La Niña Returns, But Will It Deliver?

Meanwhile, bling-tastic lodges, mini-snowmobiles, and bragging apps await Tahoe visitors this season.

Bay Area skiers and snowboarders this season probably won’t see as much snow as during the record-breaking 2010-11 season, but can count on $100 million in capital improvements to Lake Tahoe area resorts, and the same La Niña weather pattern that fueled last year’s freakishly huge blizzards of powpow.

Resort consolidation and Olympic aspirations are fueling lodge, lift, and trail improvements this year, driven by strong global demand for Tahoe’s relatively cheap, world-class snow offerings. Former Olympics host Squaw Valley finished the acquisition of humble-yet-awesome Alpine Meadows, the company announced November 16. And Northstar at Tahoe reaps the benefits of acquisition by Vail Resorts of Colorado.

Ski Lake Tahoe President John Wagnon said Tahoe resorts hope new amenities and cheap rates can keep the momentum going from last year’s amazing season. During the winter of 2010-11, some resorts got more than 800 inches of snow, and the season ran deep into the summer.

According to end-of-season survey results released by the National Ski Areas Association, US ski areas set a new all-time record of 60.54 million skier/snowboarder visits during the 2010-11 season. That was higher than the previous record set in 2007-08. Vail Resorts, which owns Northstar, saw visits increase 3.9 percent over the previous year.

Nationally, snowfall was up 29 percent, the highest on record in twenty years. Nearly fifty thousand skier/snowboard visits occurred over the Fourth of July weekend alone. “It’s become sort of legendary,” Wagnon said.

The beginning of last season looked much like the beginning of this season, with a La Niña water temperature pattern and forecasts of a cool, dry winter, said meteorologist Matt Wanink of Chico’s Western Weather Group. Instead, a 2010 Thanksgiving storm dumped 93 inches of snow in some resorts.

Wagnon said the snow helped drive the momentum of the season through the holidays and a six-week drought in January. Temperatures remained cold, however, and Tahoe resorts made a fair amount of their own snow. A huge storm in March walloped the region, creating a big spring, Fourth of July skiing, and beyond.

Wanink said weather for the 2011-12 winter is hard to predict, as it’s in flux. Meteorologists were predicting a “neutral” winter, but then a La Niña pattern suddenly emerged this fall. It’s already brought a foot of snow to Tahoe and cold air that’s good for snowmaking. Still, Wanink is siding with climate models that forecast a cool, dry spring.

“This year, La Niña conditions return again and they’re supposed to be strengthening over the coming months, but it’s not supposed to be like last year,” he said. “The conditions now are showing the spring to be a little drier, which would lessen the winter totals overall.

“The probability is high for a colder-than-average winter and slightly above-average snowfall amounts, but last year was kind of way above normal,” he continued. “Anything is going to look like less than last year.”

On the ground, resort operators hope La Niña delivers again, and they’re doing their part to attract every type of skier — from snowboarding grandmas to snow-mobiling six-year-olds. Consolidation like Squaw buying Alpine and Northstar’s tie-up with Vail eliminates duplicative overhead for things like marketing, Wagnon said. “There’s certainly nothing bad to be associated with it,” he said. “It brings more value to skiers and snowboarders. I think it’s all positive.”

It’s also driving capital improvements. Northstar at Tahoe opens its $20 million Zephyr Lodge this year, as well as a new Promised Land Express chairlift, two new intermediate trails, and a 22-foot halfpipe designed by two-time Olympic gold medalist Shaun White.

Northstar also has added 170 acres of sidecountry terrain and, for the first time, guided sidecountry tours and snow-cat-accessed skiing and riding will be offered to advanced skiers and riders. Jessica VanPernis, spokeswoman for Northstar, said the new Zephyr Lodge — with exterior glass walls and stunning views — is one of the biggest capital investments in the Tahoe resort area. Snow cat skiing and guided backcountry tours add a new edge to Northstar’s family-oriented, theme-park environment.

Vail Resorts also brings its snowboarding app EpicMix to Northstar this year, allowing visitors to auto-brag in real time on Facebook and Twitter about their mountain exploits. Northstar uses RF chips instead of paper tickets and can keep track of vertical feet traversed, awarding badges for burliness.

This year, EpicMix photographers will also stalk the slopes in lime-green uniforms, snapping pics for instant sharing online and the inevitable souvenir upsell. Northstar offers its popular $105 per night per person “stay and ski free” deal at its condos, as well as a “stay three nights, get the fourth night free” deal.

Squaw’s purchase of Alpine brought an unexpected boon in September to season pass-holders at either resort. Season passes for Squaw or Alpine are now good at both. Squaw and Alpine also offer a Super Pass for $439 that grants access to both mountains with some blackout dates. That ends November 30.

While Squaw has great beginner and advanced skiing and was the site of the 1960 Winter Olympics, Alpine has some amazing intermediate skiing and riding, and a laid-back vibe. “I think they’re complementary,” said spokeswoman Amelia Richmond. The company wants to keep the guest experience the same at each resort, “but both the resorts’ service levels will be elevated.” That means more dynamic signage to tell visitors when a lift or trail is open, she said, “so you know when the dispatchers know.”

Squaw also offers new mini-snowmobiles on a closed, groomed, supervised track for kids ages six to twelve, as well as expanded snow tubing. And for the first time in its 52-year history, Squaw will name its trails.

Smaller, less corporate Sugarbowl gets seven new trails this year to bring its total to 102. Its $19 CORE card cuts $15 off each visit and comes with a points program to earn free lift tickets and food.

Mid-size North Shore resort Tahoe Cross Country Ski Area prepares for even more skate skiers this year, said general manager Kevin Murnane. The resort saw a 15 percent increase in visitors last year, driven by the snow but also by the aging boomer generation’s desire for lower-impact aerobic snow sports. Bonus: The Ski Area allows dogs, and dogs freaking love to ski, said Murnane.

Down south, Kirkwood has $6 million in upgrades including a new $5 million Mountain Club and a $1 million backcountry center — Expedition: Kirkwood Outfitters. It also is sporting new, high-angle grooming snow cats for fresh corduroy on what would be icy, steep cornices. Kirkwood spokesman Michael Dalzell said the ski resort will also have a new mobile app by Christmas and Google Street View has mapped the entire resort, trails and all. “You can go on Google maps and go into the lodges. It’s really cool.” Kirkwood also releases its own K-2 ski, specially designed for the epic amounts of powder the resort is subject to.

All in all, the Lake Tahoe resort area — once bloodied by the recession — has bounced back to pre-recession levels, and is primed to make a bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics. The bid is in the exploratory phase, with California and Nevada teams working on it, Wagnon said. “We have big mountains, great snow, great service, and affordable lodgings,” he said. “Skiing in general is in a very solid position right now.”

“This area has such huge potential to be one of the world’s best ski destinations,” added Dalzell of Kirkwood. “We’re really optimistic. We’re going to have another year of phenomenal skiing.”


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