For California's ski resorts, fierce storms are 'what we live for'

Published Thu, Feb 7, 2019 · 05:06 AM
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[SAN FRANCISCO] In the past week, California has been pummeled by fierce winter storms wreaking havoc from Sacramento to San Diego. Flash floods have damaged an already fragile landscape, as near hurricane-force winds downed power lines along the coast. On Tuesday, mountain highways were closed because of blizzard conditions and the National Weather Service warned about avalanches in the eastern Sierra Nevada.

But for the state's ski resorts, it's looking a lot like a boom time. At the Squaw Valley resort near Lake Tahoe, attendance is up 25 per cent compared with last year, according to executives there. In Central California, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area said it had record attendance at its lodges in December and January, and was on pace to outperform again this month.

To be fair, last year wasn't the best for California skiers. But after a long period of drought, the waves of storms that have swept across the state in recent weeks are a welcome respite. Some resorts have reported more than 7 feet of new snow over the past several days, with more storms forecast for the weekend.

"This is what we live for," said Craig Albright, the senior director of skier services at Mammoth Mountain. "It kind of is our Super Bowl. It's intense. It's a little scary outside. You can feel the intensity of the weather."

Snowpack from Oct. 1 to Feb. 5 is up about 134 per cent from normal levels in the Tahoe area and throughout the Sierra Nevada, according to officials at the National Weather Service office in Reno, Nevada. While that's less than the record set two years ago, when winter storms ravaged the West Coast, it is still welcome news for ski resorts.

Tim Bardsley, a hydrologist with the Weather Service, said increased snow and rain would boost the state's water supply. A cross-country skier, he said the conditions had been great so far.

"The back country has been more variable," he said. "But there has been a lot of powder, which is pretty fabulous."

Of course, getting there can be a challenge. Mike Goar, the vice president and chief operating officer at Heavenly Mountain Resort, near Lake Tahoe, recommended that skiers check road updates before driving into the mountains. This week, 100 miles of Interstate 80, the main artery through the Sierra Nevada, was closed because of whiteout conditions.

And with the new fallen snow - especially if it is heavy and wet - comes the risk of avalanches. On Tuesday, Squaw Valley posted a warning on its website: "Our 4-day storm total is now over 6 feet! Avalanche conditions exist, please check lift status." Squaw Valley has reported 341 inches of snow this season, while its sister resort, Alpine Meadows, has reported 277 inches.

Ron Cohen, the president of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows resorts, said his company had recently installed additional Gazex avalanche-control systems, which set off controlled slides while a slope is closed so that larger, more destructive avalanches are less likely when skiers are navigating the terrain. (An explosion using Gazex is triggered using a mixture of oxygen and propane.) He said they were safer than other explosive devices used to control avalanches. Some residents have complained about the noise.

"You can never eliminate the risk entirely," he said.

While the ski industry has long nervously watched global warming, Cohen said he could not attribute the swings in California's snowy weather to climate change. Still, he added, "Climate change has a role in broad weather changes."

This week's gale-force winds forced many California resorts to close temporarily in the early part of the week. "You can't operate the chairlifts," Albright said.

Still, he said Mammoth had been fortunate that the storms had mostly arrived during the middle of the week, making way for weekend skiers. "They hear the hype on the Weather Channel, see it on the news," he said.

"People have dreams of powder," Albright added, laughing. "But when they get stuck, it's not so pleasant."


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