Snow! Heavenly Mountain Resort gets a taste of what’s (hopefully) to come

Milky Way Bowl at Heavenly Mountain Resort received a dusting of snow on Monday night. (Heavenly Mountain Resort photo)

Milky Way Bowl at Heavenly Mountain Resort received a light covering of snow on Monday night. (Heavenly Mountain Resort photos)

Granted, it’s not much, but considering that California is in the midst of a multi-year drought, any snow – even a little – is more than welcome. So after Heavenly Mountain Resort received a dusting of powder last night, we were excited to see the photos that were sent out today. The resort is scheduled to open for skiers and snowboarders on Nov. 21.

Mott Canyon, on the Nevada side of the mountain, after last night's light snowfall.

Mott Canyon, on the Nevada side of the mountain, after last night’s snowfall.

Dropping in for a Sochi to California comparison on vertical descents

Sochi Downhill

We’ve been watching a lot of NBC’s Winter Olympics coverage – speed skating, slopestyle skiing, halfpipe, hockey – and have been wrapped up in much of it.

A few minutes ago, @NBCOlympics posted on Twitter the image above with course info on the downhill portion of the men’s super combined. The vertical drop of 3,205 feet caught our attention, and we thought it would be worth checking http://mountainvertical.com to see how the mountains near Sochi compare with the ski resorts in California. Here’s what we found:

Mammoth: 2,885
Heavenly: 2,735
Squaw Valley: 2,389
June Mountain: 2,420
Northstar-at-Tahoe: 2,276
Diamond Peak: 1,741
Bear Mountain: 1,665
Mt. Rose: 1,635
Homewood: 1,625
Kirkwood: 1,622
Sierra-at-Tahoe: 1,590
Mountain High: 1,588
Alpine Meadows: 1,555

The best U.S. match to the 3,205 vertical descent of the mountain where the Olympics competition is happening now is the Lake Placid/Whiteface Mountain Ski Resort – the area where the 1932 Winter Olympics took place.

– Jerry Rice

‘Amazing’ ski, snowboard conditions at Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood

Northstar has some of its best conditions of the winter for skiing and snowboarding. Spectacular views of Lake Tahoe are available year-round. (Northstar photo)

Northstar has some of its best conditions of the winter for skiing and snowboarding. Spectacular views of Lake Tahoe are available year-round. (Northstar photo)

Heavenly Mountain Resort, Northstar California and Kirkwood Mountain Resort have received 5 to 8 feet of snow during the most recent winter storm at Lake Tahoe – which adds to a two-week accumulation total of more than 10 feet.

“With such powerful recent storms, the ski conditions at Kirkwood, Heavenly, and Northstar are amazing, and guests on both sides of Lake Tahoe are so excited for more terrain,” said Bill Rock, senior vice president and chief operating officer. “We’ve worked around the clock to offer a bounty of new terrain, and each resort plans to open some their most legendary terrain and trails for the approaching holiday weekend.”

The three resorts have a combined 173 trails via 39 lifts available for skiing and snowboarding. Newly opened signature runs – such as Wagon Wheel Bowl and Palisades at Kirkwood; Milky Way Bowl, Pinnacles and Ski Ways at Heavenly; and Challenger, Rail Splitter and Sierra Grande at Northstar – are among many trails now available to guests.

Additionally, all three resorts forecast opening some of their mountains’ most famous, iconic terrain prior to the weekend:

  • Kirkwood anticipates opening 100% of the mountain – the first Tahoe resort to do so this winter.
  • Heavenly aims to open some of its most popular terrain, including Mott Canyon and Galaxy.
  • Northstar expects to offer 100 percent of its Backside trails.

Combined, the resorts will offer more than 8,500 acres of skiable terrain starting this weekend.

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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Big-air snowboarding, high-stakes poker combine in Heavenly competition

The cards were dealt, the bets were placed and the top three snowboarders took home the jackpot. Chas Guldemond, Gjermund Braaten and Eric Willett, the three podium winners from the inaugural Heavenly High Roller Hold ‘Em, return to the competition on Saturday, April 5, 2014, to defend their titles.

In partnership with Snow Park Technologies, High Roller Hold ‘Em combines the thrill of big air snowboarding with the strategy of high-stakes poker.

This time, the stakes are even higher, with the overall winner receiving a 2015 X Games Big Air event exemption, meaning that the top finisher at High Roller Hold ‘Em will gain automatic entrance into the X Games and will not be subject to meeting the qualification-criteria that the remainder of the field will be assessed under.

