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.


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 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.”

California Ski Industry Association reports successful season

By Bob Goligoski

Skier and snowboarder visits to Sierra winter resorts were up “substantially” during the 2012-2013 season, according to the California Ski Industry Association. The association, which represents about 30 resorts, said early and timely snow storms insured that the season would be a success.

Bob Roberts, association CEO and president, said in an interview that “we got off to a tremendous start with good snow for the Christmas season.” Then the other two big money-makers for the resorts – President’s weekend and Martin Luther King’s birthday weekend – also still had abundant snow that drew thousands of skiers and riders to the mountains.

Most of the resorts had profitable seasons, noted Roberts, and “this should result in a few more lifts and runs being developed this summer. But these likely will occur only at the major resorts.”

It was a strange season because after the splendid start, the snow gods virtually turned off the tap for the rest of the season starting in mid-January. The snowfall totals at Squaw Valley mirrored those of most resorts. Only 326 inches of snow fell at Squaw during the season compared with 355 the year before and 810 inches in 2010-11.

“Most of the resorts took a financial bath during the 2011-2012 season,” said Roberts.

During that season, skier and snowboarder visits were down about 25 per cent from the previous year as only six million visits were recorded. The exact numbers for the season just concluded have not been tabulated, but Roberts is confident they will be up “substantially” from the previous season.

One bright spot for resort owners was an increased number of Asian and Latino skiers and riders. But this was partially offset by the continuing downward trend among snowboarders as growth in that segment of the market has flattened out in recent seasons.

Vail Resorts Inc., which operates seven California and Colorado resorts including Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood, reported good growth during the past season including a 5.5 percent increase in skier-snowboarder visits and an 11 percent hike in ski school revenue.

Ski/snowboard season for Vail Resorts? In a word, ‘heavenly’

A snowboarder takes full advantage of the snow, slopes and scenery at Heavenly Mountain Resort on Christmas Eve. (Heavenly Mountain Resort photo)

Associated Press

Skier visits this season at Vail Resorts Inc.’s seven resorts in California and Colorado and have risen 5.5 percent from last season, with growth picking up through spring break and the Easter holiday, CEO Rob Katz said Monday.

Meanwhile, season-to-date lift ticket revenue, including

some season pass revenue, was up about 10 percent from the comparable period a year ago. Dining revenue was up about 13 percent, ski school revenue was up more than 11 percent, and retail and rental revenue was up almost 9 percent, the company said.

Exact revenues and skier visit numbers weren’t released. The results were for the season through April 14 and didn’t take into account the reopening of Vail and Breckenridge resorts last Friday through Sunday for one more weekend of skiing and riding after both resorts got hammered with new snow.

The results don’t include recently acquired Afton Alps in Minnesota and Mount Brighton in Michigan. Results were adjusted as if Vail Resorts had owned the newly acquired Kirkwood resort last winter too.

Katz said season pass sales for next season are off to a strong start. He didn’t release details.

Vail operates the Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge and Keystone ski areas in Colorado; Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood in the Lake Tahoe area; Afton Alps in Minnesota; Mount Brighton in Michigan; and the Grand Teton Lodge Co. in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

Heavenly opening new halfpipe on Saturday

At noon on Saturday, Heavenly Mountain Resort will celebrate the return of the halfpipe after a five-year hiatus.

The halfpipe can be accessed via Canyon Express Chairlift on the California side of the mountain inside High Roller Terrain Park, which also will be opening for the first time this season on Saturday. It will be the only halfpipe on Lake Tahoe’s South Shore.

“With Lake Tahoe as a backdrop, this halfpipe will feature, hands-down, the best views from any halfpipe in the U.S.,” said Pete Sonntag, Heavenly’s general manager.

Heavenly High Roller Team member Kyle Smaine will kick it all off with a short exhibition and ribbon cutting at noon, and then guests will get the opportunity to show their stuff.

Heavenly has teamed with Snow Park Technologies to create the 18-foot-tall and 450-foot-long halfpipe designed to accommodate a variety of ability levels and encourage a learning environment. The 16.5-degree angle of the slope provides an ideal amount of boost out of the pipe for all types of skiers and riders. The halfpipe’s location and north-facing orientation creates a uniform consistency between both sides of the pipe, meaning one side won’t melt faster than the other.

“This is easily the best pipe we’ve ever had here, and we built it in record time – just nine days,” said Heavenly Terrain Park manager Mike Thomas.

Of Heavenly’s three High Roller-branded terrain parks, High Roller Park is the premier park. It has been re-designed this season to include rails, boxes, jumps, and other fun jib features, both above and below the location of the halfpipe. This layout creates the ultimate mix of park and pipe, all in one run.

The new halfpipe opens at Heavenly Ski Resort on Saturday. (Heavenly Resort photo)

For more information on Heavenly’s High Roller Terrain Parks, or the halfpipe, visit