Bear Valley boasts the only new chairlift in the Sierras this winter

A crossbar is installed on one of the lift towers at Bear Valley Ski Resort. The high-speed six-pack lift will be a welcome addition to the slopes for skiers and snowboarders this winter. (Photo courtesy Bear Valley Ski Resort)

By Bob Goligoski

Last season, record-breaking crowds showed up at many Sierra ski resorts, and the cash registers were really jingling. I thought that this would translate into new chairlifts sprouting up at a number of the resorts.

But I can only find one Sierra resort that has built a new chairlift – Bear Valley.

Dubbed the Mokelumne “Moke” Express, the six-passenger, high-speed chairlift will do a lot to enhance the skiing and riding experience at Bear. The express runs from mid-mountain to the top in about three minutes and takes guests to most of the 75 or so runs on both the front and backside of the peak.

I recall riding some of the earlier slow lifts (Bear has 10) and it seemed like I could almost finish half of a Michael Connelly thriller before I hopped off at the top. The express replaces the old Bear chairlift, which chugged to the top in about nine minutes.

Marc Gendron, a spokesman for Bear Valley, said the new chairlift greatly increases the uphill capacity of the mountain’s main artery.

So what did the new lift cost to build? Gendron said the financing is included in the roughly $7 million that Skyline Corp, a Canada-based firm, has invested in the resort since it bought Bear Valley three years ago.

The “Moke” Express is Bear Valley’s first six-pack chairlift.

Because it tops out at 8,500 feet of elevation, the resort typically opens with a slightly later start then the higher Tahoe area resorts. It’s open weekends only in early December and will go into full-time daily operation Dec. 16, weather and snow conditions permitting.

Bear Valley prices lift tickets lower than most Sierra resorts. Walk-up, adult, daily tickets range from $74 to $95, depending on the day.

Information: www.bearvalley.com

Gondola planned to link Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows

A planned gondola would cut the travel time between Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley for skiers and snowboarders, along with reducing the amount of vehicle traffic between the two resorts. (Photo courtesy Alpine Meadows)

By Bob Goligoski

It’s been talked about for years, and now solid plans have been announced to build a 3,000-foot-long gondola linking Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows ski resorts, thus producing what would be the largest ski complex in California with more than 6,000 skiable acres.

KSL Capital Partners., which owns both resorts, is optimistic that it can get the gondola up and running for the 2019-20 ski season pending environmental approvals from county, state and federal agencies. It must also survive possible court challenges from environmental organizations.

The gondola, which would connect the base areas of both resorts, would be named the California Express. The two resorts’ many lifts would take skiers and snowboarders to some 270 marked runs plus the famed open bowls at Squaw and Alpine.

A steep ridge separates the two resorts. About 30 years ago, a local skier and developer – Troy Caldwell – bought a 460-acre parcel of land on the ridge that abuts both resorts.

Caldwell and the two resorts have an agreement under which the gondola would be allowed the cross that private land thus making the linkage possible.

Land that the gondola would sail over is right next to the Granite Chief Wilderness. Sierra Watch, a nonprofit that opposes over-development in North Lake Tahoe, maintains that the project would threaten the value of the wilderness zone.

There are a number of small lakes in the area that are very popular with hikers. Squaw and Alpine note that there are no plans to operate the gondola in the summer and thus lessen the wilderness experience for the hikers.

Eli Ilano, forest supervisor for the Tahoe National Forest, then enters the picture with this update that was provided to the Sacramento Bee. “We’re in the middle of preparing our draft of the environmental impact statement, which we anticipate coming out late this winter or early spring. Depending on comments and appeals, we have the potential to make a decision at some point during 2018 or 2019.”

Right now, it can take 20 to 40 minutes – depending on conditions – to drive from one resort to the other. Andy Wirth, president and COO of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, noted that the gondola would reduce car and shuttle traffic between the two resorts.

He stressed that the gondola would avoid crossing into the Granite Chief Wilderness boundary. Visual impact of the gondola towers would be minimized by limiting the number and height of the gondola towers.

And no access roads would be needed to cut through the woods as gondola builders would use helicopters and overland crews for construction.

A resort spokeswomen said the cost of the project has not been determined yet as currently “multiple alternatives are being studied.”

