Skiing in the Sierras starts with the help of new snow-making systems

Electric power needed to run the lifts at Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows now comes from 100 percent renewable sources under a deal with Liberty Utilities. (Photo courtesy Squaw Valley/Alpine Meadows)

By Bob Goligoski

This year’s Sierra ski season started with the whimper, not a bang. A couple of the usual early starters — Boreal and Mt. Rose — opened with minimal novice-type terrain on man-made snow in late October.

Snow-making systems cranked up big time in mid-November as temperatures dropped. Northstar, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Soda Springs, Mammoth and others opened then with limited terrain. Finally, forecasters said the first storms will arrive in late November.

Mother Nature is fickle. Ski resort owners know that. So they bought even more snow-making equipment for this season to keep things white.

Sugar Bowl was the big spender, investing $3 million in a planned $8 million expansion of its snowmaking network. More than 100 new snow guns were installed along with 17 tower-mounted fan guns.

Mt. Rose in Nevada added a bevy of snow guns as part of a $2 million outlay in new mountain projects for this season. The man-made snow systems are now reaching into the Subway terrain area at Alpine Meadows. Boreal opened a new snow-making system near its bunny terrain.

“There is no doubt that the ski resorts are less dependent now on natural snow then they were five or 10 years ago,” said Michael Reitzell, president of the California Ski Industry Association. “So much snow-making has been added in recent years.”

The new Snowbird fixed-grip triple chairlift, which replaces a ride up the mountain installed in 1971, improves access to the beginner terrain at Tahoe Donner. It’s one of several improvements debuting at the resort this winter. (Photo courtesy Tahoe Donner Association)

New lifts, terrain parks

Skiers and riders will find a few new lifts and terrain parks in the Sierra this season. Tahoe Donner erected a new triple chair called Snowbird, which replaces an old chair that opened in 1971.

Boreal built a new lift dubbed the California Cruiser. It’s for novice skiers and riders and is designed to help them progress into more difficult terrain. Diamond Peak carved out a new terrain park on its lower mountain which visitors can access by taking the Red Fox lift.

Family friendly tubing comes to the Overlook above the village at Northstar. This new experience will debut Dec. 21 and will be open days and most evenings.

Heavenly took over management of nearby Lakeland Village, a townhouse style resort, to give guests a lake-side home while they ski. The resort also will start hauling visitors around the upper reaches of the peaks in utility task vehicles — a sort of plush scenic tour.

Mammoth Mountain has introduced a couple back-country programs which will allow the adventuresome to explore new terrain with instructors and guides.

This season, all the electric power needed at Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows will come from renewable sources under a deal worked out with Liberty Utilities.

Some $1.4 million was spent at Alpine Meadows for extensive base area renovations. The base lodge will have a new look and several features including a self-serve barista bar and a bigger Last Chair bar.

Passes and prices

Liesl Hepburn, public relations director at Squaw/Alpine, noted that this will be the first full-season for the new Ikon Pass at the two resorts. It’s a season pass that allows skiers and riders to visit the two resorts and also provides access to 34 other resorts around the world.

“Because of the new pass, we expect to see new skiers and riders here who have never visited before,” she said.

Can skiers and riders, without season passes, expect to pay more at Sierra resorts this season? There is no clear answer as the answer differs from resort to resort depending on pricing policies.

A number of resorts, including Squaw/Alpine, use a dynamic pricing model which means that pricing varies with demand and other factors.

“The earlier you buy online, the greater your chances are of getting the lowest prices,” Hepburn said.

A dining tip for peak lovers: Probably the tastiest chow I have had in the Sierra is at the Smokehouse BBQ at the top of Sierra-at-Tahoe. It just had a major face-lift which now gives diners sweeping views of Lake Tahoe and the Desolation Wilderness.

Some lower elevation resorts in the Sierra, such as Homewood and Dodge Ridge, may be opening a little later this year. Dodge has set its opening for Dec. 22.

Spring skiing is in mid-winter form thanks to ‘March madness’ snowstorms

The summit at Sugar Bowl is sporting a base depth of 100 inches, made possible by more than 300 inches of snowfall this winter. (Photo courtesy Sugar Bowl Resort)

The spring ski season is on big time in the Sierra.

Thanks to a “March madness” of epic storms, several ski resorts have extended their closing dates. And those that typically shut down Memorial Day or later – Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Mammoth Mountain – will be open at least until the late May holiday, weather and snow conditions permitting.

Heavenly is set to close a week later than usual – April 22. Mt. Rose also will stay open later – until April 29 – marking yet another six-month season at the Lake Tahoe resort. Homewood has pushed out its shut down date to April 15.

