Eyes On the Sky

New snowmakers and slot machines roar as Lake Tahoe powder chasers pray for a return to average after two brutal, dry winters.

Last week, Buffalo, New York got five feet of snow in one night. Please ship some of that to Tahoe, thanks. Love, the Bay Area.

Recent storms notwithstanding, California continues to struggle with a historic drought that’s not only punishing farmers and rural residents, but also Bay Area skiers and snowboarders.

So Lake Tahoe is slush-proofing itself, spending upward of $100 million over the last few years on lodges, resort casinos, retail, and dining. Reno Airport, Interstate 80, and other infrastructure also received key upgrades. Lake Tahoe is officially now an adult-friendly Disneyland, with more to do lakeside and around town than ever before in the 2014­–2015 season.

“It’s about your experience at the mountain from the time you arrive to the time you leave,” said Sally Gunter, spokesperson for Heavenly Mountain Resort.

World-class skiing and snowboarding are integral to a Tahoe trip, but it’s also about “hanging out with friends and enjoying the California sun,” Gunter added.

A new $60 million Hard Rock Hotel and Casino opens in January next to Heavenly, and so does the renovated Cal Neva Resort. There’s also a 30,000 square-foot retail area called The Chateau. “It’s definitely got everybody excited on the South Shore,” said Daniel Pistoresi of Ski Lake Tahoe, a resort marketing group. “Tahoe has embraced that 24-7 nightlife.”

They say don’t buy stuff, buy experiences — and the experiences you can buy in Tahoe this year are worth noting. Witness, Booyah’s — Heavenly’s newest restaurant, billed as a mountain-top man-cave with 250,000 build-your-own-burger combinations, 97 different microbrews, NFL games on TV, and North America’s second largest lake as the backdrop.

For kids, there are new ziplines, treetop canopy tours, Star Wars-themed ski-skill accelerators, and expanded tubing parks. For the hardcore, there’s the Homewood Foundation Bowl, an urban-style snowboard terrain park located within an unused building foundation adjacent to the resort’s mid-mountain Big Blue View Bar.

And for the One Percent, there are snowcat tours to private powder glades, instructor concierge services, first-tracks programs, insider apps for smartphones, and something called snowkiting.

And all of it is set against an impossibly stunning, crystal-blue meteor crater filled with snowmelt so deep, it could cover the state in 14 inches of water. “It’s the crown jewel,” said Gunter of Lake Tahoe. “The views you get are amazing while skiing and riding — you don’t find those anywhere else.”

About that snow: Hard-core powder junkies are saying it can’t not rain forever. Two seasons of below average rains won’t turn into three, they pray. The National Weather Service expects above average precipitation and temperatures for most of the West this year.

“We definitely see the last two years as anomalous,” said Pistoresi.

Last winter got off to a slow start, and even though it included 80 inches of snow in February, it was mostly dry and warm throughout the ski season. The Sierra snowpack at its peak in April was just 32 percent of normal and fell to 18 percent of normal by May.

This winter got off to a similarly slow start. As we went to press, resorts were expecting a foot or more of snow for the higher elevations by November 23. Snow might even make it down to the lake level.

Higher elevation Mount Rose opened on November 12 and had a base last week of 12 inches. Heavenly and Northstar were scheduled to open on November 21, followed by Kirkwood on November 22, and Sugar Bowl, Squaw Valley, and Alpine Meadows on November 26, the day before Thanksgiving. Others will open later in December, conditions permitting.

Bryan Allegretto of OpenSnow.com writes that we are experiencing weak-but-unofficial El Niño conditions. The Weather Service estimates that there’s a 58 percent chance of an El Niño, but even without it, warmer water along the equator could influence our weather.

“As always, it just takes one classic Sierra snowstorm measured in feet not inches to get the slopes open from top to bottom” said Pistoresi.

But if you go, shore up your bank account. A family of four staying for four days and five nights is spending about $4,000 these days on a Tahoe ski trip. Domestic ski visitors spent an average of $252 a day. Bay Area folks, however, can ski a lot savvier than that.

The best times for ski/stay deals are before Christmas and in the spring, said Pistoresi. Mount Rose is bringing back its $89 lift and room packages. Heavenly’s Rock and Ride package with the Hard Rock Hotel costs $820 for two people, and includes a three-night stay, and three day lift tickets per person. (We must have the Elvis suite!)

With day-passes exceeding the $100 mark, season passes are best for folks planning on doing any more than a few days of skiing or riding, but season pass sales are ending soon.

