Snow makers rescue big Sierra resorts as drought bakes smaller ones

Daniel Crandall monitors a fan gun snowmaking machine on the upper slopes at Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. on Friday, Jan. 10, 2014. The lack of rainfall this winter has left the tourism trade in the Lake Tahoe area in shambles as ski resorts struggle to survive without snow. (Daniel Crandall monitors a fan gun snowmaking machine on the upper slopes at Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. on Friday, Jan. 10, 2014. The lack of rainfall this winter has left the tourism trade in the Lake Tahoe area in shambles as ski resorts struggle to survive without snow. (Gary Reyes/San Jose Mercury News)

Daniel Crandall monitors a fan gun snowmaking machine on the upper slopes at Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe, Calif. on Friday, Jan. 10. The lack of rainfall this winter has left the tourism trade in the Lake Tahoe area in shambles as ski resorts struggle to survive without snow. (Gary Reyes/San Jose Mercury News)

By Lisa M. Krieger
San Jose Mercury News

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — These are the unlikely saviors in the lofty peaks of the serene Sierra: high-tech snow machines, roaring like jets and spewing million-dollar crystals.

“If it wasn’t for snow making, we probably wouldn’t be open,” said Barrett Burghard, head snow maker at Heavenly Ski Resort, who is propping up the beleaguered mountain economy with his vast computer-driven complex of snow guns, pumps, compressors, pipes, hydrants, nozzles and miles of hoses.

Mother Nature, always fickle, has been especially cruel this drought year to the resorts and mountain communities that depend on snow for their economic survival. Instead of fluffy powder, there’s just granite, mud and manzanita.

So Burghard and other snow makers are fabricating winter where it isn’t.

As the eastern sky turns pink with dawn’s rising sun, his 165-gun system performs alchemy, mixing massive drafts of water, air and electricity to prepare 14 miles of bare ski runs for thousands of visitors. Every night, snowcat crews push piles of the precious product back up the slopes.

Innovations in technology — such as the $40,000 Super PoleCat, with a built-in automated weather station that alters man-made snow characteristics — make it possible to produce an acre of thigh-deep snow in an hour.

That’s enough to blanket a football field with snow 8 feet deep during a three-hour game.

In this dry and balmy winter, the small, historic and family-owned resorts without extensive snow making — such as Donner Ski Ranch or Dodge Ridge — haven’t opened, costing jobs and starving local businesses. The National Winter Trail Days event at Tahoe Donner Cross Country Ski and Snowshoe Center was canceled.

But big corporations running Heavenly, Northstar, Kirkwood, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows and Mammoth Mountain have made major investments in snow-making tools. Squaw Valley alone has spent $5.2 million since 2012. This month virtually all of the snow at the resorts came out of machines.

The goal is to survive not just dry years, but what could be a parched future.

“The larger resorts have the capital resources to do extensive snow making,” said Bob Roberts of the California Ski Industry Association.

At South Lake Tahoe’s Powder House, where equipment rentals have fallen from 120 to 60 a day due to lack of natural snow, technician Michael Breshears said “they have technology on their side, and Heavenly has by far the best snow making around.”

“It is the saving grace,” said skier Colleen Tanaka. Tracking California’s weather from her home in Hawaii, she says “we were a little bit bummed. It is a little disappointing. But thank goodness that Heavenly makes their own snow so we can still have a nice white winter.”

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When teaching kids to ski, it’s all about keeping it fun

A ski instructor coaches young Alex Faerber in a class for children at Mammoth Mountain. (AP photo by Fritz Faerber)

A ski instructor coaches young Alex Faerber in a class for children at Mammoth Mountain. (AP photo by Fritz Faerber)

By Fritz Faerber
Associated Press

A hard wind pelted exposed areas of our faces with tiny pellets of sleet and drove the 16-degree air through any chink in the ski gear covering my 4-year-old son Alex and me. He’d just fallen getting off a ski lift at Utah’s Brighton Ski Resort and I could see the tears welling up through the goggles.

Swift, decisive action was essential.

Minutes later, we were sharing a large hot chocolate, a plate of cheese fries and planning our afternoon away from the mountain. A full belly, time at the hotel pool and a nap rescued my future of skiing with my son from a miserable morning on the mountain.

“Let’s go to Snowbird,” he replied, referring to one of the ski resorts, when I asked if he wanted to ski or go into the city on the third day of our weeklong trip. Music to my ears.

