Whitewater, British Columbia — where snow is measured by the yard

At an elevation of 5,333 feet, the main lodge at Whitewater is a scenic launch pad to the resort’s groomed runs, open bowls, glades, chutes and tree skiing. (Photo by Sean Armstrong, courtesy Whitewater)

By Bob Goligoski

For an early Wednesday morning, there sure seemed to be an over-size throng of skiers and boarders in the lift lines at Whitewater Ski Resort. Word had gotten out in nearby Nelson, British Columbia, that about a foot of light snow had fallen overnight at the resort.

When the snow hits that hard, it’s understood that powder-hungry residents will be late for work and classrooms will be half empty that morning.

Rebeckah Hornung, sales and marketing manager at Whitewater, explained, “A big dump at night and people take off the morning at work or from school. It’s an accepted part of the culture.”

Whitewater, just outside Nelson and 149 miles north of Spokane, gets legendary snow virtually every winter. This is a rare resort: no snowmaking system. When Mother Nature delivers over 40 feet every winter, who needs it? Shortly after we left the slopes in early March, the flake count was 394 inches and rising.

Three chairlifts, including a new quad what went in last summer, fan across some 1,174 lift-accessed skiable acres. Add in the adjoining backcountry and the skiable terrain goes to 2,367 acres.

More than half of the 82 runs are black diamond or double diamond, but there still seems to be plenty of bunny and intermediate slopes. Toss in a terrain park and five kilometers of nordic trails.

The official travel guide for the Nelson area declares that “our region has more cat ski operations than anywhere else on the planet. Makes sense, since we were the birth place of cat skiing in 1975.”

I was on a chairlift with a local logger and asked him where the best groomed runs were. He laughed and responded, “People don’t come here for groomed runs. They come for the powder.”

There is no lodging at the base. But Nelson is only 20 minutes away and seems well populated with hotels and motels. At the resort base is one of the tastiest ski resort cafes I have ever sampled – Coal Oil Johnny’s.

Whitewater has a lung-friendly, low level elevation with a base of 5,400 feet and a vertical drop of 2,044 feet. There are no high-speed lifts, which is bonus because the powder does not get skied out that quickly.

The resort, which is laid back and below the radar of many skiers and riders, likes to say we are “humble yet huge.” Our adult lift ticket worked out to $68 (U.S. dollars). And ticket prices are the same every day. The resort has been operating since the 1970s.

One of the delights of coming to Whitewater is the proximity of Nelson, a historic jewel nestled in the Selkirk Mountains and along the West Arm of Kootenay Lake. Nelson, which boasts more than 350 preserved heritage buildings, has the feel of being there forever.

Nelson likes to call itself the “number one small arts town in Canada,” and it’s bursting with public art, galleries, live theater and performance venues along with a number of street musicians who perform when it warms up.

Be sure and visit the Hume Hotel, a picturesque structure that opened in 1898. The vibrant life span of the town, which has about 10,000 residents, can be viewed through the history of the hotel. We had a number of to-die-for dishes in Mike’s Place at the hotel.

When the weather turns foul, a good break from the slopes is beer tasting. Nelson has four breweries. My favorite, with their ample pours and styles I enjoy, was Torchlight.

And after imbibing into the evening, be sure to try some amazing mountain cuisine. Two great choices are Louie’s Steakhouse and the West Coast Grill.

Information: skiwhitewater.com

Squaw Valley partners with Tesla for a mountain-top power storage system

A new battery storage system will help Squaw Valley take advantage of renewable energy sources to power operations, including running the ski lifts. (Photo courtesy Squaw Valley Ski Resort)

By Bob Goligoski

Squaw Valley plans to team up with Tesla to bring Tesla’s battery technology to the slopes and create a microgrid power storage system. This would create a new way to store surplus energy which would be delivered to the Liberty Utilities grid that serves the North Lake Tahoe region.

The announcement comes on the heels of a recent Squaw Valley Ski Holdings (it owns Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows) revelation that it plans to get all of its electricity from solar and other renewable sources by December 2018. This would make the corporation the first ski operator in the U.S. to power its operations without fossil fuels, according to ski industry sources.

Squaw Valley and next-door neighbor Alpine Meadows, with a total of 42 uphill lifts, are power-hungry creatures. The batteries will come conveniently from the Tesla battery plant, which is about an hour away on the outskirts of Reno.

The battery storage system would be housed in a structure in the upper mountain Gold Coast area at Squaw Valley. It would be owned and operated by Liberty Utilities.

The project is subject to review and approval by the California Public Utilities Commission and Placer County. No date has been set for the start of construction.

