Can late snow save the ski season? Tahoe resorts rejoice after week of storms

Just in time for spring break, the late-season "atmospheric river" that dumped snow across the Sierra last week has ski resorts going from "waa" to "whoa!"

After below-average precipitation to start the season, the "miracle" storm may result in one of the snowiest Marches on record.

"It’s come down hard and fast," said Liesl Hepburn, spokeswoman for Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows.

While ski resorts with deep pockets can buffer the impact of a weak winter with a sophisticated snow-making operation, none can escape the financial impact.

Millions of dollars in snow-making equipment couldn't help Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows avoid a 20 percent dip in business in January, according to Andy Wirth, CEO of Squaw Valley Ski Holdings.

Others had it worse. The family-owned Donner Ski Ranch, which doesn't make snow, didn't open its full mountain until mid-February.

Last week's Sierra storms boosted California's water supply and will help ski resorts hoping to ride out the season in style. But it's no secret that resort operators would rather have snow early than late.

"If we get a storm like the ones we've had lately, a week or 10 days before Christmas is perfect," said Janet Tuttle, who owns Donner Ski Ranch with her husband.

Besides having less time to take advantage of heavy snowfall, people begin putting their skis and snowboards away when it gets sunny in the Valley, she noted.

"This snow is welcome. We are happy to have it," she quickly added, not wanting to sound ungrateful.

For some resorts, the snowfall will mean a hefty spring break before transitioning into spring and summer operations. Other resorts will use the late snow to stretch the ski season deeper into spring.

"It's going to be awesome," said Kevin Cooper, a spokesman for Vail Resorts, which owns Kirkwood, Heavenly and Northstar in the Tahoe region.

Cooper said their mountain operations teams have done a great job keeping their mountains covered. And while the snow wasn't super deep early this season, there was enough to have good skiing throughout the season.

It's nearly the last hurrah for Kirkwood: the last day of operations is April 8 no matter what. Meanwhile, Heavenly will "wait and see" what Mother Nature does next, Cooper said. Northstar is hoping for a big Easter, the traditional end of the ski season.

"It’s never too late," said Michael Reitzell, president of the California Ski Industry Association. "We’re seeing some very strong crowds as a result of the snow in March. With spring breaks in full swing, we expect to see great turnouts into April."

Officials at Squaw Valley are scrambling to ensure they have enough staff to push the season well into May.

"We are looking at (closing after) Memorial Day. That is another 2 ½ months of skiing," Hepburn said.

Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows has a business reason to extend the season. The resort last year became part of the newly formed Alterra Mountain Co., which has created a 26-property Ikon Pass to compete with Vail's Epic Pass.

Hepburn said skiing into May just might convince people to buy next year's pass now. Customers can begin using next season's pass on April 9.

"Really for us, this is a critical time for people thinking about what pass to buy next year," Hepburn said.

Through Wednesday morning, the Northern Sierra 8 station index recorded 8.8 inches of participation in March, 115 percent of normal. That was a big improvement from January (79 percent of normal) and a dismal February (20 percent of normal).

In one month, the statewide snowpack total jumped from 20 percent of normal to 50 percent, said Eric Kurth, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

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