Some locals, who happily frequent both resorts, have started calling the new venture “Squawlpine.”

At Mammoth Mountain, winter is making an encore appearance

In a scene that could pass for the middle of winter, this is what Mammoth Mountain looked like this morning near one of the lifts. The resort received 20-26 inches of fresh snow overnight. (Photo courtesy Peter Morning / MMSA)

By Jerry Rice

It’s spring, but someone apparently forgot to tell Mother Nature because about 2 feet of fresh powder fell overnight at Mammoth Mountain – and even more is expected during the next 36 hours.

By the time the storm passes through Saturday evening, according to a National Weather Service forecast, there could be another 2 to 4 feet of snow at the top of the mountain.

So far this season, more than 560 inches of snow has fallen at Mammoth Mountain’s Main Lodge, where the base is 165 inches. At the 11,053-foot summit, the base is 320 inches, the deepest of any resort in the country, according to a spokesman.

Other resorts, including Heavenly, Kirkwood and Squaw Valley in the Lake Tahoe area, have a base of 183 to 247 inches, and in Utah the resort with the most snow is Alta, which was reporting a 124-inch base this morning.

Back at Mammoth, sunny skies were expected to return by Sunday, when highs will reach the upper 30s. The 10-day forecast shows another possibility for snow next Thursday and Friday.

The resort is selling 2017-18 season passes at an early bird rate that allows skiers and snowboarders access to the slopes for the remainder of this season, which is expected to continue at least through July 4.

Snow brings good news and not-so-good news to Sierra ski resorts

Thanks to lots and lots of fresh snow this winter, Mammoth Mountain is expected to be open for skiing and snowboarding through at least the Fourth of July. Other California resorts also are planning to extend winter activities into late spring and early summer. (Photo courtesy Peter Morning/Mammoth Mountain Ski Area)

By Bob Goligoski

It is a “feast or famine” season for many Sierra ski resorts.

The “feast” part is the deluge of snow that has fallen in the first half of this season. As of early February, the Sierra snowpack was the deepest it had been in 22 years for the mid-point of a ski season, according to state officials.

One example: Mt. Rose near Reno. In early February, it reported that its season-to-date snowfall total was 555 inches, breaking its total seasonal average and “putting us on track for one of our snowiest years in history.”

The “famine” part came on some days when skiers and snowboarders could not get to resorts because either they had shut down due to conditions or guests could not get to the slopes because of closed roads or violent storms. One especially vexing period occurred in early February when Highway 50, the main artery connecting the Bay Area and South Lake Tahoe, was closed following a huge landslide, and I-80, the link between the Bay Area and North Lake Tahoe, was mostly shut down at the same time due to another slide.

Two examples: Mt. Rose was closed on nine days prior to Feb. 1 because of storms and road closures. The cross country ski area at Tahoe Donner was shut down for six days during that period “due to heavy snowfall and power outages.”

Michael Reitzell, president of the California Ski Industry Association, said, “Despite all the challenges, most resorts are having a very good year. The Christmas season was quite good and business generally also was strong on Martin Luther King weekend.”

Because of all the snow, he noted that “some resorts likely will stay open later this year. Unless of course, everything drys up.”

That is unlikely, according to several resorts, considering that February-April weather patterns indicate a lot more snow is coming.

“The odds are that we will be open through mid-May. It really depends of demand,” said Mike Pierce, director of marketing at Mt. Rose. “Right now, the storms are continuing to come in, confidence in the Tahoe snow product is high and in great demand.”

Lauren Burke, a spokeswoman for Mammoth Mountain, said, “It looks like we are still  heading into a record-breaking season and will be skiing well into July.”

In mid-February, Mammoth double-checked the snow depth at the 11,000-foot level and concluded that the base depth there was 28 feet at the time.

Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows are two other resorts that typically are open into the summer months after copious amounts of snow fall.

Marcie Bradley, senior communications manager at Northstar, stressed that “January was an incredible snow months and folks were very patient when at some points we had to dig out of 80 inches of snow at one time. All of this bounty has allowed us to open special terrain like White Rabbit and Sawtooth Ridge, which is a huge surprise and delight for our guests.”

