Planned gondola linking Alpine, Squaw resorts moving closer to reality

There's plenty to love about the skiing at Alpine Meadows, and once the gondola between the resort and Squaw Valley is operating it will open new opportunities for skiers and snowboarders at both resorts. (Photo courtesy Alpine Meadows)

There’s plenty to love about the skiing at Alpine Meadows, and once the gondola between the resort and neighboring Squaw Valley is operating it will open new opportunities for skiers and snowboarders at both resorts. (Photo courtesy Alpine Meadows)

By Bob Goligoski

The long-awaited gondola between Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows has been put on a fast track to completion, with resort officials saying that once construction starts it will take only about 10 months to finish the job.

Work cannot start until the owner of the two resorts – Squaw Valley Ski Holdings, LLC – wins approval from Placer County and the U.S. Forest Service. Applications were submitted to the county and agency, but it is unclear how quickly they will act on the proposed gondola.

I don’t know of any major opposition to the project. It does not appear to be controversial, so I suspect approvals may come quite quickly.

The gondola, which would run between the base areas of both resorts, would entail putting up about 37 lift towers and be some 13,000 feet in length. The land on the Alpine side is covered by a use permit on the Tahoe National Forest while the Squaw part of the ride would glide across lands owned or leased by Squaw Valley Ski Holdings.

No skiing, snowboarding or other on-the-snow activity would be permitted along the gondola route. Standing at the top of Squaw and gazing down into the Alpine base area, one is impressed by the steepness of the terrain going down to the Alpine lifts.

Resort officials pledged to take many steps to reduce the environmental impact of the gondola. The eight-passenger gondola will be operated at a relatively low speed; skiers and riders will have about a 13-minute trip to get from one resort to the other.

A typical high-speed lift transports at least 2,000 people per hour, while initial plans call for the gondola to move 1,400 people an hour. This is being done to minimize the number and height of the lift towers.

The gondola cabins will be removed from the gondola cable each summer to “reduce impacts on the surrounding view shed.”

A Q&A document released recently by the project builders would be of interest to many who frequent the slopes of Alpine and Squaw.

That document states that there are no plans under which the gondola cost would result in any increase in lift ticket prices or season passes. The gondola, it states, “would simply make it easy for skiers and riders to explore both mountains with a single lift ticket or season pass, without needing to travel between the two by car.”

It also notes that guests will be able to disembark at the Saddle mid-station on the Squaw side and then ski or snowboard down to the bottom of Squaw Valley.

Some skiers and riders like the slower pace on the slopes at Alpine Meadows but bemoan the fact that the resort has limited commercial activity. Once it starts operating, they will be able to ride the gondola to the Squaw Valley village and enjoy the 50 to 60 restaurants, bars, shops and art galleries located there.

When the link-up is completed, visitors will have access to 42 lifts and 270 trails spread across more than 6,000 skiable acres.

Bob Roberts, longtime ‘voice’ of California skiing, calls it a career

In his roles as manager of the Mt. Shasta Ski Area and, later, leading the California Ski Industry Association, Bob Roberts Here, he meets with Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1984, the same year Schwarzenegger starred in "The Terminator."

In his roles as manager of the Mt. Shasta Ski Area and, later, leading the California Ski Industry Association, Bob Roberts, left, has met with many movers and shakers. Here, he visits with Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1984, the same year the actor starred in “The Terminator.” Nineteen years later, Schwarzenegger would become California governor. (Courtesy photo)

By Bob Goligoski

After 40 years as the “voice” of California skiing and snowboarding, this is the first winter in decades without Bob Roberts as president and CEO of the California Ski Industry Association.

As chief strategist and lobbyist for the organization’s 29 California and Nevada winter resorts, the 78-year-old Roberts has played a major role in the development and success of resorts across the Sierra Nevada.

In a long-ranging interview, Roberts reflected on his many years at the helm and talked about what he sees in the future for the winter resorts.

“The drought,” he said, “is the biggest problem facing the resorts. People who own resorts tend to think that the glass is half full, not half empty. They are usually very creative and inventive in solving problems. But if the drought continues, we could lose a few resorts. There will be a shakeout, I suspect.”

In recent years, two Colorado-based corporations – Vail Resorts and KSL – have acquired major California ski resorts, including Heavenly, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Northstar and Kirkwood. He does not see that trend continuing and does not expect other out-of-state corporations to acquire and consolidate resorts in California or Nevada.

