Lack of snowstorms sends Sierra ski season off course

A skier rides up the Eagle Rock chairlift at Tahoe Donner on Thursday near Truckee. Most ski areas remain positive about the season, including Tahoe Donner, which has temporarily closed its cross-country ski program.
A skier rides up the Eagle Rock chairlift at Tahoe Donner on Thursday near Truckee. Most ski areas remain positive about the season, including Tahoe Donner, which has temporarily closed its cross-country ski program. rpench@sacbee.com

Skiers struggled this week to keep their spirits up as dark patches of dirt and grass poked through what should be long, smooth, white ski slopes near Truckee.

Resorts that can’t produce their own snow sit empty, or nearly so, as warm weather and a lack of storms in the region disrupt the ski season that got off to a great start with several snow-bearing storms in early December.

But since Dec. 20, precipitation has been noticeably absent in Northern California as the three-year drought drags on. Some ski areas have been forced to temporarily close their runs while they wait for more snowfall. And skiers are starting to feel the effect, though many are striving to remain optimistic.

“The warm weather is kind of ruining it,” said Mario Mora, standing at a chairlift at the Boreal Mountain Resort outside of Truckee, as he prepared to go back up the mountain. “But I try not to let it stop me from coming out.”

Several skiers said the conditions are like “spring skiing in the middle of January,” but they’re still enjoying the sport. Mark Slater, a Truckee winter resident and avid skier, said he likes going out right now because there aren’t any crowds. There was no line recently for the lift.

“Business should be better because it’s still fun,” Slater, 56, said. “It’s not epic snow, but it’s still nice.”

Slater skis at Northstar California Resort, which blows man-made snow when the natural snowfall isn’t enough. Boreal Mountain Resort is also making its own snow, but smaller resorts might not have either the equipment or the water resources to do so.

Skiers at Boreal said they absolutely prefer natural snow, but they’ll take what they can get right now.

The Dodge Ridge ski area near Yosemite National Park and the Badger Pass ski area in the park closed Tuesday until they get more snow. The Donner Ski Ranch near Truckee is to reopen Saturday after closing Tuesday, citing warm weather conditions.

The ski season typically starts in mid-December and lasts until early April.

“We’ve had unseasonably warm weather over the past couple weeks,” said Dodge Ridge ski area spokesman Sean Waterman.

Marshall Tuttle, owner of the Donner Ski Ranch, is moving snow with a snowplow to prepare for reopening on Saturday.

“We’ve got stashes of snow under the trees,” Tuttle said as he leaned out the snowplow door. “I’m moving them around to the runs.”

Tuttle said he didn’t open until the middle of February last year and stayed open into June.

“As an Austrian skier once told me – that’s the ski business,” he said. “When it snows you open, and when it doesn’t, you close.”

Temperatures in the Tahoe region are predicted to climb through the weekend, with highs in the 50-degree range, which is 10 degrees higher than the historical average, according to forecasting website AccuWeather.

Waterman said area skiers were disappointed but that people have been generally understanding because of the lingering warm weather.

“We’re looking forward to the rest of the season when winter weather returns in February and March,” Waterman said.

It’s hard to know if Waterman is optimistic with good reason, according to Nick Nauslar, meteorologist for ski blog Powdiction and researcher at the Desert Research Institute. Even if meteorologists get some confidence in an incoming storm system, the prediction models can be incorrect, he said.

“It’s been a brutal year so far,” Nauslar said. “It started out with hope and optimism, but it doesn’t look all that hopeful for at least the next two weeks.”

Nauslar, an avid skier himself, said two to four dry weeks in January are normal, but because the storms in November and December were warmer than average, the snowpack didn’t get a chance to build up.

“Around January, we always see a high-pressure system,” Nauslar said, “and if you have a good November and December, it’s not a big deal. But we didn’t have that this year, so we’re having a harder time.”

Nauslar said he hasn’t been skiing in two weeks because of the conditions.

Nina Oakley of the Western Regional Climate Center said warmer temperatures also affect at what elevation rain turns to snow. She said this winter’s storms have had a higher snow level, meaning the snow starts higher up on the slopes, causing issues near the base of ski runs.

“Many of the storms have also had a higher snow level, leading to a higher percentage of precipitation as rain rather than snow,” Oakley said.

Most ski areas remain positive about the season, despite setbacks, including Tahoe Donner near Truckee, which has temporarily closed its cross-country ski program due to the lack of good snow. Only one of its 15 downhill runs is open.

But spokeswoman Brinn Talbot said the cross-country program expects to reopen soon and the resort is working hard to move snow around to open more runs. She said the downhill ski area will definitely be open over the weekend, but after that Tahoe Donner will have to take it one day at a time.

“They’re calling for something to hit next week,” Talbot said. “And the cold temperature at night and in the morning helps keep the snow.”

Talbot said the resort has not seen a decline in its customer base, particularly over the holidays and Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, but on Thursday the remaining ski run looked empty except for some children learning to ski.

“People seem to still be coming to the region,” Talbot said. “They’re still getting out and recreating and taking advantage of everything Truckee has to offer.”

Tahoe Donner has a wide variety of amenities such as hiking and a fitness center, and Talbot said residents are taking advantage of those, as well as shopping in Truckee.

She said historically February and March are the area’s snowiest months, and the resort expects this year to be no different.

Brian Mooney, a ski tech at Tahoe Dave’s Skis & Boards ski rental shop in Truckee, said people haven’t been coming out to ski. He thinks that’s a mistake.

“The skiing has been better than it looks,” Mooney said.

Call The Bee’s Ellen Garrison at (916) 321-1006

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