For California’s mountain resorts, the holiday season was a hit

Coming off a successful year-end holiday season, the neighboring resorts of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows recently reported more than 130 inches of snowfall this season. (Photo courtesy Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows)

By Bob Goligoski

Skiers and snowboarders enjoyed spectacular conditions in the Sierras over the Christmas-New Year’s holiday period as the resorts had one of their best holiday spans over the last five years.

And when conditions are right, the resorts can get about one-fourth of their annual seasonal revenue over the holidays. This can translate down the road into to major improvements including new lifts and runs.

The 2017 holiday season “was challenging for some resorts,” says Michael Reitzell, president of the California Ski Industry Association. “But this season, we had some good snow storms right before Christmas and everyone walked away with a smile from the holidays — and that included guests and resort owners.”

Alex Spychalsky, spokeswoman for Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, said, “The weather was good and that kept the snow in good condition. There were only a few brief periods of strong winds.”

Skiers and riders were delighted to find key runs at both resorts — slopes usually not open until January for lack of snow — open at Christmas. Those runs included Granite Chief at Squaw and Sherwood and Lakeview at Alpine.

While spokesmen for the Sierra resorts we contacted could not be specific about how good business really was, they did acknowledge that there were no sell-out days.

In Southern California, Mountain High experienced a 48 percent increase in business over the 2017 holiday period, according to a report in The Snow Industry Letter. President/CEO Karl Kapuscinski noted that “the major trend was that all first-time beginner programs were selling out daily — over 70 percent of that group was non-Caucasian, with the majority being Asian.”

Up north in Oregon, Mt. Bachelor had its second busiest holiday period since 2003. Visits were up 28 percent over the same period the year before.

Mike Pierce, marketing director at Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe, said that the holiday season at the Nevada resort was one of the top five of the last five years. The only downer over the holidays was a burst of strong east winds that prevented the resort from shooting off its annual New Year’s fireworks celebration.

At Diamond Peak, “We got a foot of snow Christmas Eve and that brought the crowds out,” said Jaclyn Ream, marketing coordinator. “The crowds were large but we had all the runs open. The parking lot was full.”

Stephanie Myers, communications manager at Northstar, said, “We had a white Christmas and we were in full operation. December 26 was a ‘bluebird’ day. And the village was very festive with all the holiday activities.”

Tahoe Donner, at the top of Donner Pass, is quite exposed to the weather. But, according to marketing chief Derek Moore, there “were no noticeable impacts to either resort (alpine and nordic) as a result of road closures or high winds.”

The resort’s new Snowbird chairlift moved the skiers and riders along quickly, he added. And with all the fresh snow, Tahoe Donner was able to open about 50 kilometers of nordic terrain.

Mammoth Mountain opens 2019 with snow, snow and more snow

Mammoth Mountain received a nice amount of snow overnight both Saturday and Sunday. (Photo by Peter Morning/Mammoth Mountain Ski Area)

By Jerry Rice

Looking for fresh powder for skiing and snowboarding? Mammoth Mountain has it. Lots of it.

The resort received 4.5 feet of new snow at the summit and 3 feet at Main Lodge thanks to a productive storm that passed through the Sierra Nevadas over the weekend.

And that’s only part of the story. predicts Mammoth Mountain will receive snow or snow showers during six of the next 10 days — certainly adding to the resort’s 60- to 80-inch base.

“Crews are working diligently to safely open terrain, but it will take some time with that amount of snow,” says spokesman Tim Lyman. “Check the Mammoth Mountain website for real time terrain updates.”

It’s a winter wonderland of white on the streets in Mammoth. (Photo by Peter Morning/Mammoth Mountain Ski Area)

Roads are being cleared of snow. (Photo by Peter Morning/Mammoth Mountain Ski Area)

Workers are busy shoveling snow at the lodge near the Broadway Express chairlift. (Photo by Peter Morning/Mammoth Mountain Ski Area)

A Mammoth Mountain marker rises above the snow — but not by much. (Photo by Peter Morning/Mammoth Mountain Ski Area)

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.


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.


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

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.