Homewood ski area, which is in a somewhat protected area on the west side of Lake Tahoe, was only closed for two days prior to Feb. 1 because of storms and power outages that affected the region.

The return of a big winter to the Sierra has brought to the mountains many winter sports enthusiasts who have not traveled there for some time.

Derek Moore, a spokesman for Tahoe Donner, noted, “We are seeing a lot of new folks taking lessons at both our downhill and cross country resorts. The buzz around all the snow Tahoe has received this year is driving a lot of visitors to the resorts to enjoy great skiing and riding conditions.”

Reitzell was asked if additional profits the ski resorts should tally this season will translate into spending money for new lifts and runs this summer.

“It is possible we may see more capital improvements,” he said. “But the process for these projects often takes two years or more because you usually need approvals from the Forest Service and local agencies.”

Here’s what happens when 8-10 inches of snow falls at Mountain High

Mountain High received 8-10 inches of snow today, thanks to a storm that was expected to continue dumping more fresh powder tonight and into Friday. Forecasts showed overnight lows dropping to the low- to mid-20s, with daytime highs reaching the low- to mid-30s throughout the weekend, according to The Weather Channel.

The West Resort was expected to be 100 percent open by Friday morning. Mountain High’s North Resort also could be open during the three-day Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend.

Information: www.mthigh.com

North Lake Tahoe is enjoying its snowiest January in decades

Snow totals at Homewood Mountain Resort range from about 3 feet at the base to more than 7 feet at the 8,740-foot summit. (Photo courtesy Homewood Mountain Ski Resort)

Snow totals at Homewood Mountain Resort range from about 3 feet at the base to more than 7 feet at the 8,740-foot summit. (Photo courtesy Homewood Mountain Ski Resort)

North Lake Tahoe ski resorts have experienced an incredible start to 2017 after a week-long snow storm that coated the Sierras with not just inches, but multiple feet of fresh snow. With more than 7 feet of powder reported at Donner Summit, 136 ski lifts and 347 runs open across the North Shore, this is the snowiest January North Lake Tahoe has seen in more than 45 years.

Just in time for National Learn to Ski & Snowboard month, conditions in North Lake Tahoe will remain ideal throughout January. Beginners will enjoy discounted learn-to-ski packages as low as $39 at multiple resorts, complete with lift tickets, lessons and rentals.

Here’s a quick look at the summit snow levels at North Lake Tahoe resorts.

  • Boreal Mountain Resort: 85 inches
  • Diamond Peak: 72 inches
  • Donner Ski Ranch: 72 inches
  • Homewood Mountain Resort: 92 inches
  • Granlibakken: 20 inches
  • Northstar California: 50 inches
  • Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe: 93 inches
  • Squaw Valley | Alpine Meadows: 117 inches
  • Sugar Bowl Resort: 81 inches
  • Royal Gorge: 81 inches
  • Tahoe Donner Downhill Ski Area: 64 inches
  • Tahoe XC: 20 inches

Tahoe Donner Downhill
The First Timer Learn to Ski or Snowboard Month packages are offered Jan. 9-13 and 17-20 for $39. These packages are only for first timers, which include an all-day lift ticket, rental equipment, and a one hour, 45-minute group lesson for anyone ages 7 and older.

Tahoe Donner Cross Country
Discounted private lessons and private lesson packages are offered any midweek, non-holiday day from Jan. 9-31. Two-for-one private lessons and private lesson packages are available any midweek, non-holiday day from Jan. 9-31. For $59, get a friend in on the fun for an hour of private instruction. $89 includes a lesson, day ticket and equipment for two people.

Alpine Meadows
Learn how to ski or snowboard for just $99 at Alpine Meadows any midweek day for ages 13 and older. Package Includes beginner lift tickets, equipment rental (skis, boots, poles or snowboard, boots) and a two hour, 30-minute beginner lesson.

Diamond Peak
For $39 from Jan. 9-13, for ages 7 and older, the Ski and Snowboard School will have Learn to Ski and Burton Learn to Ride packages for $39. The package includes a beginner lift ticket, rental equipment and one-hour 45-minute lesson beginning at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe
All beginner packages include a lift ticket to the dedicated beginner lifts, Flying Jenny, Wizard and Galena, beginner rental equipment (ski or snowboard) good for the entire day and a two-hour group lesson. Package starts at $135. In addition, Mt. Rose offers the Flight Plan Package: a two-consecutive-day lesson with lift tickets, rentals and instruction.