I was determined to share my love of skiing with my son, but wondered if I was pushing it when I put him on the slopes at age 3. And since we live far from snowy mountains, I worried we wouldn’t get out often enough for it to take. But at 4, he showed mastery of the basics, and at 5, he can’t wait to go back.

For other parents out there wondering how to ignite a love of skiing in little ones, here are some tips on what worked for us.

First off, as most parents know, the kid is in charge. If he or she doesn’t want to learn, there is no amount of coaxing, bribing, pushing or fooling them into doing it.

With Alex, I made sure to promote a love of snow. The sporadic snowfalls in St. Louis, where we live, always result in snowmen, snow-gorillas and other unrecognizable sculptures in our front yard. In fact, we’ve even resorted to stealing the snow from all our neighbors’ yards, when the snowfall is too scanty for our own allotment to build anything of substance.

Much like Dad, Alex loves gear. Playing with this helped build excitement for skiing. At age 3 he started wearing ski goggles and helmet while riding in his car seat during winter time. Used skis and ski boots off eBay came cheap and meant he could get used to stomping around in the boots before we even left St. Louis.
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Mammoth midweek pass good for 20 weekdays for $299

The Mammoth midweek pass is back. At $299, it’s just a bit more than a standard three-day pass and is valid for 20 weekdays in January and early February. Here’s the deal:

  • Valid from Jan. 13 to Feb. 7, Monday through Friday
  • Blackout dates: Jan. 18-19, Jan. 25-26 and Feb. 1-2
  • Valid at Both Mammoth and June Mountain
  • The midweek pass also offers a 25 percent discount to Mammoth’s multiple lodging properties, including Mammoth Mountain Inn, Juniper Springs, Tamarack  and the Village Lodge
  • Available for purchase here, or by calling 800-626-6684

Mammoth Mountain: The resort that Dave built celebrates a milestone

While no longer under the leadership of its founder,
the Eastern Sierra getaway is still going strong at 60

Mammoth Mountain’s original warming hut, which opened in 1953, was nicknamed “The Pit.” In part of the design, Dave McCoy incorporated a downward-pointing arrow, using black rocks from Westgard Pass, to show skiers that this was the place to be, according to the book “Tracks of Passion” by Robin Morning. (Photo courtesy Mammoth Mountain Ski Area)

Then: Mammoth Mountain’s original warming hut, which opened in 1953, was nicknamed “The Pit.” In part of the design, Dave McCoy incorporated a downward-pointing arrow, using black rocks from Westgard Pass, to show skiers that this was the place to be, according to the book “Tracks of Passion” by Robin Morning. (Photos courtesy Mammoth Mountain Ski Area)

By Jerry Rice

Mammoth Mountain.

The name says everything a skier or snowboarder needs to know about a resort with some of the country’s most desirable terrain, spread across 3,500 acres and reaching an elevation of 11,053 feet.

But for many veterans of this place, it’s more affectionately known as “Dave’s Mountain.” That’s in deference to Dave McCoy, the legendary founder of the ski area that this winter is celebrating its 60th anniversary.

Dave McCoy, founder of the Mammoth Mountain ski resort, on the slopes likely in the 1980s.

Dave McCoy, founder of the Mammoth Mountain ski resort, on the slopes likely in the 1980s.

McCoy, who was born in 1915 in El Segundo, has been in the area since 1935 when the freshly minted high school grad landed in the nearby hamlet of Independence. He started earning money as a soda jerk — the same job he was working when he met his future wife, Roma Carriere — and saved up to buy his first Harley-Davidson.

In 1937, McCoy wanted to set up a rope tow on McGee Mountain, just off Highway 395 south of Mammoth. He used his motorcycle as collateral for an $85 loan to get parts for the device, which was powered by the motor from a Ford Model A truck. Eager skiers paid 50 cents to be pulled up the hill, and a business was born.

Soon, McCoy found work as a hydrographer for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, sometimes in the winter skiing 50 miles a day to measure snow depths so officials could predict how much water would be available in the spring and summer.

“I enjoyed being outdoors all the time,” said the 98-year-old in a recent phone interview. “You enjoy life a lot more if you’re doing what you want to do.”

When the Forest Service sought bids to build a full-fledged resort in the area, McCoy used his knowledge of snowfall and snowpack trends and picked what he thought would be a prime location. In 1953, he was awarded a permanent permit to operate Mammoth Mountain. He built a warming hut that summer, and by November, shortly after the birth of their sixth child, McCoy told Roma he was quitting his job to put all of his energies into building the ski area.

