Outdoors

Lake Tahoe ski season off to a snowy start

Looking west from Heavenly ski resort in South Lake Tahoe, a break in the clouds casts sunlight onto U.S. 50 on Thursday. With the recent storms, snow has begun to accumulate in the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada.
Looking west from Heavenly ski resort in South Lake Tahoe, a break in the clouds casts sunlight onto U.S. 50 on Thursday. With the recent storms, snow has begun to accumulate in the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada. rbenton@sacbee.com

At lower elevations, Lake Tahoe still hasn’t donned its rich, white winter coat.

On Thursday, the scant snowpack at lake level was blotchy and uneven, with a smattering of pine needles.

But while they produced rain at the lake itself, this week’s storms have transformed the mountains ringing the lake into snow-capped beauties.

A few hundred snowboarders and skiers at the Northstar ski resort saw the transformation Thursday as they took the gondola and chairlift to the top of the mountain. During the short journey, the rain changed into powdery snow.

“It’s a great start to the season,” said Northstar spokeswoman Rachael Woods.

Thirty-one inches of snow have fallen at Northstar since last Friday, allowing the resort to open 12 new trails on Thursday. The snow, coming early in the season, is a welcome change for ski operators who last year had to lean heavily on man-made snow.

“We are way ahead of where we were last year,” said Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Association. “People are pretty excited.”

William Christie of Folsom arrived at Northstar around noon and was eager to try out his new snowboard gear.

“I’m debating getting a season pass,” Christie said.

Last year, the first major dumping of snow didn’t come until much later in the season, and the snowpack measured less than a third of normal by springtime.

“We’re far ahead of last year’s precipitation pace,” said Jim Mathews, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, which is posting updates on its Facebook page.

The 8-station Sierra precipitation index measured 11 inches as of Thursday, well above the roughly 2.5 inches recorded by this point last year, according to the California Department of Water Resources. That makes this winter a slightly wetter one than average so far.

More snow in the mountains means more water for farms and cities throughout California that depend on runoff from the Sierra Nevada, which serves as a vast natural reservoir for the state.

Scattered showers continued in lower elevations of the Sacramento region on Thursday, but rainfall was more significant in the foothills and the mountains. That fits the pattern observed throughout this weather system, with significantly higher precipitation totals at higher elevations.

“It looks like we’ll stay in a wet pattern for the next week or so,” said Mathews. Fresh storms are expected to arrive late Friday, then again late Sunday and possibly Thursday. Unfortunately for ski resorts at lower elevations, these are expected to be warmer systems, which will deliver snow only at 7,000 feet in elevation or higher.

Still, Roberts said the heavy rain that fell this week across the lower reaches of California, including Sacramento, San Francisco and Los Angeles, will likely produce a bump in sales of season passes and weekend trips. The rain signals to people that winter has arrived, he said.

The snow happy dance will have to wait for resorts without higher-elevation terrain. Sugar Bowl is expected to open this weekend, then close until Dec. 13. Donner Ski Ranch is still at least a couple of weeks from opening.

A mix of rain and snow isn’t so bad, said Lincoln Kauffman, general manager of Donner Ski Ranch. It makes for a good base, he said.

On Thursday morning, heavy ran fell outside the Soda Springs General Store. “This is more like March weather, but thank God it’s snowing at the resorts,” said Cheryl Paduano, one of the owners.

“We did a pray-for-snow, ski-burning bonfire,” Paduano said. “It worked, but I hoped for a little more.”

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

SKI REPORT

Percentage of lifts open and upper-slope snow depths from the five Northern California ski resorts open Thursday:

25% | 25”

Boreal

20% | 24”

Heavenly

24% | 24”

Squaw Valley

25% | 22”

Mammoth Mountain

35% | 18”

Northstar

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