Homewood Mountain Resort
Homewood Mountain Resort’s $59 Learn to Ski & Ride Package offers first-timers a half-day lesson along with all-day equipment rental (helmet not included in package but available at an additional cost) and beginner lift ticket.

Mammoth Mountain: New year, lots of fresh snow

By Jerry Rice

2017 is getting off to a snowy start at Mammoth Mountain, with the resort receiving up to 7 feet of fresh powder since Tuesday – and more is on the way. Lots more.

Another 15-20 feet of snow is expected courtesy a string of potent winter storms moving through the Sierras during the next 10 days. In addition, the National Weather Service has issued several weather-related warnings for the mountain range.

During that time, normal resort operations could be affected, according to a Mammoth Mountain spokesman.

So far this winter, the resort has received more than 12 feet of snow at Main Lodge.

For the latest conditions, visit www.mammothmountain.com

(Video courtesy Peter Morning/Mammoth Mountain)

Sierra ski resorts mix snow with turkey for Thanksgiving weekend

Sugar Bowl Resort, which has already received more than 6 feet of snow, opened Friday with top-to-bottom skiing and riding. (Photo courtesy Sugar Bowl Resort)

Sugar Bowl Resort, which already has received more than 5 feet of snow, opened Friday with top-to-bottom skiing and riding. (Photo courtesy Sugar Bowl Resort)

By Bob Goligoski

It took a last-minute flurry of minor snow bursts but many of the Sierra ski resorts got their big wish – a Thanksgiving weekend opening. And with long-range forecasts promising off-and-on snow for December, along with temperatures dropping enough to make snow, it looks like the resorts will enjoy a white Christmas.

Mt. Rose and Boreal actually opened a little earlier in mid-November. But turkey weekend was the season debut at Heavenly, Squaw Valley, Sugar Bowl, Northstar, Alpine Meadows and Kirkwood. As usual, Mammoth opened in early November.

Initially, skiers and riders will not find all of their favorite lifts and runs open on their first visit. But more terrain and lifts will be opening all the time so be sure to check with your target resort as to how much of the mountain is open.

Some resorts were luckier than others. Sugar Bowl, perched at the top of Donner Pass, opened with top-to-bottom skiing and riding. Mt. Rose, with the Tahoe region’s highest base elevation at 8,260 feet, had numerous runs open early.

Some later season openings include Homewood on Dec. 9, June Mountain on Dec. 10 and Diamond Peak on Dec. 15.

Thanks to the long drought the Sierra experienced in recent years, many resorts expanded snow-making networks. Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, now under the same ownership, spent $8 million on snow-making equipment over the last six years and then paid out another million to beef up snow-making even more for this season.

Sam Kieckhefer, a spokesman for the two resorts, explained that “snowmaking can occur once air temperatures drop below 39 degrees. However, as relative humidity increases, the ambient temperatures required to make snow decrease.”

The California Ski Industry Association noted that “history suggests a snowy winter ahead. For example, when the Lake Tahoe region receives more than 8 inches of rain in October, the region has above-average snowfall more than 75 percent of the time. More than 19 inches of rain fell on Tahoe in October.”

Squaw Valley gets Placer County approval for billion-dollar expansion

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Placer County’s Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a 25-year, $1 billion Squaw Valley development plan that calls for the construction of condos, shops and restaurants. While die-hard skiers and snowboarders welcomed the 4-1 vote, it also drew the objection of many local residents. (Photo courtesy Squaw Valley)

By Bob Goligoski

They were doing a major victory dance at Squaw Valley on Tuesday night. And why not? Earlier in the day, the Placer County Board of Supervisors had given final approval to the long-waited expansion of Squaw Valley, a project with an estimated cost of up to $1 billion.

Although some local residents and incoming Sen. Kamala Harris opposed the expansion, the board gave it the OK on a 4-1 vote. Harris and others had argued that the project would add to pollution, noise and traffic woes. The Placer County Planning Commission had earlier signed off on the project.

Squaw’s Valley’s approved master plan would in effect turn Squaw into a four-season resort. It is already a prime winter ski resort with more than 170 trails and runs spread out across 3,600 skiable acres.