“The eagerness of these top athletes to re-join the competitive lineup for High Roller Hold ‘Em is a testament to the unique format of the event,” said Pete Sonntag, vice president and chief operating officer of Heavenly. “The combo of tricks these snowboarders throw down is in the cards. There is no scripted routine, and they have no idea what combo they will be given. They can be dealt a trick they haven’t even practiced or pulled off in years, and that’s what makes High Roller Hold ‘Em one of the edgiest, most entertaining events. It’s anyone’s jackpot to win.”

Returning High Roller Hold ‘Em champ, Guldemond, 26, is a Tahoe local looking to defend his title. He placed third in Slopestyle at the 2013 Burton US Open, fourth in Slopestyle at the 2013 X Games Tignes, first at the 2013 Copper Grand Prix in Slopestyle, and second in Slopestyle at the 2012 Dew Tour.

“I am so stoked to bet on my skills again this year at the High Roller Hold Em,” said Guldemond. “Cards, sunsets and hometown fans – it does not get any better.”

Second place finisher at High Roller Hold ‘Em, Braaten, 23, won the first Slopestyle event of the 2012 Winter Dew Tour in Breckenridge, placed sixth in Slopestyle at the 2013 X Games Tignes and was eighth in Slopestyle at the 2013 X Games Aspen. He also placed third at the Toyota Big Air 2013 and fourth in the Big Air Moscow.

Willett, 25, placed third at the inaugural High Roller Hold ‘Em and has a collection of four X Games Snowboard Slopestyle medals to his name. He took first at the 2013 Air & Style event in Innsbruck with a switch backside 1260 mute.

During the event, High Roller Hold ‘Em competitors will be dealt three cards per hand with each card featuring different tricks based on the face value of the card. From there, each rider will discard two cards, and bet accordingly on the final card in their hand. Once all bets are in, the riders who haven’t folded will head to the top of the big air jump, where the rider who lands the trick with the highest level of difficulty will win the round and qualify for the $50,000 super final.

High Roller Hold ‘Em, which will take place on the World Cup run near Heavenly’s California Main Lodge, is free of charge and open to the public. The event will feature a Red Bull guest DJ, the Heavenly Angels, an exhibition with local athletes, and pyrotechnics.

The event will be available live on ESPN3 on April 5, and will be aired as a one hour show on ABC’s “World of X Games” the following week.

Here’s a video from High Roller Hold ‘Em in April. >>>

Heavenly, Northstar get the winter excitement rolling

Heavenly Mountain Resort and Northstar California, both in the Lake Tahoe area, opened Saturday with limited operations. Heavenly had been scheduled to start its winter season on Friday, but high winds prompted the resort to postpone the debut.

Kirkwood Mountain Resort is scheduled to open this morning at 9, and Mount Rose-Ski Tahoe and Squaw Valley are expecting to follow suit on Wednesday – just in time for skiers and boarders to work off those extra Thanksgiving dinner calories.

Boreal and Mammoth Mountain opened in early November, giving California’s ski and snowboard season a pre-Veterans Day launch, and Mountain High joined them on Sunday.

Back at Heavenly, here’s what it looked like on opening day. >>>

Lake Tahoe’s Heavenly Resort opens Friday at 9 a.m.

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Skiers and riders can make some turns at Lake Tahoe this weekend as Heavenly Mountain Resort officially opens for the 2013-2014 season on Friday at 9 a.m. Heavenly will operate the Gondola and Tamarack Express, accessing 14 acres and 1.5 miles of skiable terrain on California Trail to Tamarack Return. Heavenly will offer free shuttle buses for guests from the California Main Lodge parking area to the Gondola.

Heavenly kicks off opening day with the first Unbuckle at Tamarack après party of the season at 3:30 p.m. Unbuckle takes place on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 3:30-5:30 p.m. with a live DJ, half-priced drinks, giveaways, food specials, lots of dancing and the lovely Heavenly Angels. The party continues past opening day with Winter Ignite, featuring Unbuckle après parties, the Heavenly Angels and a special performance by DJ Porter Robinson at MontBleu on November 30.

“Thanks to early season snowfall and the West Coast’s largest snowmaking system, skiers and riders can rely on Heavenly to provide some of the best early season conditions in the region,” said Pete Sonntag, vice president and chief operating officer of Heavenly. “Our team will continue to take advantage of the cold temperatures in the forecast and make snow at every opportunity, so we can continue to open additional terrain as conditions permit.”

The shops and restaurants in the Village at Northstar will also open Friday, along with the 9,000-square-foot ice rink, which will be open from Noon to 9 p.m. daily.

Northstar California Resort and Kirkwood Mountain Resort are continuing to make snow when conditions permit in an effort to open the two resorts as soon as possible, weather permitting.