California ski resorts are a key component in the state’s tourism boom. Some 7 million skier visits to the resorts are recorded every winter. It’s a $1.5 billion business that generates more than $100 million per year in state and local taxes. Some 16,000 people work full-time and seasonal jobs at the resorts every year.

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#WinterIsHere, so Mammoth Mountain opens early

Mother Nature gave Mammoth Mountain a a beautiful 12- to 30-inch base for the winter season, which opens at the resort on Thursday. (Mammoth Mountain Ski Area photo)

Mother Nature gave Mammoth Mountain a beautiful 12- to 30-inch base to start the winter season, which opens at the resort on Thursday. (Mammoth Mountain Ski Area photo)

By Jerry Rice

For skiers and snowboarders eager to get back on the slopes, the wait will be over in a few hours.

Mammoth Mountain, which received up to 30 inches of fresh powder from the first major snowstorm of the season, will be opening Thursday — a week earlier than planned. Which means the #WinterIsComing hashtag can now be replaced by #WinterIsHere.

“Opening day is always a blast, add in a couple feet of powder and you’ve got the recipe for a great opening,” said Lauren Burke, resort spokeswoman.

Broadway Express (Chair 1), Facelift Express (Chair 3) and Discovery (Chair 11) will be spinning with access to Saddle Bowl, Broadway, Andy’s Double Gold and Sesame Street. Lift tickets for opening day are $50, and first chair is at 8:30 a.m.

With conditions taking shape that forecasters predict will lead to a lot of precipitation, this could be the winter skiers and snowboarders have been dreaming about for years.

“We’re expecting a great winter in Mammoth with the strong El Nino, but for the snow to come this early and this heavy is a huge bonus.”

Information: www.mammothmountain.com

Mammoth Mountain countdown: 100 days to skiing and snowboarding

First day of school? First day of the NFL season? For skiers and boarders, nothing beats the first day of the winter season — and at Mammoth Mountain it's only 100 days away. The resort opens Nov. 11. (Mammoth Mountain photo)

First day of school? No way. Start of the NFL season? Nope. For skiers and boarders, not much tops the first day of the winter season — and at Mammoth Mountain it’s about 100 days away. The resort’s lifts are scheduled to start spinning on Nov. 11. (Mammoth Mountain photo)

By Jerry Rice

While thermometers flirt with triple digits in much of Inland Southern California, we have our eyes on the century mark for another reason: On Monday, it will be 100 days until the Nov. 11 start of the winter season at Mammoth Mountain.

And thanks to the strong El Nino weather pattern developing in the Pacific Ocean, climate scientists are saying that more than normal rain and snow could be on the way, giving skiers and snowboarders a reason to get excited. During the two biggest El Ninos on record — in 1982-83 and 1997-98 — Mammoth received 546 and 451 inches of snow, respectively, according to the website mammothsnowman.com.

Last winter, with California in the fourth year of drought, a relatively paltry 238 inches of the white stuff fell at Mammoth.

“As El Nino continues doing its thing, there’s plenty to look forward to,” says resort spokesman Tim LeRoy, pointing to the season ahead.

For one, the resort has a lift and lodging package starting at $99 per person per night. The deal must be booked by Aug. 31 to lock in what LeRoy says will be “the steepest savings offered all year.”

Let the countdown begin!

Information: www.mammothmountain.com

Heavenly Mountain Resort zips into summer

Riders speed down a four-line zip line at Breckenridge, Colo. When a similar attraction opens this month at Heavenly, riders will be able to race down the four parallel lines at top speeds of 40 mph. (Vail Resorts photo)

Riders race down a zip line at Breckenridge, Colo. When a similar attraction opens at Heavenly, riders will be able to take the four parallel lines at top speeds of 40 mph. (Vail Resorts photo)

By Bob Goligoski

Heavenly Mountain Resort has started construction on a major expansion of its summer attractions that will include a new alpine coaster ride, an extensive zip line network, mountain bike park, multi-use trails and tree canopy tours.

The project, which has been in the works for many years, has steadily been gaining the approval of various governmental agencies. Last month, the final OK came when the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board voted “yes” on the venture, which is dubbed Epic Discovery.

“This is going to revolutionize the summer guest experience at Heavenly,” said Pete Sonntag, Heavenly COO and vice president. “It is about more than the individual activities; it is a cohesive plan that brings together all components under the unified theme of learning about and engaging with the National Forest.”

