Betting On Snow 

Tahoe's resorts are eager to put the disastrous winter of 2007 behind them.

In January — the middle of last year's ski season — University of Colorado scientist Mark Williams disseminated to the nation the findings of a $60,000 climatology study. For skiers and ski resort employees and owners, the results were particularly grim: "The mountains of the American West are the first to heat up," Williams said, while citing projected world temperature increases of 6 to 15 degrees. "You are the canary in the coal mine." The local take isn't much cheerier. In October 2006, George Raine wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle, "If nothing is done to curb emissions, greenhouse gas emissions could raise Sierra temperatures another 5 or 6 degrees by the end of the 21st century, according to some projections." That translates into a form of hell for the ski industry: short seasons, bad snow. "The snowpack could be reduced by 89 percent," he calculated.

There are nearly twenty ski resorts in the Lake Tahoe area — and you would think no one's told them the bad news. From Alpine Meadows to Sugar Bowl, Tahoe skiing is pulsing with optimism. While admitting that last year's drought and subsequent light snowfall "did take a toll on skier visits," Squaw Valley's Savannah Cowley trumpets the addition of "a new lift at Shirley Lake and a new trenched (in-ground) superpipe in the Riviera Terrain Park."

Pipes are the rage, in fact. Donner Ski Ranch general manager Lincoln Kauffman said that in addition to "engineering three lifts on the backside of the mountain and 100 percent all brand new equipment in the ski rental shop," there will be "four to five new features ... added along with the Coogan Park half-pipe on Chair Two." Tahoe Cross Country boasts a new "snowcat" — a trail groomer — to maintain what its director, Kevin Murnane, called "the best cross-country grooming in the Tahoe area." A bit further from Tahoe, Bear Valley Mountain Resort has added its first high-speed quad — called the Polar Express — and has plans for another. New runs, lifts, or terrain park facilities, in fact, are either in the works or installed at nearly all twenty greater Tahoe area ski getaways.

Unfolding with far less uniformity, however, is the industry's development of real estate in the area whether development of hotels, condos, or something else entirely (or nothing at all). Bear Valley's Layla McHale, for instance, sees things favoring accommodations for longer, more permanent stays: "I think real estate tied into ski resorts is definitely where the industry is trending," McHale said. "People want to get away, to stay and play for at least a night or two.  It's difficult to load up the 'ski gear' for a day trip — much more relaxing to take in the whole winter sports scene and combine ski trips with snowshoeing out to a restaurant or snowmobiling." Bear Valley is in the process of constructing 490 new condo units for its skiers.

A handful of resorts seem to be doing the same thing. Chief among these is the Kirkwood Mountain Resort, which marketing director Allon Cohne said was down 10 to 15 percent in visitors last season. In November of last year, Kirkwood announced its multi-year mountain development plan. It's part of Kirkwood's dual program of building more runs and terrain parks while also condo-izing the mountain for, it hopes, swelling crowds. Offering high-end, high-altitude housing like its Timber Ridge Town Homes, Kirkwood hopes to capitalize on just the sort of skiers McHale points to as the drift of the future — namely those who want to "stay and play" a while. While places like Squaw Valley have yet to enter the condo market — "we have developable land," says Cowley, but "we do not own any condos or lodging" — resorts like Diamond Peak (you may know it as Incline Village) aren't breaking ground on condos. Instead, says Diamond Peak's marketing coordinator Kayla Anderson, the company's teamed up with the nearby Hyatt and the Grand Sierra Resort in Nevada to offer more affordable "ski and stay" packages.

Still, the people who bring skiing and snowboarding to California all know the game's up if there's no snow. Clamoring to be global warming's meanest opponent, each resort positions itself at the cutting edge of green skiing. Northstar-at-Tahoe, sister company to Sierra-at-Tahoe, has unveiled programs like the "Green Tags" program (offering credits to skiers to offset fossil fuel use) and partnered with organizations like Audubon and the National Forest Foundation to greenify its day-to-day operations. That means making everything from waste management to resort traffic less damaging to the environment. Likewise, Robert McClendon, Ski Area Manager for the Tahoe Donner Association, calls global warming something that "should be a worldwide concern. We have," he says, "investigated alternate sources of energy such as solar and wind, for lift and lodge operations." What those investigations will lead to, of course, remains an unanswered question.

And, with drought ever a concern in any California resort-owner's mind, some of the companies have taken matters into their own mittened hands. Anderson, for instance, said that Diamond Peak has "75 percent snowmaking capabilities — so as long as the temperatures stay cool at night, we'll be able to make snow." Weather, in fact, says Granlibakken spokeswoman Kay Williams, is inherently dodgy to predict in the region, making the culprit of things like last year's drought difficult to pinpoint. "Conditions are variable in the Sierras, so it was not such an unusual year," she said, cautioning against "charg[ing] it off to 'global warming.'" Said Mt. Rose's Mike Pierce, "Last year was the thinnest as far as snow since the winter of '91 — statistically this doesn't happen very often." But, he added, "We are looking forward to a big season, as demand is pent up."

All the while, of course, no one comments on the looming paradox of the ski industry: while opposition to global warming and its snow-melting effects remains unanimous, not one ski spot's spokesperson had anything to say about the thousands of mini-vans, SUVs, and hummers gassing their way up the Sierra Nevadas to its various ski resorts.

Heavenly (owned by Vail Resorts) PR director Russ Pecoraro may well represent the Tahoe ski industry when he says, "Weather predictions are all over the map. No matter what Mother Nature brings, we're focused on providing excellent snow surfaces with our superior snowmaking and grooming operations."

Whatever else the archaeologists of the distant future think, at least they'll know we enjoyed ourselves all the way down.


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