California skiers and snowboarders may have reason to mope: The Sierra Nevada snowpack so far this year is about half as deep as it was last year. But they aren't packing it in just yet.
Despite the driest winter in at least 16 years, resorts last week reported good coverage at high-elevation slopes, mostly because a four-day storm dropped enough powder to keep most lifts humming through Presidents Day.
"We are back in the game," Kirstin Cattell, a spokeswoman for the Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort in Twin Bridges, Calif., said after the storm dropped up to 2 feet of snow on most parts of the Sierra.
At Kirkwood Mountain Resort south of Lake Tahoe, the storm left 5 feet of snow at the 9,800-foot summit, forcing staff to spend part of last week detonating explosives to cut the risk of avalanches.
"We are 100% open," said Allon Cohne, Kirkwood's marketing director. "All the trees are coated with white."
But light snowfall has been hard on cross-country skiers, who can't rely on snowmaking machines to fill in when nature doesn't cooperate. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park rangers say cross-country skiers had to venture deeper and higher into the backcountry to find fully covered trails. In the Tahoe area, about 35% of cross-country runs around Northstar are still closed.
Before last week's storm, many California resorts had to close runs -- usually the advanced ones near the top of the mountain -- where protruding rocks, shrubs and patches of dirt made for dangerous skiing and snowboarding conditions. Sierra-at-Tahoe closed five advanced runs through January.
At Mammoth Mountain, only two of the 20 runs from the top of the mountain were open before the latest storm left 5 feet of snow on the 11,000-foot summit.
As of January, Mammoth was drawing about 80% of its usual crowds. But thanks to the recent snow, all runs at Sierra-at-Tahoe and Mammoth have reopened.
Earlier, ski resort operators were trying to figure out how to salvage the season. As of Feb. 1, California's snowfall measured only 39% of the average for the year. Executives at June Mountain in the Eastern Sierra northwest of Mammoth closed operations Jan. 28.
Snowstorms that drift up from the San Joaquin Valley typically bog down over Mammoth Mountain before hitting June Mountain. As a result, June Mountain gets about two-thirds less snowfall than Mammoth.
Despite the latest snow, some lower-elevation resorts, such as Donner Ski Ranch, still don't have enough snow to open all runs. Donner, with a base elevation of 7,000 feet, had yet to open one of five chairlifts as of last week. Resorts with a higher base elevation -- 8,000 feet and higher -- have been able to maintain existing snow and create man-made snow.
The perception that the state's ski season is already a bust may have driven California snow enthusiasts into neighboring states.
In Oregon, Colorado and Utah, where snow has been near the average for this time of year, ski resort operators reported a slight increase in visitors.
"I would say two out of three of the biggest smiles on the mountain are from Californians," said Dave Tragethon, a spokesman for Oregon's Mt. Hood Meadows, where snow is 96 inches deep at the base. "It's been that way since the end of December."
Meanwhile, California has been getting a little help in the snow-generating department from neighboring Nevada. The Desert Research Institute, a branch of the Nevada System of Higher Education, sought to get the most out of the latest storm by dropping silver iodide particles into the recent storm clouds.
"When you are down to 30%, 40% or 50% of normal snowfall, you'll need a lot more storms to make that up," said Arlen Huggins, who manages the cloud-seeding program.