Construction on the alpine coaster, similar to those at Park City and Breckenridge, starts this month. It will operate year-round after opening late this year at the South Lake Tahoe resort.

Guests ride individual sleds down an elevated track that winds down amid the pines and rock formations. Gravity takes care of the descent while riders maintain control of how fast they want to go.

Also this month, the resort debuts a new four-line zip line called the Hot Shot Zip Line. An existing zip line, dubbed Blue Streak, is slated to re-open late this month.

Some of the zip lines at Heavenly will incorporate tree canopy tours.

Bikers have long eyed the vast slopes of Heavenly, which stretch for miles across California and Nevada, as a place where they might some day peddle to their heart’s content. They likely will have to wait another couple years as the new mountain bike park will take time to develop before it opens.

Work crews currently are busy toiling on a new permanent 35-foot-tall rock climbing wall, which is slated to open in August. It will feature 18 climbing routes with automatic belay systems and a quick-jump 35-foot rapid descent that emulates free-falling.

Another lane has been added to the tubing hill and will be open late this month.

In September, Heavenly will offer mountain excursion tours via 4×4 vehicles. These guided tours will feature narrations on the mountain with information about the history, culture and environment of the region.

And children will have a crack at the zip line experience when a smaller kid-specific 150-foot long zip line opens later this summer.

Information: www.skiheavenly.com

Bob Goligoski, a former newspaper reporter, has been writing about the ski industry for various newspapers and magazines for 45 years. He has skied at more than 125 resorts around the world.

Quebec’s Hotel de Glass dazzles with its fanciful frozen decor

The Hotel de Glace in Quebec features guestrooms with elaborate carved walls and a bed made of ice. Some, like this one, come with a fireplace, though it's only for looks - no heat enters the room. (Photo courtesy Hotel de Glace)

The Hotel de Glace in Quebec features guestrooms with elaborate carved walls and a bed made of ice. Some, like this one, come with a fireplace, though it’s only for looks – no heat enters the room. (Photo courtesy Hotel de Glace)

By Marlene Greer, Correspondent

The bed is made of ice, the walls and floor made of snow, and the ambient temperature is a brisk 24 degrees F. Sound like a place you’d like to spend the night? Surprisingly, many people do.

The Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel), located a few miles from downtown Quebec, is an imaginative creation of snow and ice, reconstructed every winter in a matter of six or so weeks. From the grand entrance, complete with check-in counter, to the guestrooms, the walls of every room are intricately carved into masterpieces of art, and some of the beds feature massive ice canopies and elaborate headboards.

The hotel is open for overnight stays and to tourists from Jan. 5 to March 22. With 44 rooms, a vaulted hall with an amazing ice chandelier, chapel, bar, disco, and ice slide, there’s a lot to see. Visitors can walk around on their own or sign up for a tour.  We opted for the tour, which included a drink at the ice bar.

Like any hotel, the guestrooms range from the small and simple to elaborate suites with fireplaces, which are for ambience only as no heat enters the room. Most rooms come with an ice chair and ice table (can’t imagine spending much time there!) and have one to three beds. But all feature amazing sculpted decor, every one different from the last.

This year’s theme is “Space-Time,” and as visitors wander from room to room, they journey from ancient times into the future. On our tour, we saw one room depicting humankind’s space exploration with a relief of the Space Shuttle and a full-height sculpted astronaut, and another showcasing automobiles, complete with an ice car bed.

Our guide Sara explained that in the evening, the guestroom areas are closed to the public, cleaned and prepared for those staying overnight. A mattress and an isolating bed sheet are placed on the bed to keep the cold from seeping in, and each person is given an arctic sleeping bag. “We advise guests to take a warm shower before bed to increase the body temperature. This will help you stay warm throughout the night,” she said.

After visiting the entrance hall, several rooms, the chapel and disco, the tour ends at the ice bar – a popular stop apparently from the size of the crowd. Sara explained the beer, wine and alcohol are stored in refrigerators not to keep them cold but to keep them from freezing. Everything from the bar counter to the lounge chairs and tables are made of ice. Even the drinks are served in an ice glass, a bulky square block of ice with a hole in the center to hold the liquid.

The first ice hotel went up in 2001, and it’s been a popular winter attraction ever since. With the outside temperature only in the single digits, standing at a table in an ice bar enjoying a vodka and cranberry juice cocktail out of a frozen glass in an ice hotel at 24 degrees feels downright warm.

