Snowblowers and El Niño 

Tahoe resorts aren't going to let the weather get them down this year.

With the largest concentration of ski resorts in North America, the Lake Tahoe region doesn't just hope for a lot of snow — it banks on it. The greater Tahoe economy is heavily dependent on the annual influx of skiers and snowboarders. With the recession still lingering, many ski resorts are offering reduced lift-ticket prices. Others hope to entice people with events inspired by the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Only one thing might stand in the way: the weather. Lower-than-average snowfall has reduced the quality of snow-dependent sports over the past three seasons. Although the Sierras have experienced dry seasons in years past, many snow sports enthusiasts have begun to blame global warming and wonder if they will ever see a decent "base" again. But El Niño may help the situation. And if Mother Nature can't get the job done, several resorts are increasing their own ability to produce snow.

The global weather phenomenon known as El Niño, which occurs every three to five years, is expected to provide Northern California with a favorable set of conditions this winter that will allow for a snow sports season in Tahoe. "It looks like we're going to have above-average precipitation," said meteorologist Alex Hoon at the National Weather Center office in Reno.

Above-average precipitation would be good news for the resorts in Tahoe because it would provide more incentive for budget-conscious skiers and snowboarders to get on the slopes. Meanwhile, several resorts are offering a little added incentive of their own. "If you want to learn how to ski, we don't want price to be the barrier," said Kirsten Kattell of Sierra at Tahoe. "The recession's ending, but people are still monitoring their discretionary income." This year, Sierra is offering a limited-access ticket, rental equipment, and group lesson package at just $35 for adults. On February 13, Sierra will hold the 2010 Winter Grom Games for patrons stricken with Olympic fever. A slalom course and superpipe will be open to all comers.

Kirkwood will hold a series of skiing and snowboarding competitions throughout the winter. A couple of big ones are the North Face Masters of Snowboarding competition, February 25 to 27, and the North American Freeskiing Championships, March 19 to 21.

The best bet for those imbued with the spirit of the Olympics is to go to Squaw Valley, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary and the 50th anniversary of the VIII Winter Olympics, which were held on its slopes in 1960. The season-long celebration will begin in grand fashion when pro skier and base-jumper J.T. Holms jumps off of a gondola. From January 8 to 17, skiers will get early access, before the mountain opens to the public, to simulate competing on the original 1960 Olympic courses. From March 26 to 29, members of the 2010 US ski and snowboarding teams will be on hand to revel in their successes and mingle away their disappointments. "We're inviting all of our Olympians past and present — athletes, free skiers, and snowboarders as well and other Squaw Valley legends," said Squaw Valley spokeswoman Savannah Cowley.

Sugar Bowl also will hold an ongoing celebration of its 70th year serving skiers. The resort has a new quad lift servicing the summit of Mount Judah. Just in case El Niño is a no-show, the resort has snowmaking capability on 25 percent of its runs.

Indeed, a few extra snowmakers might come in handy this year. The weather is inherently unpredictable and a big snow season is never a guarantee. El Niño years can vary. "Sometimes we get more precipitation or more rain and snow in Northern California than usual," Hoon said. "Sometimes we get below normal."

Like the global climate, the economic climate can be equally unpredictable. Which is why some resorts try to woo multi-day visitors in case they don't get enough of the single-day variety. "Last year, we were down on day ticket sales and up on season ticket sales," said Mt. Rose spokeswoman Kayla Anderson. "I think a lot of people were sticking close to home, but a lot of season pass holders were coming out more often." In response, Mt. Rose is offering deals to season pass holders through local businesses. But the resort also has extended $130 three-day passes to patrons regardless of where they live. Mt. Rose also will open up its new Slide Lodge, which has an expansive deck and a panoramic view of Mount Rose.

Northstar also has some new architecture on its slopes. "The big story for us this year is the Ritz Carlton is opening in mid-December," said Communications Manager Jessica Vanpernis. The five-star resort will be situated mid-mountain and connected via gondola to an assemblage of 35 shops and restaurants in the Northstar Village. Vanpernis is optimistic about this season. "If it snows, people still come out. It's part of the passion."

Still, some might be reluctant to make the trip. All the passion in the world can't fill up a gas tank. "I don't think anybody is recession proof; this recession is proving that," said Jay Abdo, sales manager at Diamond Peak. Adbo touts "Last Tracks" as a unique event with a huge "wow factor." It starts in February and is held every Saturday. Patrons who purchase a $29 afternoon lift ticket can also enjoy free food and a wine tasting at a mid-mountain lodge while a fresh corduroy trail is laid for their eventual descent down the mountain at dusk. Abdo adds that Diamond Peak has the highest percentage of acreage covered by snowmaking of any resort in Tahoe.

But Heavenly might have something to say about that. In October, Heavenly announced that it was firing up the West Coast's largest snowmaking system, which can cover up to 73 percent of its extensive network of trails. Heavenly also offers a non-holiday season pass for $369, and two-day passes ranging from $110 to $164 for adults. On the other end of the price spectrum is Donner Ski Ranch, which offers $20 day tickets on weekdays. "We are the most affordable place in the Sierras," said General Manager Lincoln Kauffman. This year Donner will have a carpet lift and tubing to make the mountain more accessible for beginners and kids.

Beginners, kids, and those on a budget also might find that cross-country skiing is more practical and affordable. Daily passes at Royal Gorge range from $25 to $29 for adults and free for children under ten years old. And Royal Gorge also just opened trails specifically for snowshoes. "The last couple of years we've had good skiing, just a later start," said Francis Weisel of Royal Gorge.

As for this season's start? "The jet stream is still north of our area, hanging around the Pacific Northwest," said Hoon of the weather service. The closer the jet stream gets to Northern California, the more cold weather storms will be headed toward the Sierras, he said. "It's going to be getting that snow machine going and hopefully opening up ski resorts pretty soon." Heavenly has invested in snowmaking this year.

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