, with Siberia Express on standby. There are 33 trails open, 24 of them groomed. Most of Squaw’s open runs are on the resort’s moderate, north-facing slopes above High Camp, and on the lower mountain served by the Squaw Creek and Red Dog chairs. At this and other resorts, if you wish to locate runs in top condition – especially as the season progresses – look for these factors: high altitude, north slopes and shaded areas.
Back in February’s first week, Northstar had 14 lifts running and 29 trails open, as well as three terrain parks with 74 features, including ramps, jumps and slopestyle rails and boxes, as seen at the Olympics. But by last weekend, the resort shot up to 68 open trails (40 of them groomed) including some of the most popular diamond runs on the backside of Mount Pluto. No halfpipes yet, however. That’s a big “tell,” by the way. It takes a giant heap of snow to open a halfpipe, so if you go online to find current conditions at any resort, check the pipe status first. Northstar is contemplating grooming a pipe, but its top chore was excavating terrain parks from its weekend accumulation of 50 fresh inches.
“Needing to dig out your terrain is a great problem to have,” said Rachel Woods, communications manager at Northstar. “Our plan is do everything we can to conserve the snow, and make sure we can offer runs for weeks and weeks to come.”
Homewood, a bit farther down on Tahoe’s west shore, is blessed with fabulous views and terrain that naturally gathers, shades and protects snow, particularly when powder storms sweep in from the west. The Madden and Old Homewood chairs have been operating, with Ellis and Quail chairs scheduled to join in today. The resort should be at or near 100 percent open this weekend, with much of it groomed. Homewood might be afflicted with aging infrastructure, but a lawsuit over redevelopment was recently settled. So, in two years, new lifts, lodges and snow-making should help this place realize much more potential.
Boreal at Donner Summit, has the advantages of decent elevation (7,200 to 7,700 feet) and a north face. At 380 ski-able/ride-able acres, it is compact enough to provide snow-making on 80 percent of its terrain. Consequently, the resort opens early (usually one of the first each season) and often (lots of floodlit night skiing). Boreal has six of seven lifts running (including the relatively new Cedar Ridge triple), and three of five terrain parks open, as well as its tubing runs, and is in the process of building a halfpipe. Its sister resort, Soda Springs at Norden, plans to reopen its Tube Town, Planet Kids area and all lifts today.
Nearby Sugar Bowl, which boosted its pack from 16 to 30 inches to 34 to 63 inches over the past two weeks, had six of 13 lifts in operation Tuesday (including Mounts Judah and Lincoln, and the newly opened Disney) and 56 runs open (34 groomed) that wind through broad swaths of terrain. The snow guns still roar whenever temperatures are right. “We’re focused on consolidating depth and quality on the open runs,” said Peter Avedschmidt, the resort’s marketing and sales manager, “and getting more features open in terrain parks.”
Diamond Peak, which introduced the Tahoe region to snow-making back in the ’60s, built a base with the fan guns that was slathered by the storms. Now there are 27 open runs, most of them groomed. It’s easier to say what was closed there Tuesday: just Solitude Canyon and Red Fox and Ridge lifts. Its most famed run, Crystal Ridge, was included by CNN Travel in a recent collection naming the “World’s Best 100 Ski Runs.”
Heavenly, which has Tahoe’s most extensive snow-making, serving 73 percent of its 4,800 acres, is shutting the guns down – they’ve now got plenty. Heavenly has one more lift running than it did at the start of February – now 19 out of 30 – but last weekend nearly tripled the runs open on its 37-inch base, going from 22 runs to 65 (including Milky Way Bowl on the Nevada side and The Face in California). Heavenly’s great altitude (10,040-foot summit), north-facing slopes and many mid-mountain lifts (most above 8,000 feet) tend to ensure a wintery experience through spring.
Kirkwood, with its rock-crested ridges lifting high into the sky above Highway 88, scraped an impressive 60 to 90 inches out of the clouds over the past week. It has six lifts running now, but plans to have 10 by the weekend. It also opened a terrain park. Check online to see how many runs will be opened and groomed; they were up to 21 on Tuesday.
Sierra-at-Tahoe had five lifts open to serve its 22- to 51-inch base, with 37 of 46 trails available (22 groomed) and one terrain park. It’s contemplating opening its backside runs this weekend.
Attendance influences what the resorts do – particularly, how long they will remain open. A long-range weather report suggesting colder storms arriving from the North Pacific next week already bodes well.
“Resorts will keep a close eye on conditions and customer traffic over Presidents (Day) weekend, and then they’ll fine-tune their operations,” said Bob Roberts, president and CEO of the California Ski Industry Association. “The two big choices will be, how early or late to shut down, and whether to use discount marketing to bolster their bottom line. If customer turnout is ho-hum, the tent will be folding sooner, rather than later. But a robust turnout, or a herculean set of storms, could mean a season that extends well past Easter.”