The ice bar at the Hotel de Glace. (Photo by Marlene Greer)

The ice bar at the Hotel de Glace. (Photo by Marlene Greer)

Racing canoes on ice-covered St. Lawrence River among events at Quebec’s Winter Carnival

Two crews in the elite male class compete in the ice canoe race on the St. Lawrence River during Quebec's Winter Carnival. (Photo by Marlene Greer)

Two crews in the elite male class compete in the ice canoe race on the St. Lawrence River during Quebec’s Winter Carnival. (Photo by Marlene Greer)

By Marlene Greer, Correspondent

Standing on the edge of the St. Lawrence River watching a group of five women power their canoe over the ice-crusted surface, all I could think of was, “You go, ladies!”

The women are among the 10 teams of elite female crews competing in the ice canoe race, one of many events and competitions at the Winter Carnival in Quebec City. In addition to the women, there are 10 teams in the elite male class, and a whole lot of brave souls in the amateur sport class. (I stopped counting at 25 boats.)

From where we stand near the starting line, we can hear the canoes coming before we see them. We hear the voices of the crew, but mostly we hear the scraping of boats over ice. The ice on the river is broken up in huge blocks, and navigating them takes great physical effort and group coordination.

Wearing spiked shoes, holding on to the gunwale, and kneeling on one knee in the boat with the other leg dangling over the edge, the crews propel their canoes up and over the chunks of ice. The crews do this for half a mile up river before reaching flowing water where they jump in and start paddling.

For today’s race, the temperature is in the single digits, sinking into sub-zero with the fierce wind blowing across the river. But the cold weather doesn’t keep bundled-up spectators from lining the riverbank, four and five deep. Nor, apparently, does it bother the racers.

When I marvel at the utter craziness of it all, a native Quebecer standing next to me counters, “I’ve done it once; it’s a lot of fun!”

The ice canoe race is a carnival staple. It’s been held every year since the carnival’s inception in 1955. The first women’s team participated in the race in 1966. The race begins in Quebec City, and teams navigate a course across the river to Levis and back. The elite male class must complete the circuit twice.

So why a canoe race on a frozen river? According to the Quebec City Tourism website, carnival competitions were created to represent Quebec winter traditions. The canoe, dogsled and sleigh are traditional modes of transportation and were important to the settlement and history of Quebec.

Quebec’s winter carnival ends today with the sleigh races and the closing ceremonies.

A crew in the elite female class work to get their canoe across the ice. (Photo by Marlene Greer)

A crew in the elite female class work to get their canoe across the ice. (Photo by Marlene Greer)

Everyone loves the parade at Quebec’s Winter Carnival

Spectators line the streets to watch the night parade in Quebec. Photos courtesy Quebec City Tourism

Spectators line the streets to watch the night parade in Quebec. (Photos courtesy Quebec City Tourism)

By Marlene Greer/Correspondent

Lights, camera (yours) and lots of action.

That’s the night parade at Quebec’s Winter Carnival, a 17-day long celebration of all things snow and ice. The parade is so popular it’s done twice – once in the suburb of Charlesbourg and a second time through the streets of Quebec. The Charlesbourg parade was held last weekend, and the parade in Quebec is set for Saturday.

“The parade in Charlesbourg is held earlier in the night at 6 and is better for children,” said Paule Bergeron of Quebec City Tourism.

Standing with the crowd in Charlesbourg, a look across the street at the row of children lining the parade route definitely gives the impression this is a family event. And the zero-degree temperature hasn’t spoiled the fun. But it does make for a lot of stamping of feet, clapping of hands and dancing around by spectators just to stay warm. Even the marching bands had to wrap their instruments to keep them from freezing.

The parade begins with groups of jesters and jokers who dance, mime and perform acrobatics. Spectators blow their long, red plastic horns, a carnival necessity, in approval. There are musicians, singers and marching bands, playing mostly Canadian tunes, but we did recognize the familiar “Eye of the Tiger.”

This wide-eyed creature is just one of many in the parade.

This wide-eyed creature is just one of many in the parade.

It’s the colorful lighted floats, however, which are the most interesting. A long procession of sea creatures, magical creatures, and what looked to me like dancing snow wolves entertained the crowd.