Under the plan, nearly 1,500 motel rooms, condos, timeshares and retail space in Squaw’s Olympic Valley would be built over the next 25 years. A 90,000-square-foot indoor adventure center and water park will be built.

Andy Wirth, president and CEO of Squaw Valley Holdings, said that 90 percent of the development will happen on existing asphalt parking lots at the base of the mountain that are already zoned for such development.

He stressed that the expansion “will position the resort as a true four-season destination, provide more year-round jobs, off-site affordable workforce housing, tens of million of dollars in other benefits to our local community and assist in stabilizing the North Lake Tahoe economy.”

There is no pending litigation at this time that would potentially block the project.

How soon will construction start? “With the project passed, we will initiate the detailed design work necessary to refine the plan and create buildable plans and begin the search for developers to work within the project design guidelines,” said Liesl Kenney, public relations director at Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows.

It is estimated that $22 million in annual tax revenue will be generated by the project. The money will help fund public services including schools, road improvements, transit services and public safety.

The resort also issued a statement: “In response to community feedback, the Village at Squaw Valley redevelopment plan has been reduced by 50 percent and is now only 38 percent of what is allowable per the Squaw Valley General Plan and land use ordinance.”

Tahoe Donner cross country resort launches major expansion effort

By Bob Goligoski

Tahoe Donner, one of the largest cross country ski areas in the West, has embarked on a major expansion program.

Earlier this year, already boasting some 100 kilometers of Nordic trails in the Sierra just outside Truckee, the resort bought Crabtree Canyon, an adjacent 640-acre tract of land. Another 16 kilometers of cross country terrain will open in the canyon for visitors this winter.

Steve Miller, board president at the Tahoe Donner Association, said, “There is some spectacular terrain in the canyon with double black diamond, blue and green-rated trails so skiers of different abilities can enjoy Crabtree.

“In the future,” he added, “there is even more terrain in the canyon that can be developed into Nordic trails.”

Tahoe Donner purchased the site from the Truckee Donner Land Trust for $500,000. The trust had originally bought the property from private interests for $2.4 million.

The Tahoe Donner Association purchased Crabtree Canyon from The Truckee Donner Land Trust in April. For next year, the Land Trust is in contract to purchase nearby Carpenter Valley. It will manage the property for year-round recreational enthusiasts. There is a long-term plan to extend the linked trail systems from the Alder Gulch Adventure Center through Euer Valley, Crabtree Canyon and Carpenter Valley to the Independence Lake Nature Preserve.

Perry Norris, executive director of the Truckee Donner Land Trust, said, “Carpenter Valley is one of the most spectacular – and little known – valleys in the entire Northern Sierra. Preserving the pristine natural beauty of our surroundings and ensuring continued recreational access is of utmost importance to us, especially that its less than 10 miles from downtown Truckee.

Once acquired in July 2017, the property will be open to the public for the first time in over a century.

Tahoe Donner is one of the largest homeowner associations in the country with nearly 25,000 members and 6,500 homes and condos spread across more than 7,000 acres. The Nordic and downhill ski areas, along with the golf course and several other Tahoe Donner attractions, are open to the general public.

The cross country area has been surging in popularity. Last season, USA Today took a national poll of skiers, checked out numerous resorts and concluded that Tahoe Donner is one of the top three Nordic resorts in the country.

Banner season

Brinn Talbot, director of marketing and member services at Tahoe Donner, said that frequent snow storms last season helped propel both the alpine and cross country areas to record years.

Cross country visitors were up 33 percent over the previous record year and downhill skier traffic increased 17 percent over the earlier record year. The association does not releases visitor numbers. The resort’s popularity also is tied to the fact that nearly all of the trails are groomed.

Tahoe Donner also opened the Alder Creek Adventure Center last year. The large structure serves as the home base for Nordic buffs with a cafe, rental services, wax rooms, a retail store and other amenities.

“The center,” Talbot said, “really put us on the international map. We now have a world-class facility that can accommodate national and international events.”

During the summer, the building houses Tahoe Donner’s Equestrian Center and Bikeworks operation. Many of the Nordic trails are used in the summer by hikers, bikers and horseback riders.