“Battery energy storage can facilitate use of renewable energy sources,” said Greg Sorensen, president of Liberty’s west region. “Battery storage can also improve service reliability and help offset purchases from fossil fuel sources during times of high electricity demand, saving money for our customers.”

Hopefully those savings might trickle down to skiers and snowboarders in the form of more stable lift ticket prices.

Andy Wirth, president and COO of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, said the project “will bring tangible, long-lasting benefits to the power grid that supplies our entire community and the entire Tahoe Truckee region.”

The battery energy storage is designed to kick in should a power shortage hit. It will provide four to six hours of power to the resort and Olympic Valley residents.

Schweitzer Mountain: Big league peak in a small town setting

By Bob Goligoski

Every now and then, one feels the need to get away from the California crowds and lift lines and find a distant, quiet, no-name ski resort with amazing skiing that few have ever heard of.

Such a place is Schweitzer Mountain, a resort I recently visited in the northern Idaho panhandle just outside Sandpoint. With 2,900 skiable acres, it is larger than Sun Valley. Boasting some 92 runs and trails, it is the largest ski resort in either Washington or Idaho.

Adult lift tickets are only $79 every day. Lift lines are virtually always short in this out-of-the-way spot some 90 miles from the Spokane airport. Schweitzer is in a snow belt that reliably dumps about 300 inches year.

Any level of skier or rider can find slopes and runs to their liking. Chutes and faces for the heroes. Long cruisers for the middling crowds. Two wide open bowls to explore. And some of the best tree skiing in the country.

The novice area merits special attention. Schweizer has one of the best beginner hills that you will ever find. Conveniently located right at the base on the Musical Chairs lift, it is long, wide, gentle and perfect for bunny skiers.

And adjacent to the 2,900 acres of lift-accessed terrain are 4,350 acres of skiing and riding served by Selkirk Powder Guides. They run a cat skiing operation that can take you far into the back country.

For the nordic skiers in your group, Schweitzer has a superb 32 kilometer network of trails. Two snow tubing lanes are quite the diversion. Or rent snowshoes or a fat tire snow bike.

I tried a snow bike with mixed results. The scenery was spectacular. But trying to peddle the bike through six inches of ungroomed snow was no fun. Be sure and wait until the trails are groomed.

One could bed down in one of the two large, slope-side lodges at the base – Selkirk or White Pine. Or rent a ski-in, ski-out house or condo. There is a small village at the bottom of the lifts with a handful of cafes and bars.

Sandpoint is just 11 miles down the winding mountain road. It is a charming hamlet of 8,000 souls on the shores of Lake Pend Oreille. Scout around town and find about a dozen hotels, motels and numerous restaurants. For chow, some locals have recommended MickDuff’s, Trinity at City Beach and Eichardt’s.

One plus about Schweitzer is the low elevation, certainly a benefit for those bothered by high altitude. The top of the mountain is only 6,400 feet. Some Tahoe area resort peaks rise over 10,000 feet.

The newish Sky House restaurant sits atop the summit. Sitting on the deck with a cold brew in hand, one can see Idaho, Washington, Montana and Canada.

Schweitzer Mountain Resort
10,000 Schweitzer Mountain Road, Sandpoint, Idaho
208-263-9555, www.schweitzer.com

Northstar California Resort’s master plan remains short on specifics

(Photo courtesy Northstar California Resort)

By Bob Goligoski

It was a big day for the Northstar ski resort last February when the Placer County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the resort’s 20-year master plan.

However, what specifically appears to be in the plan is a bit of a mystery.

Tahoe Quarterly, a reputable Lake Tahoe area lifestyle magazine, reported later that the plan calls for a new gondola, six new chairlifts, more ski trails and more than 700 acres of added skiable terrain to go along with the 3,170 skiable acres the resort has right now.

When asked to confirm those details, the resort’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Myers, said, “The details of the Northstar master plan are still in the conceptual phase. The details listed are not confirmed.

“It would be accurate to say that the plan is a roadmap for the next two decades and is designed to help lengthen current guest stays and solidify Northstar as a premier destination resort,” she added.

Tahoe Quarterly noted that the gondola would connect the resort’s base village to the distant Castle Peak parking lot. That would seem to lessen the need for additional parking at the resort itself.

The master plan, according to the magazine, also would expand snowmaking operations and add some skier service improvements.

Northstar, a major Sierra resort with about 100 trails and runs, could provide no details on when any capital improvements would take place.

Northstar is owned by the deep pockets Vail Resorts organization.

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.