At the end of the parade came Bonhomme, the carnival’s mascot. Bonhomme is a snowman who wears a red cap, an arrowhead sash and a big smile. And just like with Mickey Mouse at Disneyland, the kids, parents and tourists all clamber for a photo with the famed character. Bonhomme’s been around since the first carnival in 1955, and kids seem to love him.

The carnival concludes this weekend with the snow bath (put on your swimsuit, some boots and roll in the snow), Quebec night parade and after-party on Saturday and the sleigh race and closing ceremonies on Sunday.

Bonhomme waves to the crowd.

Bonhomme waves to the crowd.

Enjoying the Carnaval de Quebec with an ice castle, rides and caribou

Ice castle at Carnival de Quebec (Photo by Marlene Greer)

Ice castle at Winter Carnival in Quebec. (Photo by Marlene Greer)

By Marlene Greer, Correspondent

Bundled up in several layers of clothing, we braved the single-digit temperatures for a sled ride down an ice track, a round of bumper rafts on ice, a drink of caribou at the ice bar, and a walk through an ice castle. We even made our own “maple-sicles” in the snow.

It’s all part of Carnaval de Quebec, a 17-day long celebration of all things snow and ice. Quebec City, like much of the northeast in early February, was in the grip of a deep freeze, but that didn’t keep families from bundling up in their snow gear for some winter fun.

Christian, a native Quebecer there with his two children, the youngest he was pulling around in a sled, joked, “We have to do something in winter.”

The carnival is spread across the Plaines D’Abraham just outside the old walled city. In addition to the rides, food, music, snow sculptures and events at the Plaines, parades, concerts and races take place throughout the city.

Making maple popsicles (Photo by Marlene Greer)

Making maple popsicles. (Photo by Marlene Greer)

The first thing you notice – and can’t miss – at the carnival is the large ice palace, a tradition going back to the first carnival in 1955. As you go from room to room, you can lounge in an ice chair, check out the ice bar, and explore ice tunnels (for kids, except for one parent we watched crawl in to retrieve her wayward toddler).

Then there are the beautiful to fantastical snow sculptures. The international snow sculpture competition has been part of the carnival since 1973. Sculptors from around the globe come to Quebec to create these intricate and realistic works of art. A trail winds among the sculptures so you can view them from all sides.

Being Canadians, of course there’s a small hockey rink, where kids can grab a stick and join in. There’s also ice fishing, dogsled rides, a tubing hill, and bumper rafts, where you just sit back and enjoy the spin as the boats (on wheels) are pushed around the ice. And what’s a carnival without food and drink? We tried the make-your-own maple pop and caribou. To make a traditional Canadian maple pop, a foot-long strip of warm maple syrup is poured on top of snow, and you take a popsicle stick and roll the slowly hardening syrup around the stick. As for caribou, with a name like that how could we resist? Caribou is made with Canadian port, vodka and brandy and is served warm – perfect on a frigid winter day.

The carnival concludes this weekend. Special events include the night parade and after-party, a sleigh race, and the crazy snow bath.

Snow sculpture at Carnival de Quebec (Photo by Marlene Greer)

Snow sculpture at Winter Carnival in Quebec. (Photo by Marlene Greer)

 

On the slopes: 2015 guide for skiing, snowboarding at June Mountain

One season pass — the Cali4nia Pass — is good for skiing at June Mountain and three other resorts. Mammoth, Bear and Snow Summit also are part of the deal. (June Mountain photo)

One season pass — the Cali4nia Pass — is good for skiing at June Mountain and three other resorts. Mammoth, Bear and Snow Summit also are part of the deal. (June Mountain photo)

This is the fifth in a series of updates from mountain resorts in California and Nevada.

What’s new: The Cali4nia Pass allows all-winter access to the slopes at June, Mammoth (where they’re generally more crowded), Bear Mountain and Snow Summit.

For the family: Kids 12 and younger ski for free at the resort all season long.

Hidden gem: “The face at June has some of the best power skiing at any resort — and I’ve skied most of them, particularly in the U.S.,” says Rusty Gregory, chairman and CEO at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, which also operates June. “It’s not that hidden because it’s the first run you see. The geography at June is very European oriented, so it’s steep at the bottom. The face is my favorite run there, and on a powder day my favorite run period.”

Social connections: @JuneMountain on Instagram and Twitter; www.facebook.com/JuneMountain

Information: 800-586-3686; www.junemountain.com

— Jerry Rice