Other resorts are undecided on a closing day, so check with them before you head up the mountain.

Most Sierra resorts enjoyed a March miracle when 18 to 20 feet of snow blanketed the slopes.

Liesl Hepburn, spokeswoman at Squaw and Alpine, recalled a major dump around March 1 that brought seven feet of snow and a mid-March storm hit with another five feet of white gold.

Sugar Bowl, where nearly 100 runs were still open earlier this week, is another resort continuing to benefit from the late winter/early spring snowfall.

Mike Pierce, director of marketing at Mt. Rose, stressed that “we had an excellent season despite the general vibe that Tahoe had a lean snow start. With a high base elevation and extensive snowmaking, Mt. Rose opened on Oct 27. We also experienced a 40-inch (snow) storm in November when others received rain.”

Kevin Cooper, a senior communications official for Heavenly and Kirkwood, said March had some huge crowds because of all the pent-up demand. There was mostly clear driving on mountain highways which helped resorts attract thousand of skiers and riders during peak holiday periods.

“Our snowmaking systems were absolutely critical this season,” said Hepburn. “While we shut them down earlier in March when ‘Miracle March’ started rearing its head, our snowmaking and grooming teams truly carried the weight for much of the season. We got a lot of comments from guests who noticed the day-to-day additions that our snowmakers were able to make.”

Thea Hardy, communications manager at Sierra-at-Tahoe, added that “we do not yet have a projected closing date. Traditionally, we close in mid/late April. Closing date depends on the longevity of the current snowpack as well as temperatures and changing conditions.”

Northstar, which also benefited from a large snowmaking system, will close April 15.

Many resorts typically have enough snow to stay open longer than they do each season. But when the warm days of spring arrive, many skiers and riders turn their attention to golf, tennis and other pursuits, making it tough for resorts to attract enough guests to turn a profit.

Some of the smaller Sierra resorts, such as Dodge Ridge and China Peak, had a rough time financially this season. Andy Wirth, president and CEO of Squaw Valley Ski Holdings, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal in mid-March stating that Squaw and Alpine revenues were down about 20 percent from a year ago.

Mt. Rose noted that its revenues and crowds for the season were up about four percent from the previous season.

The Nevada resort is wasting no time planning for next season, announcing that the 2018-19 ski and snowboard season will start on Oct. 26, 2018.

Mammoth Mountain + more March snow means skiing until Memorial Day

Workers shovel the snow off the roof of the Mammoth Mountain Community Foundation. (Photo by Kevin Westenbarger/Courtesy Mammoth Mountain Ski Area)

By Jerry Rice

Thanks to another a huge storm that dumped 5 feet of new snow (and counting) in the last 24 hours, it was announced this morning that Mammoth Mountain will be open for skiing and snowboarding through at least Memorial Day.

With 132-plus inches of snowfall since March 1, this month has been by far the best of current winter season. January brought 36 inches of fresh powder.

The latest snowfall brings the season total to 238 inches at Main Lodge; there’s a 140-base at McCoy Station and 175 inches at the summit. The weekend forecast calls for highs in the low 20s on Saturday and Sunday — winterlike conditions a few days into spring.

Mammoth Mountain is closed today due to the heavy snowfall, and is expected to open Friday at 8:30 a.m.

Information: www.mammothmountain.com

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.”

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.”

It’s been a blockbuster ski, snowboard season for Sierra resorts

Abundant snowfall this winter at Mt. Rose resulted in lots of scenes like this, which was taken on Jan. 15. The resort reported one of its best winters for skier visits in several years. (Photo by Billy Jesberg for Mt. Rose)

Abundant snowfall this winter at Mt. Rose resulted in lots of scenes like this, which was taken on Jan. 15. The resort reported a record year for visitors. (Photo by Billy Jesberg for Mt. Rose)

Bob Goligoski

Frequent snowfalls, early and late snow, well-timed storms, few highway shutdowns and pent-up demand from skiers and snowboarders added up to a blockbuster season for Sierra resorts in California and Nevada.

“We had a fantastic winter,” said Ashley Quadros, marketing content coordinator at Tahoe Donner. “This was the best season in history for both our cross country and alpine areas. Mother Nature was very good to us.”

Most Sierra resorts do not reveal visitor numbers but the California Ski Industry Association predicts that this season will far surpass the long-term average of 6.5 million visits a year at the Sierra resorts.

Association president Michael Reitzell said that the number so far this season is well past the 4.6 million visits recorded last year.

“With a number of resorts open into May, we have a chance at a record year,” he said.

The old record was set during the 2004-05 season when about 8.5 million visits were recorded by the resorts.