Much of McCoy’s story — which is intertwined with that of the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area and the town of Mammoth Lakes — is documented in “Tracks of Passion,” written by local historian Robin Morning. In snippets of text and lots of vintage photos and illustrations, it captures the challenges McCoy et al. needed to overcome to turn a stunning mountain in a remote area into what has become a world-class destination.

More recently, that transformation included the 2003 opening of a four-story, pedestrian-oriented shopping and condominium complex, the Village at Mammoth, and then McCoy’s decision in 2005 to sell his controlling interest in the company to Starwood Capital Group for $365 million — one of the highest prices ever paid for a ski resort at that time.

Mammoth Mountain’s Main Lodge today offers all of the amenities that skiers and snowboarders have come to expect – apparel and gift shops, equipment rentals and demos, restaurants and other diversions. (Photo by Peter Morning)

Now: Mammoth Mountain’s Main Lodge today offers all of the amenities that skiers and snowboarders have come to expect – apparel and gift shops, equipment rentals and demos, restaurants and other diversions. (Photo by Peter Morning)

What makes Mammoth such a special place? Ask McCoy, and his answer is simple and direct: “The snow and the mountain.”

For many, if not most, of the 1.3 million skiers and snowboarders who frequent the resort every winter, that truly is the long and short of it.

Others may point to the fact that Mammoth Lakes is essentially a 4.5-square-mile island in the middle of hundreds of thousands of acres of undeveloped public lands. That’s a big part of the appeal for Jack Copeland, president of the Mammoth Lakes Chamber of Commerce.

“There’s no urban or suburban sprawl here,” he said. “We don’t have a cute little 19th century mining town because the ones we did have burned down in the 19th century. What we have now is close proximity to unspoiled wilderness and fabulous weather — great for summer and for winter.”

It likely will remain that way since much of the region is national forests, national parks and property overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. The DWP also is a huge player, after it bought up nearly all of the land in the Owens Basin and the accompanying water rights that stretch essentially to the foot of Mammoth Mountain.

So, in effect, one outcome of the California water wars of the early 1900s is that the region around Mammoth Lakes will never get built up like many other winter destination communities, such as the ones along Interstate 70 in Colorado or those in the vicinity of Park City, Utah.

That, Copeland adds, is a good thing.

“I know a lot of people who like Park City, but the main attraction at a lot of those other big resorts is not about skiing, it’s about retail, frankly,” he said. “We really specialize in outdoor wilderness and mountain experiences. That’s who Mammoth is for — people who want to be close to the mountains and either actively participate in recreational activities or want to relax and enjoy the view.”

It’s the same outdoors, and the same mountain, that Dave McCoy embraced all those years ago.

>>>>>

5 RESORTS: NEW ON THE SLOPES

Ski and snowboard resorts invested big during the off-season. Here are highlights from five California locations. For information about resorts throughout the state, visit www.dailynews.com/travel and www.insidesocal.com/snow.

Bear Mountain
43101 Goldmine Drive, Big Bear Lake
909-866-5766, www.bearmountain.com
• What’s new: For snowboarders, the Red Bull Plaza has been revamped and now includes a city-inspired parking structure, billboard wall ride, Dumpsters, close-out rails and a multi-use object called the City Center.
• Social connections: @Bear_Mountain, www.facebook.com/BearMtn

Mountain High
24510 Highway 2, Wrightwood
888-754-7878, www.mthigh.com
 What’s new: A Rossignol Experience Center, expanded Children’s Sports Center and new snow cats and terrain features are among the more than $1 million in improvements. The current snow-making system is 30 percent more efficient than it was a decade ago, allowing the resort to make more snow than ever using fewer resources.
• Social connections: @mthigh, www.facebook.com/mthigh

Snow Summit
880 Summit Blvd., Big Bear Lake
909-866-5766, www.snowsummit.com
• What’s new: Big Bear Mountain Resorts, which owns this property and Bear Mountain, has invested more than $12 million to improve snow-making capabilities at both resorts in the past few years.
• Social connections: @Snow_Summit, www.facebook.com/SnowSmt

June Mountain
3819 Highway 158, June Lake
888-586-3686, www.junemountain.com
• What’s new: The resort returns after a one-winter hiatus with on-mountain experiences suited for all levels, especially families and entry-level skiers and snowboarders. The Mammoth Mountain MVP season pass also includes free access to the slopes at June.
• Social connections: @JuneMountain, www.facebook.com/JuneMountain

