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STOCKTON — Bountiful snowfall in the Sierra has buoyed Northern California ski resorts’ expectations for the season.
“The last system brought in 10 to 12 feet of snow in the past five days which is unbelievable, so currently we’re looking at 288 inches of annual snowfall in Kirkwood,” said Kevin Cooper, senior communications manager for Heavenly and Kirkwood ski resorts. “Before the drought, the norm was about 600 inches. After you do the math for the drought, we got down to an average of 450 inches so we’re well on our way to an absolutely normal winter.”
Kirkwood is a 2,300-acre park with 13 ski lifts. The resort enjoys a base elevation of 7,800 feet, one of the highest in the Lake Tahoe area.
Founded in 1972, the resort is about 45 minutes south of South Lake Tahoe.
“It’s a very unique place. It had to be petitioned to get State Route 88 opened for Kirkwood to actually get the U.S. Forest permit to build the resort there,” said Cooper, whose father-in-law, Dick Reuter, was one of Kirkwood’s founders.
A key Kirkwood mindset, according to Cooper, is what he calls JOMO — the joy of missing out.
“It’s not Northstar. It’s not Heavenly. It’s not Squaw Valley. It’s not built up,” he said. “It has a small village. It’s based on big mountain and big mountain families.”
Two years ago, at the height of the drought, the resort received a mere 124 inches of snow for the entire season.
“That was a tough run. But the good news for Kirkwood is that even with that snow amount we were still able to open up 100 percent of our terrain,” Cooper said.
Still, dry and warm winters in the Bay Area and Central Valley meant people were not catching the winter bug and visitor numbers were down.
While Kirkwood has snow making equipment, it is not a big snow-making mountain.
“We have snow making to subsidize in those early seasons,” Cooper said. “It was decided back in the early ‘90s that snow-making was something all ski resorts should put in, but it was put in very limited by the prior ownership.”
Last year the resort received 450 inches of snowfall, which was considered a post-drought normal winter.
“The beauty of last year was the pent-up demand in the Bay Area and regionally. People came. All of a sudden now the winter storms are crossing the Bay Area,” said Cooper. “Last year it was a return. We saw people coming back, excited skiers and riders returning to the Sierra slopes.”
This year promises to be similar in terms of demand. Yet warmer January storms that brought rain instead of snow were not typical of the area.
“The challenge is the temperature. That’s what we’ve been up against this year,” Cooper said. “We’ve seen an amazing amount of rain this year. That is completely unusual for Tahoe.”
According to Cooper, had those storms come in with temperatures in the mid-30s, snow levels would be well above average.
“We would almost have 400 inches of snow right now today,” he said.
Kirkwood was acquired by Vail Resorts Management Company six years ago. Prior to the acquisition, Kirkwood had deferred a lot of property maintenance.
“It’s really nice to be part of a larger company, and they’ve invested, I believe $10 to 15 million in infrastructure. The challenge for people is that you can’t really see it,” said Cooper. “It’s all those things that are essential for the mountain to operate efficiently each and every day.”
Sierra-at-Tahoe is also enjoying the productive winter this season.
“We are certainly excited about all this new snow. With more storms in the forecast, we’re looking forward to refreshments, endless powder days and sunny days in the spring to pair with our fun events,” said Sierra-at-Tahoe spokeswoman Thea Hardy.
The resort had 12.5 feet of snowfall as of mid-January, which has helped draw visitors and created a good base. Lift ticket purchases through mid-January were comparable to last year’s numbers with typical spikes during holiday periods, Hardy said.
Still, the resort did find the previous dry years challenging.
“We adapted quite well and got creative with relocating snow from parking lots and supplementing with snow-making in pinch points — areas of high traffic — when the conditions allowed,” Hardy said.
Sierra-at-Tahoe operates with 500 to 700 employees and has made improvements and changes to the resort for the 2016-17 season.
The park has expanded its sculpted learning terrain, an area where visitors can improve their skills. The resort’s website has been updated, and new food and beverage offerings are available at the base and on-mountain dining facilities.
The resort has also installed four refillable water stations, encouraging visitors to refill their own personal water containers or to purchase a Vapur Anti-Bottle.
Both Kirkwood and Sierra-at-Tahoe anticipate staying open well into the spring.