“We had great snow all over California,” Reitzell added. “From Shasta and Dodge Ridge to China Peak, Mammoth and the Tahoe resorts, it was a phenomenal season.”

Most of the resorts are closing around mid-April, but Mammoth, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows and Mt. Rose will be open into May.

“Mammoth hasn’t closed before Memorial Day in 28 years and that streak won’t end this year,” said Tim LeRoy, a resort spokesman. “With a healthy base of 200 inches (at the summit), Mammoth will remain open through at least Memorial Day and likely later. In years with similar snowfall totals, Mammoth has remained open all the way to July 4.”

I was at Northstar in March and noticed that the coverage was amazing. By that time, it had snowed more than 400 inches; as of earlier today, the total exceeded 455 inches.

Communications manager Marcie Bradley noted that “with all this snow, we are having a great season.”

So many riders and skiers had come to Mt. Rose by early April, officials there said that the resort had broken its visitor records.

“We are still enjoying mid-winter conditions on the mountain,” said Mike Pierce, Mt. Rose director of marketing. “The skiing and riding is so great, we’ve decided to extend the season into May (closing May 8), pushing the ski season to over six months and making this the longest season in Mt. Rose’s history.”

Similar comments came from Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, now under the same ownership.

“We will be Tahoe’s longest-running resort this season,” said Liesl Kenney, public relations manager for the two resorts. “And with Squaw’s High Camp hot tub and parties across the mountain, the spring skiing capital will be in full swing. With the closing date scheduled for May 30, conditions permitting, this will be the longest season we have had in the last 10 years.”

While much improved compared with recent years, Sierra resorts did not enjoy a huge snow season. Totals were pretty much close to what was average before 2010, when a multi-year span of skimpy snow seasons started.

Kevin Cooper, senior communications manager for Heavenly and Kirkwood, explained that snow fell in perfect increments, arriving at a rate of 4 to 9 inches at a time. No storm dropped several feet at once, shutting everything down.

“At Tahoe, we had the best snow in the country this season,” he added. “On Christmas Day, we had 24 inches of powder. A lot of people did not get up to the mountains in the last two or three years, so many people were quite excited to get out and ski or snowboard again.”

Sugar Bowl Resort presented a scenic winterscape in mid-January. (Photo courtesy Sugar Bowl Resort)

Sugar Bowl Resort offered a scenic winterscape in mid-January. (Photo courtesy Sugar Bowl Resort)

Kevin Mitchell, general manager at Homewood, said that “the snow continued to pile up all season long and gave us the ability to launch new initiatives including our snow-cat skiing operation and on-mountain drone photography program.”

Peter Avedschmidt, the marketing and sales manager at Sugar Bowl, said that the resort, which is high atop the Donner Pass, “had more powder days than we have had in years. We had high skier counts and this was our best season in the last five years or so.”

The resort caught some of the state’s best snow this winter. As of April 1, some 547 inches had fallen, exceeding the annual average of 500 inches.

Paul Raymore, marketing manager at Diamond Peak, said there is “actually a chance that we’ll break our all-time record of 163,000 skier visits by the time the resort closes.”

Marc Gendron, a spokesman for Bear Valley, noted that “it is the timing of snowfall that is most important, and this season could not have been better. We hit every holiday and most weekends perfectly.”

It was difficult to determine if this winter’s profitable season will result in capital improvements this summer. Most resorts reported that any plans about more lifts or runs had not been finalized.

One spokesperson noted that a big source of spending at many resorts is making snow, but thanks to the generosity of Mother Nature, snow-making equipment was silent much of the season, which added to the bottom line at many resorts.

Snow alert! Mammoth Mountain is pounded with nearly 5 feet of powder

Must be time to reflect on a tremendous run down the slopes with all that fresh powder. (Photo by Peter Morning/Mammoth Mountain Ski Area)

Must be time to reflect on a tremendous run down the slopes with all that fresh snow. (Photo by Peter Morning/Mammoth Mountain Ski Area)

Spring skiing in March? Not at Mammoth Mountain, where winter is in full force after a weekend storm dropped 56 inches of snow – and there’s more on the way.

Forecasters at Weather.com are predicting several more inches of the white stuff today and tonight, with a chance for even more snow starting this Sunday.

Mother Nature has been nice this winter to Mammoth, where the latest snow brings the season total to 307 inches. The base depth at Main Lodge is 110 inches and a whopping 165 inches at the summit.

Photographer Peter Morning spent yesterday in the midst of the snowfall and came back with several great shots. Enjoy!

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Lots more where those came from at www.mammothmountain.com

#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