For those who are less serious but still committed, jump on Ski Lake Tahoe’s limited supply of six-packs for $359. That’s six tickets for about $60 per day. The tickets are completely shareable, do not have to be used on consecutive days, and are good at seven major area resorts.

For a Bay Area resident “that is maybe working a nine to five and has a baby, if you get six days in for that year, that’s a pretty good accomplishment. And it allows them to sample every resort,” Pistoresi said.

SnowBomb’s 2014-15 platinum pass includes five lift tickets, two nights hotel stay, two free cross-country tickets, free rentals and tune-ups, and festival admission for $200. Many season ticket sales are over, but Liftopia.com offers on-demand ticket pricing.

Here’s more news from the slopes:

Squaw Valley

Squaw Valley is posh. And of course it has the world’s first ski-in-ski-out Starbucks. The resort is also rolling out its “Mountain to Mat” workshops with a guided half-day ski, plus afternoon yoga, mini-spa, and a locally sourced breakfast or lunch.

The resort’s five-year, $70 million renovation has yielded more lifts, major base renovations, and, this winter, the Audi FIS Skicross World Cup and the FIS Snowboard World Cup. Squaw killed it this year with the Wanderlust Festival, so look out for WinterWonderGrass Tahoe, combining bluegrass and roots music with craft beers and regional wines, in late March.


Let it ride. Straddling California and Nevada on South Lake Tahoe, Heavenly boasts the biggest man-made snowmaking capabilities on the West Coast. It’s also the only place with pre-parties for the après (after-skiing) parties.

There’s also a monster, big-air jump competition with a huge jackpot called High Roller Hold ‘Em on April 4. Heavenly has also doubled the size of its ski rental fleet and seriously streamlined the rental and ski school process at the base of the gondola.


Spend that cash like the tech bubble will never pop, starting with new, Primo Private Lessons granting “carte blanche” access to Northstar, “expedited” lift privileges, “exclusive” on-mountain dining experiences, and customized lessons. And strap in, foodies. This year, Northstar’s Zephyr Lounge debuts “Mountain Table” — all locally sourced and paired with regional artisan wines, craft beers, spirits, and a floor-to-ceiling, panoramic view of the Pacific Crest, naturally.


Siri: Call the helicopter. The steep, deep, boarder’s paradise, Kirkwood has launched its new EpicMix Guide, an app to optimize trail itineraries like you’re an experienced local. It’s an interactive, customized trail map with more than 350 unique itineraries.


Talk about extreme team-building: Homewood Mountain Resort will take groups of up to 10 on snowcats to 750 acres of powder reserves on federal land, with 2,000 vertical feet of selfie-ready lake views. Alpha types can sign up for the resort’s new First Tracks Breakfast program, a VIP experience combining a hearty breakfast and slope access one hour before the hoi polloi.

Sugar Bowl

The best, closest resort for Bay Area residents, Sugar Bowl turns 75 years old this winter with a February gala. Twenty million dollars in ongoing improvements have yielded a new Crow’s Peak Chairlift and the new Sporthaus aquatic and fitness center. The aquatic center is perfect for soaking sore muscles after winning the Rahlves’ Banzai Tour, a “spectator-friendly” race pitting four skiers or snowboarders in head-to-head action down each resort’s signature run.

Alpine Meadows

A new North Face Mountain Guide program includes your own priority lift-line access to explore hike-to-powder adventures in the Pacific Crest Bowls. New dining experiences include the Stoked Oak — a St. Louis barbecue with Santa Maria-style grilling or a snowshoe hike under the stars to the mid-mountain Chalet for an intimate Swiss-style dinner.


You won’t be able to miss Sierra’s massive new $5 million Solstice Plaza, with its endless deck, new retail shop, demo shop, and restaurant. Perfect time? The second annual Equinox Spring Festival.

Cross Country

Sugar Bowl continues to expand the largest XC center in North America, Royal Gorge, to include snowbike-specific trails. Snowbikes have huge, fat tires and go on cross-country trails. Also at the Gorge, a new Sierra Snowkite Center — the first and only resort-based snowkiting center in California. Snowkiting involves strapping on a parachute-like wing and getting pulled around on a snowboard or skis.


Understand the terrain, you must. Sierra expanded its brilliant Burton Star Wars camp this year to include Echo Base, a ski-sports learning accelerator for padawans (no sith) ages seven to twelve. Olympic gold medalist David Wise has also put his stamp on Northstar’s, a new family-focused Progression Park, so the bambinos can shred as soon as possible. Mount Rose also upgraded its snowmaking by 50 percent, particularly in the beginner areas.

And as always: wear a helmet!


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