Despite the difficult economy, reports released this summer revealed that last year's ski season was actually the second busiest on record. The National Ski Area Association calculated a 4.2 percent increase in visitors nationwide, and the turnout at Lake Tahoe area resorts was even better. Ski Lake Tahoe, an organization representing seven destinations, reported a 17 percent increase.
This year, La Niña, El Niño's colder counterpart, is expected to bring cold, wet weather to the Pacific Northwest, but its effect on Northern California is less certain.
According to Dr. William Patzert, a scientist at the California Institute of Technology's NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, La Niña tends to push the jet stream north over the Pacific's cool coastal waters. For the Lake Tahoe area, that means "there's a good chance with the jet stream so strong that they'll get some real snow," he said.
As winter weather beckons, several resorts are introducing new technological tools for visitors. Want to find your friends on another trail or keep track of your runs? There's an app for that, and at Heavenly it's called EpicMix. "We think [visitors are] going to be blown away by it," said Russ Pecoraro, director of communications. By Christmas, scanners at ski lifts will track a special chip in riders' lift tickets and compile data accessible by smart phone or computer. It will help skiers locate their friends on the slopes and include messaging and Facebook integration. Further north, Mt. Rose released an iPhone app featuring a trail map, snow report, and lift status reports. "We noticed that a lot of people were going to our web site from their iPhone," said Kayla Anderson, PR and web manager for Mt. Rose. "We wanted to kind of get in the game and develop an app that people could easily use." The resort also recently installed three 33-foot wind spires. They're expected to generate enough electricity to power the lights in the lodge.
Mammoth Mountain also is developing an iPhone app with similar functionality. Dubbed Mammoth2Go, it will record routes, include maps and web cams, integrate with Facebook and Twitter, and play music. The resort is located east of Yosemite, and Bay Area travelers can fly nonstop from San Francisco beginning December 16.
Food trucks are another familiar feature of the urban environment to find a place in the snow. Mammoth will introduce two "snowcat food trucks" that will set up shop on the mountain and serve burritos, tamales, and calzones.
Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area is putting the finishing touches on its own mobile dining trailer. "It's a small commercial kitchen that we pull by snowmobile," said Manager Kevin Murnane. It will let visitors ski out to a destination and order a hot meal. Tahoe Cross Country has all new rental equipment for skiing and snowshoeing, a new ski skills clinic, and extended hours for visitors with dogs. Murnane is looking forward to the winter. "We've got a record number of season-pass holders."
For a cold brew with a great view, visit Northstar-at-Tahoe's new Snow Bar. Situated at the mountain summit and built out of snow, its bartenders will be serving (what else but) Sierra Nevada. It's slated to open in mid-December.
Vail Resorts acquired Northstar-At-Tahoe in late October. For visitors, that means a single season pass gives you access to Northstar, Heavenly, and Sierra-at-Tahoe.
Northstar now has classes for kids as young as four, and the new Burton Snowboard Academy gives seven- to twelve-year-old kids personalized attention in an all-day lesson. The resort already offers similar classes for adults and teenagers. "It's a really successful way for people to learn the sport," said Communications Manager Jessica VanPernis. "It gets people on their edges a lot faster."
Sierra just added eleven acres to its beginner-only terrain, Easy Street, and is building Blizzard Mountain, an area for families with young children. There will be a tubing lane and plenty of space to make snow angels and build snowmen. "We'll have some fire pits where you can roast marshmallows and make s'mores," said Kirsten Cattell, Sierra's communication manager. "We put the focus on that family on-mountain experience."
Squaw Valley has plans to create a new terrain park for three- to thirteen-year-olds. Press materials say it will feature a "snow fort, kid-friendly jumps, bumps and whoopty-doos." Squaw added three efficient new snow grooming machines to its fleet as well as more lighting at the Riviera terrain park and halfpipe, giving visitors more space for nighttime skiing and snowboarding.
Tahoe Donner's new developments are "investment[s] in making a really comfortable experience for people who are either newcomers or beginners," said Kirt Zimmer, director of marketing. There's a new conveyor lift and a new terrain park with gentle features, "something that's just a little bit off the snow." The ski school also has a new snowmobile and a pull-able sled.
Alpine Meadows is the first ski resort in the country to use Magnestick, a technology that keeps kids wearing a magnetic vest seated securely in a chair lift. "Magnestick offers an additional element of safety to two of Alpine's most popular chair lifts for kids," said Kent Hoopingarner, Alpine Meadows' general manager. Magnestick is based in France, and seven French ski resorts have implemented the system. Other new developments include a carpet lift and three 300-foot lanes for snow tubing.
Take a break from the snow and glide through the air on Kirkwood's new zipline canopy tour. It glides over the trails, lasts two-and-a-half hours, and operates year round. There are no blackout dates on Kirkwood season passes, and the same is true at the Donner Ski Ranch.
In early 2011, Kirkwood will host the Silver Belt Banzai Series, three races to be held at Alpine Meadows, Kirkwood, and finally at Sugar Bowl. It was originally a one-off competition at Sugar Bowl, but this year former Olympic skier and two-time Silver Belt champion Daron Rahlves turned it into a series. The event is a ski-cross-style race, with skiers and snowboarders clearing gates as they hurtle down the mountain.
At Sugar Bowl, every lift ticket for visitors age 13 to 69 years old comes with free rental equipment and a free lesson at any level. Visitors also can leave the resort behind and go on an overnight trip led by guides from the Backcountry Adventure Center.
Elsewhere in the Lake Tahoe area, visitors can strap on a pair of snowshoes and take a 3.5-mile hike to Point Mariah and back with Royal Gorge. They'll spend the day learning about the area's geology and history with abundant opportunities to appreciate the winter beauty.
This season, Bear Valley will open 400 acres of new terrain, and they want visitors to name it. "We've already received almost 700 entries in about three weeks," said Rosie Sundell, Bear Valley's senior director of marketing. The contest ends on December 18, and the winner will receive a season pass.
Resort operators are optimistic about the coming season, but Patzert said precipitation is difficult to predict. When it comes to La Niña, temperature is a safer bet. "If you can't have snow, it's good if it's cold," he said, citing the power of snow machines at area resorts. "Cooler than normal is just as good as snow for Lake Tahoe."
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