By Ellen Huet
Skiers and snowboarders who reveled in a record-breaking snow season last year are stuck this year waiting for the snow to fall in the Lake Tahoe basin, and it’s in no hurry to arrive.
After last winter’s snowfall doubled yearly averages, ski resort bookings boomed this year with residual excitement. But so far, little, if any, snow has stuck on Tahoe-area mountains, leaving resorts to wait on Mother Nature’s graces or rely almost completely on man-made alternatives.
The region has seen plenty of cold fronts this season, but they’ve all been dry, said National Weather Service forecaster Alex Hoon.
Because the jet stream hasn’t picked up much moisture over the Pacific Ocean or Gulf of Alaska, region-wide snow levels are at about 17 percent of the average for this time in December.
“It’s been a pretty weak winter so far,” Hoon said. “We’ve had a couple storms, but they haven’t been big — not by Sierra standards.”
Without natural snowfall, resorts cater to early season skiers with manufactured snow. The alternative requires time and money, which means the bigger resorts open only a handful of runs and smaller resorts might open later in the season, said Andy Chapman, chief marketing officer for the North Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce.
“Last year was drastically different,” he said. “We had lots of early snow, and almost everyone was open by Thanksgiving.”
Five resorts had runs open last Friday, and a few more are scheduled to open for the season this weekend.
Homewood, a smaller resort along the west shore of the lake, isn’t scheduled to open until Saturday. Sierra-at-Tahoe, however, relies only on natural snow and must simply wait.
Recent months of sustained cold weather helped resorts maintain slopes of manufactured snow, with some snowmaking beginning around Halloween.
“Certainly there is a cost of putting man-made snow on the ground,” Chapman said. “But I think given the alternative of man-made snow versus not having terrain open — with people renting skis, buying hamburgers — means revenue offsets. Obviously the resorts have done this for years and years, understand risk-benefit ratio, and have decided it’s well worth it.”
Ski resorts are optimistic that snowstorms will hit soon, and crowds that got a taste of more than 800 inches of snow last winter are hoping for a repeat performance, Chapman said.
“You certainly do get a boomerang effect with great snow last year,” he said. “People have anticipation.”
The weather, however, might have different plans.
“The next couple weeks look pretty dry,” Hoon said. Some snow might fall late this week or around Christmas, he said, but the telltale signs of a big storm – when the jet stream shifts down into Northern California and high pressure over the eastern Pacific disperses – aren’t here yet, Hoon said.
For some regular skiers, the well-groomed manufactured snow is an enjoyable way to start the season.
As opposed to powdery, natural snow, manufactured slopes are easier on the knees for Pam Perry, 59, who leaves her Fremont home regularly with her husband, Gordon, also 59, to ski in Tahoe. They have already spent four ski days at Heavenly Ski Resort this season.
“The man-made snow is a bit drier and wonderful to ski on,” said Pam Perry, who, along with her husband, works in property management. The only negative, Gordon Perry said, is that only a few runs are open.
Low snow levels also are a deal breaker for skiers who prefer backcountry skiing.
Although he skied 38 days last season, J.J. O’Brien of San Francisco hasn’t been to Tahoe yet this year. He plans to wait until snowfall is around 5 to 10 feet, which he hopes could happen quickly.
“Tahoe could turn around in a week, dump 20 feet of snow, and be amazing,” said O’Brien, who works as a product manager at a startup company.