California's ski season starts with good snowfall and higher lift prices

The snow is falling but lift ticket prices are rising at many California ski resorts.

November storms have already dumped heaps of snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains, including around Lake Tahoe, allowing a few resorts to open.

But enjoying that snow will cost winter sports enthusiasts more.

The season pass that offers unlimited access to California’s four resorts owned by Mammoth Resorts — Mammoth Mountain, June Mountain, Big Bear and Snow Summit — increased nearly 24% in price this month, to $1,049 for adults.

At Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows, passes for unlimited skiing at the two resorts for the season rose Wednesday to $999 from $899 last year, an 11% increase.

And to try to ease crowding on weekends, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows blocked out Saturdays and Sundays for skiers who buy the “bronze pass,” one of the least expensive annual passes.

The average price of a one-day adult lift ticket in California has increased about 7% this season compared with last season, according to an analysis by Liftopia, a website that sells lift tickets and passes for ski resorts throughout North America.

Despite the higher prices and new restrictions, last year’s extended ski season caused by record snowfall may have increased interest in skiing and snowboarding in California.

“Most people here are getting buzzed and excited for the 2017-2018 season,” said Claire Saddington, a longtime skier and snowboarder with the Wailers Ski, Snowboard and Social Club of Los Angeles.

Crowds have been big at the resorts, and some ski trips planned for this winter are already sold out, according to skiers and resort operators.

“As of now, the forecast looks great for us,” said Lauren Burke, a spokeswoman for Mammoth Mountain, which opened Nov. 9, three months after closing last year’s extended season.

The Conejo Ski and Sports Club of Newbury Park has sold out all 56 seats on its January bus trip to the Mammoth Mountain resort, said Gary Huettinger, a vice president for the club based in Westlake Village. The bus trips for February and March are filling up fast, he said.

“People are complaining about prices going up,” Huettinger said. “But what are you going to do?”

The Thanksgiving weekend is considered the official start of the ski season, but five California resorts — Boreal Mountain, Heavenly Mountain, Mammoth Mountain, Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadow — have already opened.

“It’s a really good sign that resorts are getting open on schedule,” said Michael L. Reitzell, president of the California Ski Industry Assn., a trade group for California and Nevada resorts.

Mammoth Mountain had only two lifts running on opening day, but soon had enough snow to operate 12 of its 28 lifts.

Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows operated three of 42 lifts on the day each opened — Nov. 17 and Nov. 18, respectively — but now are running at least 11 lifts combined.

“It was definitely high energy for sure, which was exciting,” Squaw Valley spokeswoman Liesl Hepburn said.

The hardest hit by higher lift prices will be skiers who wait for the last minute to buy passes or purchase lift tickets on the day they arrive at the slopes, said Evan Reece, Liftopia’s chief executive.

Veteran skiers, on the other hand, typically avoid some of the pain of the higher prices by buying annual passes at a discount several months in advance or by ordering day tickets online at a lower rate, he said.

Resorts offer discounts for early ticket buyers to get skiers to make a commitment, which increases revenue and helps the businesses gauge the upcoming crowd sizes, Reece added.

“The ski industry, as a whole, wants to prioritize people to buy tickets before they arrive,” Reece said.

The state’s ski resorts are coming off a 2016-17 winter that recorded one of the largest snowpacks in California history, so big that the central Sierra Nevada snow accumulation was larger than the previous four years combined, according to NASA data.

The snow was so plentiful that Mammoth Mountain, the state’s most popular ski resort, operated until Aug. 6, making it the resort’s second-longest season. Squaw Valley, the California resort northwest of Lake Tahoe, raised the possibility of staying open year-round. It ended its season July 15, marking the resort’s longest ever.

Skiers are hopeful for a good snow year but don’t expect this season to match the snowfall of last winter.

“This could be a pretty decent season this year, but who knows?” said Huettinger of the Conejo Ski and Sports Club.

He said he hopes that the conditions this year at Mammoth Mountain will at least be better than they were two years ago, when the state was in the last year of a punishing drought.

“Two years ago we went up to Mammoth and played volleyball near the base of the mountain,” Huettinger said.

Weather forecasters say early data suggest this winter could be influenced by weak La Niña conditions — the same weather conditions that last year brought warmer temperatures and less precipitation in the southern part of the country and lower temperatures and higher precipitation in the north.

Skiers are hoping that storms don’t dump snow in the middle of holiday breaks or weekends, making it hard for skiers to get to the slopes.

“If it snows especially hard on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, it makes it easier to ski on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and get back home on Monday,” said Kris Flaig, president of the Long Beach Ski Club, which has scheduled monthly trips to Mammoth Mountain from December through March.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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UPDATES:

12:35 p.m.: This article was updated to include the price increase for daily tickets in California.

This article was originally published at 8:30 a.m.

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