Mammoth Mountain
10001 Minaret Road, Mammoth Lakes
800-626-6684, www.mammothmountain.com
• What’s new: The 60th anniversary season brings with it many improvements, including a $700,000 renovation of the Mammoth Mountain Inn and the debut of the Underground Lounge nightclub with space for live music. Kids are sure to enjoy the upgrades to the Unbound Playgrounds and Adventure Zones, part of which will have a Sesame Street West theme. Top skiers and snowboarders will come to town for pre-Olympic training at Mammoth before heading off to Sochi for the Winter Games. The Sprint U.S. Snowboarding Grand Prix, Jan 18-19, will conclude with the announcement of the 2014 Olympic Snowboarding Team for halfpipe and the new Olympic event of slopestyle.
• Social connections: @MammothMountain  www.facebook.com/MammothMountain,
www.youtube.com/user/MammothMTNOfficial

Snow season starts at Mammoth Mountain

First chair this morning at Mammoth Mountain. (Mammoth Mountain Ski Area photo)

First chair this morning at Mammoth Mountain. (Mammoth Mountain Ski Area photo)

The ski and snowboard season at Mammoth Mountain is under way.

The resort has a base of 12 to 18 inches, and three lifts were operating, servicing six runs and 1,500 vertical feet of terrain including several park jumps and features. Conditions are expected to improve dramatically with nighttime lows dropping into the 20s – prime temps for snowmaking – and an approaching storm that may bring natural snow early next week.

Today was the opening act on a weekend that will include live musical performances, film premieres and a host of parties and competitions. More information about what’s going on this weekend is available here.

While we couldn’t make the trek up the 395 today, we’re enjoying the photos of skiers and boarders who did. >>>

(Mammoth Mountain Ski Area photo)

(Mammoth Mountain Ski Area photo)

(Mammoth Mountain Ski Area photo)

(Mammoth Mountain Ski Area photo)

At Mammoth Mountain, counting the hours to opening day

Who’s got first chair? In less than 24 hours, Mammoth Mountain will open for the 2013-14 ski and snowboard season.

There’s a solid base depth of 12-18 inches of natural and manmade snow and chairs 1, 6, and 11 are expected to run, according to a resort spokeswoman. The Unbound Terrain Parks crew is building a jump, a handful of jibs, and a small playground area in Main Park.

The weekend will be packed with live music by LA Riots and Shiny Toy Guns, movie premieres, parties and more.

Opening day festivities include the traditional Broadway Express banner breakthrough, a speech by Mammoth CEO Rusty Gregory, and the annual toast on the Main Lodge sundeck with a specialty 60th anniversary beer provided by the Mammoth Brewing Company.

The first 100 guests lined up at Chair 1 on Thursday morning will receive a free lift ticket. Skiers and boarders arriving later can take advantage of $60 lift tickets Thursday through Monday.

Information: www.mammothmountain.com

To get everyone pumped for powder, here’s a video from Mammoth Lakes that was posted a couple days ago. >>>

Ski/snowboard resorts are welcoming a pre-Halloween treat: fresh pow!

At Alpine Meadows, the white stuff was piling up this morning. (Alpine Meadows photo)

Alpine Meadows, on the North Shore of Lake Tahoe, was a winter wonderland this morning. (Alpine Meadows photo)

If it’s cold and raining down here, it must snowing up there. And it is.

In the Lake Tahoe area, Alpine Meadows received 10 inches of snow at the base and 14 inches on the upper mountain last night, while the Squaw Valley totals were 5 and 10 inches, respectively.

Snow also is piling up near Heavenly. (Heavenly Mountain Resort photo)

Snow also is piling up near Heavenly. (Heavenly Mountain Resort photo)

Heavenly was reporting 6-8 inches of natural snow overnight on the mountain, and also was taking advantage of a drop in temperatures to make even more snow – all in preparation for the resort’s planned Nov. 22 opening.

“There is something about this time of year leading up to the winter season,” said Pete Sonntag, Heavenly’s vice president and chief operating officer. “It holds so much promise, and you can feel the anticipation building. Starting up the snow guns signifies the end of one season and the beginning of another.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was forecasting that Lake Tahoe could receive an additional 3 to 6 inches of snow by Tuesday morning.

At Mammoth Mountain, there was 10 inches of new snow during the past 24 hours at the Main Lodge and 12 inches at the 11,053-foot summit. Opening day is Nov. 7.

In Southern California, Bear Mountain and Mountain High were both reporting falling temperatures – and snow – by mid-afternoon on Monday, but offered no additional details via the resorts’ Twitter feeds.

– Jerry Rice