Heavenly making snow for opening day on Nov. 22

In anticipation of a Nov. 22 opening day, Heavenly Mountain Resort has fired up the West Coast’s largest snowmaking system and has begun making snow at the top of the Gondola and on California Trail.

“We’ve enjoyed a long fall season, but with the drop in temperature, it’s time to focus on preparing for winter and begin making snow, ensuring we have the quality early season conditions our guests have come to expect from us,” said Pete Sonntag, vice president and chief operating officer of Heavenly.

Heavenly’s extensive snowmaking system is capable, under optimum conditions, of producing three-and-a-half feet of snow across one acre in an hour and can cover 73 percent of the resort’s 97 trails in machine-made snow.

“The inconsistency of natural snowfall during the last two seasons has really proven how valuable snowmaking can be for the overall experience on the mountain, and at Heavenly, our focus really is on providing reliable snow conditions that our skiers and riders can have confidence in. You don’t need to bring out your old, rock skis or boards at Heavenly during the early season,” said Sonntag.

Heavenly kicks off the party on Nov. 22, with opening day and the first Unbuckle at Tamarack après party of the season. Unbuckle takes place daily from 3:30-5:30 p.m. with a live DJ, half-priced drinks, giveaways, food specials, lots of dancing and, exclusively on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, the lovely Heavenly Angels.

The party continues past opening day with Winter Ignite, featuring Unbuckle après parties, the Heavenly Angels and a special performance by DJ Porter Robinson at Mont Bleu on Nov. 30.

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

Epic adventure has a big payoff: free skiing, snowboarding for life

Vail Resorts’ Epic Pass now includes 26 mountains in four countries, and the company is calling all globetrotting, Epic Pass-holding, die-hard skiers and snowboarders for The Epic Race – a season-long competition to visit each resort this winter. The first 10 people to complete the race will receive an Epic Pass for life.

“When we launched the Epic Pass with five resorts in 2008, I said our guests wouldn’t be able to out-ski or ride this pass,” said Rob Katz chairman and chief executive officer of Vail Resorts. “Five years later, after adding three more countries and 21 additional resorts, we’re throwing down the gauntlet. If you can be one of the first to ski the world, you’ll ski for life.”

Starting Nov. 1, guests can register to ski the world by visiting www.snow.com/epic-pass/info/epic-race.aspx. Each racer will need to ski or ride all 26 resorts on the Epic Pass (Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone, Arapahoe Basin and Eldora in Colorado; Canyons in Park City, Utah; Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood at Lake Tahoe; Afton Alps, Minnesota; Mt. Brighton, Michigan; Verbier, Switzerland; Arlberg, Austria – St. Anton, Lech, Zürs, St. Christoph and Stuben; and Les 3 Vallées, France – Courchevel, La Tania, Méribel, Brides-les-Bains, Les Menuires, Saint Martin de Belleville, Val Thorens and Orelle). Epic Racers will be asked to document and share their experience at each resort they visit to be eligible to win.

“If there was any doubt that the Epic Pass is by far and away the snowsports industry’s best and most comprehensive pass, the experiences these contestants share should put the question to rest,” Katz said. “What other pass allows you to enjoy the steep and deep of the Sierra Nevada, the amazing powder of the Wasatch, the majesty of the Rockies, the urban hills in Michigan and Minnesota, the interconnectivity of the French Alps and the world’s largest linked ski area, the unmatched off-piste skiing and riding of the Swiss Alps, and the birthplace of modern Alpine skiing technique in the Tyrolean Alps?”

Epic Racers will be responsible for their own expenses in undertaking the Epic Race and no racer will be permitted to ski or ride more than one resort per day in the U.S. and two resorts per day in Europe to ensure they capture and enjoy the full experience of each mountain. Race winners receiving an Epic Pass for life will be able to ski or ride only the resorts operated by Vail Resorts in any given year. All rules and guidelines will be posted here on Nov. 1 and included in the registration materials provided to guests.

“The Epic Pass is more attractive than ever, not just because of the access it provides to 26 mountains in four countries, but also because of the unprecedented on-mountain improvements of $130 (million) to $140 million across our resorts for the upcoming season,” said Kirsten Lynch, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Vail Resorts. “Not since the opening of Blue Sky Basin at Vail have we seen such a significant terrain expansion at a Colorado ski resort as with the addition of Peak 6 at Breckenridge. We’re also adding a new high-speed six-person lift in Mid-Vail to get guests into the Back Bowls faster and opening a new on-mountain restaurant at the base of Beaver Creek’s famed Birds of Prey race course. And then there’s the fourth generation of EpicMix – Epic Academy – which offers a unique way to earn and share your accomplishments in our world-class ski and ride schools.”