BUSINESS

Timely snowstorms help avert another disastrous year for California ski industry

Peter Smith is dreaming of a white Independence Day.

The longtime ski junkie from Claremont knows that the El Niño weather pattern has yet to put a significant dent in the state's drought, but a series of storms over the last few months has him fantasizing about a monster ski season that can stretch deep into summer.

If big snow dumps continue through spring, Smith said, his ski club could schedule an extra trip to Mammoth Mountain for the Fourth of July weekend.

"The past couple of seasons have been difficult for us, but this season every one of our ski trips has been sold out," said Smith, president of the Burbank-based Wailers Ski Club.

Thanks to well-timed storms blanketing California peaks this winter, ski resort operators in the state say lift ticket sales have increased as much as 50% compared with the last few years, a feat that they attribute to pent-up demand among snow fans who have had to suffer through a four-year drought.

The season could even stretch for two or three more months if Mother Nature cooperates.

"The best thing about this season has been to see the passionate skiers and snowboarders enjoying some fantastic conditions," said Michael Reitzell, president of the California Ski Industry Assn, a trade group for the state's 27 ski resorts.

Although this winter's storms were lacking in quantity, they rolled over the resorts with perfect timing to drop fresh powder before the busy Christmas, New Year's, Martin Luther King Jr. and Presidents Day holidays.

"This will be best season since 2004-2005," said Kevin Cooper, a spokesman for the Kirkwood, Heavenly and Northstar resorts in the Lake Tahoe area.

Even Mountain High, which closed Feb. 28 because its snow melted, had a better-than-expected holiday season. The Wrightwood ski area, about 80 miles northeast of Los Angeles, hopes to reopen if more snow falls.

"The good news is that the season is not over," resort spokesman John McColly said.

The snow has helped avert another disastrous year for California's $3-billion ski industry, which in the 2014-15 season reported 40% fewer ski visits than in 2010. The drought has pushed ski resorts to invest heavily in moneymaking ventures for the summer months, such as zip lines, mountain bike trails and music concerts.

To tackle the new snow, some skiers and snowboarders are lugging along new gear.

In the four months that ended Dec. 31, ski and snowboard equipment sales in the Western states, including California, Nevada and Colorado, jumped nearly 11% to $214 million compared with the same period the previous year, according to Snowsports Industries America, the trade group for ski equipment companies.

Longtime skiers who have had to endure slushy bases and barren patches on ski runs in the last few years say there is a new enthusiasm on the lifts and in the ski lodges.

"We are ecstatic over the snow because we were on pins and needles about whether some of these ski resorts would stay in business," said Don Pies, who has been skiing in California for 40 years.

Mammoth, California's most popular ski resort, recently recorded a base of more than 150 inches near the peaks, with all 150 of its runs open.

"We have already surpassed our total skier visits from last season and we still have two busy winter months and the spring season ahead of us," said Lauren Burke, a spokeswoman for Mammoth Resorts, which operates Mammoth Mountain and June Mountain in the Eastern Sierra as well as Bear Mountain and Snow Summit in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Alpine Meadows in North Lake Tahoe this week had nearly 100 inches of base near the summit, with 73 of its 100 runs open. Its neighboring resort, Squaw Valley, reported nearly all of its 197 runs open.

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Skier visitation numbers set a record for February, said Andy Wirth, president and chief executive of the two resorts. He predicted that the two resorts combined would surpass 1 million visitors for the season, outdoing the numbers for a year with average snowfall.

Wirth attributes the rise to an improving economy that has given long-frustrated winter sports fans extra money to spend on the slopes.

"Pent-up demand doesn't cut it," he said. "It is something much greater than that."

Wirth noted that the demand has been so great among skiers that Alaska Airlines is adding a daily nonstop flight, starting March 16, from Orange County's John Wayne Airport to the Reno-Tahoe International Airport.

"We've looked at those bookings and that flight is immensely popular," he said.

At Snow Valley Mountain Resorts in the San Bernardino Mountains, lift ticket sales are tracking 50% above sales last year, said Kevin Somes, vice president and general manager for the resort.

Lower fuel costs may be one reason for the increased traffic on the mountain, he said.

If the forecasts for big storms over the next few weeks come to fruition, Somes said, Snow Valley can stay open until May, which hasn't happened since 2009.

"People are itching for snow," he said.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

Twitter: @hugomartin

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A version of this article appeared in print on March 05, 2016, in the Business section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Jumping on a peak season - Timely snowstorms help avert another disastrous year for the California ski industry" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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