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Tahoe-area ski resorts struggle to stay open through drought

A skier rides up the Eagle Rock chairlift to the summit at Tahoe Donner ski area in January. The run below the chairlift, and many others have been closed due to lack of snowfall. Sierra at Tahoe has announced it is closing, at least temporarily. It is the fifth of 14 operators closing early due to lack of snow.
A skier rides up the Eagle Rock chairlift to the summit at Tahoe Donner ski area in January. The run below the chairlift, and many others have been closed due to lack of snowfall. Sierra at Tahoe has announced it is closing, at least temporarily. It is the fifth of 14 operators closing early due to lack of snow.

Little new snow on the horizon means Lake Tahoe-area ski resorts will be doing well if they can stay open until the traditional mid-April close of the winter sports season.

On Sunday, Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort announced its decision to close – at least temporarily – becoming the fifth of the Tahoe region’s 14 area resorts to shut early this season due to lack of snow, according to a listing compiled by OnTheSnow.com.

To call it a dismal snow year would be an understatement. On Friday, snowfall accumulation at the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory (elevation 6,900 feet) officially reached zero.

“We’ve never seen a zero snow depth in March in the history of our station,” said Randall Osterhuber, a research associate at the center, which formed in 1976. It’s normally buried in 3 meters of snow at this point.

“For us to be at zero at this point is significant,” Osterhuber said.

Zach Tolby of the National Weather Service’s Reno office said the forecast does not predict new snow in the next week. Snow accumulations in the Tahoe basin are at about 16 percent of normal, he said.

Despite the early closures, some resorts, by virtue of their elevation and location on the mountain, as well as their snowmaking capabilities, say they are on track to remain open until their originally scheduled end of the ski season.

“We’re still on schedule to stay open until April 19,” said Sally Gunter, a spokeswoman for Heavenly Mountain Resort. She said Northstar California Resort and Kirkwood Mountain Resort, two other Vail Resorts properties in the region, are also expected to stay open until their scheduled end of season in April.

She described the conditions as “definitely spring skiing.” Freezing overnight temperatures create a hard frozen layer that softens as the sun hits it. By afternoon, conditions can be slushy. She recommended following the path of the sun and skiing the Nevada side of Heavenly’s terrain first. Afternoons make for good people watching as costumes come out, Gunter said.

“A lot of people have their goggle tans going right now,” Gunter said.

She credited the fact that the majority of Heavenly’s ski runs are at about 8,000-feet elevation, and the resort’s strong snow-making operation, for allowing them to salvage this winter sports season.

“Mother Nature didn’t really cooperate, but we’re fortunate to have the snow-making capabilities that we have,” Gunter said.

Bill Proffit, owner of Land Park Ski & Sports in Sacramento, said he’s still hearing positive reviews from customers returning from ski resorts.

He was surprised to hear Sierra-at-Tahoe was closing early.

“It’s the earliest that I’ve seen a resort of that size closing,” Proffit said.

Whether resorts can ride out the season is always a case-by-case situation, said Bob Roberts, president and CEO of the California Ski Industry Association.

“This year has been a tremendous challenge,” he said.

However, he added that the timing of what snow did fall provided coverage for the holiday season, meaning this year could actually be better financially than last.

Droughts are never good for business, but larger season-pass programs and year-round operations help dampen the effect a bad winter can have on a resort, Roberts said.

“They’re in the mountain recreation business now,” Roberts said, “not just the ski business.”

Call The Bee’s Ed Fletcher, (916) 321-1269. Follow him on Twitter @NewsFletch.

Still skiing

Projected closing dates for Tahoe-area ski resorts:

Ski resort

Date

Diamond Peak

April 13

Heavenly

April 19

Mt. Rose

April 19

Sugar Bowl

April 19

Northstar

April 19

Boreal

April 19

Kirkwood

April 26

Squaw Valley

April 27

Alpine Meadows

May 3

Currently closed: Donner Ski Ranch, Homewood, Sierra-at-Tahoe, Soda Springs, Tahoe Donner

Sources: Onthesnow.com, Heavenly

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