Endless winter? California ski resorts plan to keep slopes open this summer

Californians, blessed with the natural resources to ski and surf in the same day, may be able do both deep into summer for the first time in years.

One of the wettest winters in decades has stretched the season for most California and Nevada ski resorts by up to two months, helping them regain business lost because of too much snow early in the year.

At Mammoth Mountain in the Eastern Sierra and Squaw Valley west of Lake Tahoe, the slopes are expected to remain open through the Fourth of July weekend — and perhaps beyond. Squaw Valley is promising even more: a season that could continue nonstop into next winter.

“It literally could be a 550-day season,” said Andy Wirth, chief executive of Squaw Valley Ski Corp., which operates the Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows resorts, located about six miles apart.

The 2016-17 winter created 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. At Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe, southwest of Reno, scientists trying to survey the snowpack in March found that it was too deep to measure with their devices.

But the snow dump not only ended California’s years-long drought, it also buried roads and ski lifts, forcing some resorts to close during what should have been the busiest days of January. The extended winter sports season will give the industry a chance to replace that lost business but won’t be enough to improve on the previous season’s performance.

“The snow often fell at such a high rate, frankly, the resorts couldn’t keep up with it,” said Michael L. Reitzell, president of the California Ski Industry Assn., a trade group for 29 ski resorts in California and Nevada.

California ski resorts this season had an average of six days of unplanned closures, due to strong winds, heavy snow and road closures, compared with an average of three days last season, he said.

Reitzell expects that California resorts will draw about 7.25 million ski visits this season, about the same as last year. Still, the numbers surpass the 4.6 million visitors that skied at California resorts in the drought-ravaged 2014-15 season.

“If we hadn’t had significant closures this year, I’m sure we would have beat last year’s number,” he said.

‘Like midwinter still’

With its peak still heaped in snow, Mammoth Mountain, the state’s most popular ski resort, continues to operate daily, with enough snow to keep the lifts running at least through the Fourth of July weekend. The resort has yet to announce a closing date for the season.

“As of right now, it’s daily operations for a while,” said resort spokeswoman Lauren Burke. She added that the base of the mountain still has 140 inches of snow, with 300 inches of snowpack near the peak.

Mammoth has operated its lifts until July 4 only three times in the last 10 years.

“The mountain looks like midwinter still,” she said.

At Squaw Valley, some chairlifts are still buried in up to 360 inches of snow, and a closing date has yet to be announced.

In fact, Wirth said, the resort may be able to operate at least every Saturday — and perhaps Sunday — throughout the entire summer, continuing until the next season begins.

“This is uncharted territory,” he said.

Over the last 50 years, Squaw Valley has operated on July 4 only three times, most recently in the 2010-11 season.

The resorts won’t have to rely on snow-making machines, Wirth said, but will instead groom and reuse the existing snowbanks already heaped around the mountain.

“We have snowbanks that are still 30 feet deep,” he said. “It will be there for a long, long time.”

Pass holders for the current season at Squaw Valley will get to ski through the Fourth of July — a season that began six and a half months earlier on Nov. 23. The 2017-18 season begins July 5.

Neither Mammoth or Squaw Valley can assure skiers that all of their runs will be open. Mammoth is now operating on 1,200 acres of its 3,500 acres of skiable terrain.

No pants weekend

Across the Nevada border, Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe plans to operate for the first time in resort history until the Memorial Day weekend. The Reno resort closed last year on May 8.

To commemorate the feat, the resort has declared a Memorial Day “no pants weekend,” encouraging skiers to hit the slopes in bathing suits, board shorts and Daisy Dukes.

“We are going to end up with many sunny weekends, which is what people want,” said Mike Pierce, a resort spokesman.

California skiers are happy to take advantage of the longer season.

Kris Flaig, president of the Long Beach Ski Club, said his group typically organizes ski trips to Mammoth Mountain every month, from November to April. This year, the group organized an extra trip for the first weekend of May and another in the second weekend of June, he said.

If there is snow in August, the group may bring out their skies for a midsummer trip, Flaig said.

“This year,” he said “everyone is referring to the conditions as epic.”

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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This article previously said that 5.2 million visitors skied at California resorts in the drought-ravaged 2014-14 season. The correct number is 4.6 million visitors.
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