Most California ski areas are closed Thursday as another intense weather system carrying heavy rain, snow, and wind bears down on a state that has already seen several disruptive storms this winter, producing record snowfall and forcing frequent road and resort closures.
“We love snow, and we tend to get a lot of it here, but I think we’ve reached the point where we are crying “uncle!” said Ski California president Michael Reitzell. “The next two storms, one already having arrived, are creating new challenges that have not existed much this year: wet snow, rain, and possible flooding. The amount of snow up [in the mountains] is going to absorb rain like a sponge and create flooding and falling/sliding snow concerns.”
The current storm began Thursday and is supposed to linger through the beginning of next week. It dropped more than a foot of snow in many areas before the snow line quickly moved to higher elevations and heavy rain fell below 8,000 feet, according to OpenSnow, which also reported that winds at the summit of Palisades Tahoe reached a staggering 177 mph Thursday evening.
“The snow has been constant this winter, as much as I have ever seen in all my ski industry years,” said John Rice, general manager of Sierra-at-Tahoe, which is reporting 584 inches of snow for the season as of Friday morning, with much more on the way.
This is Sierra’s first season of operations with a new, more open landscape courtesy of the Caldor Fire, which decimated thousands of trees when it barreled through the resort in August 2021. “Complications for Sierra from wind has affected lift operations as well as visibility on heavy snow days,” said Rice. “The new landscape minus trees has been a learning experience, as the storms have come in with a punch. Sideways snow is hard to manage, causing cornices and drifts. We built a halfpipe and it has been a constant battle keeping it clear of drifting snow.”
Mountain High in SoCal was forced to close from Friday, Feb. 24, to Monday, March 6, after a historic storm dropped more than 7 feet of snow in a 24-hour period, a record, followed by another series of storms that kept the roads to the resort closed for roughly two weeks. China Peak, also owned by the group that owns Mountain High, was closed until March 8, for the same reasons. The group’s third resort, Dodge Ridge, was only closed for two days during that period.
The closures were not good for business, said CEO Karl Kapuscinski. “We will be down roughly $4 million, but my hope is what the next six weeks could do to make up some of that.” And he said for Mountain High, people will come as long as there is snow in SoCal.
On positive note, Dodge Ridge will have a record year for visits and revenue and could be open into May.
Several California ski areas are reporting season totals of more than 600 inches as of Friday morning, including Palisades Tahoe (614), Sugar Bowl (632), Dodge Ridge (617), China Peak (622), and Boreal (630). All of those totals are at least 130 percent of the average snowfall for this time of year. Mammoth Mountain, which is reporting 569 inches at its main base area, is sporting a state best 263-inch base.
“I think the biggest impact we have felt is from road closures,” said Diamond Peak’s Jay Rydd. “I know that both Caltrans and NDoT have had issues staffing and this is greatly affecting travel.”
With staff not able to afford to live near the ski area, they have long commutes to work so the road conditions have a larger effect on the business, he said. “Yes, it hinders access for customers; but when there are road closures and it takes staff two or more hours to get here, they are getting burned out faster than in the past. It also tends to overburden the few staff that do live locally when everyone else is late. There are just new variables outside of our control that are having a very direct impact on all of us.”
The direct impact on overall business by the time the season is over remains to be seen. “I cannot say at this point how it will impact visitation,” said Ski California’s Reitzell. “When we’ve been open, visitation has been very strong, but the number of closure days are mounting. The season will be strong right until the end with this much snow, but it helps to be open.”
All operators said that despite the challenges of closures, the bright spot is the water levels in drought-stricken California will go way up. And for Rice at Sierra, “post-fire is the power reliability—we used to have outages from limbs and trees striking power lines. All the new infrastructure installed after the fire and fewer trees has left us with less power outages.”
Because it has been a relatively cold winter until the current storm, the snow has held well, said Reitzell. The forecast is calling for several more feet of snow at higher elevations in the coming week, “so the numbers at the higher elevations could be records this year,” he said.
“At this point, we just hope our resorts can weather these next two storms and keep their employees safe. Once it all clears, I’m pretty confident we’ll be skiing and riding until July, maybe longer.”
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