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SKI COLUMN / CHRIS DUFRESNE : Operators Find Season’s Snow to Be Heavenly

Ski operators may look cool with their raccoon-faced suntans and $500 ski boots.

But in times of drought, they are all Tom Joads.

They curse the heavens and pound their pitchforks.

“We are farmers,” one said. “Our crop is snow.”

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The California drought of the 1980s was their Dust Bowl, except that resort operators cannot pick up their belongings--their mountains in particular--and move on to better terrain.

They are stuck in their fields, so to speak, beholden to nature.

So it is little wonder that California ski operators, particularly in the water-starved north, are dancing the ski-pole polka because of several winter storms that have left enough snow on their slopes to perhaps last the season.

No one has officially declared the drought over; to do so would be tempting the fates. What the hay, we’ll say it here: It’s over, at least as far as skiers are concerned.

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Snow by numbers:

--At Lake Tahoe, Heavenly Valley is heavenly again. “Probably the best pre-Christmas skiing in five or six years,” Monica Bandows, a resort spokeswoman, said.

Last week’s storms alone dumped almost nine feet of snow on the upper reaches of Heavenly’s peaks. The resort is in full operation, with 25 chairlifts operating and 68 trails open.

Heavenly, a ski-resort powerhouse with formidable snow-making capabilities, was better able to survive the drought than others.

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But image is everything in skiing, and let’s just say Heavenly didn’t get off to a sliding start this season.

Around Thanksgiving, just days before a series of storms changed the winter landscape, a local television station aired a story on the drought’s effect at Lake Tahoe ski resorts. The most damning footage was that of a chairlift rising over snowless terrain from the base of Heavenly.

Pictures are worth a thousand words and can sometimes launch a thousand cancellations.

The TV piece, Bandows said, didn’t mention that most of the mountain’s man-made snow was on other lifts at higher elevations.

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“The affiliates picked it up,” she said. “It played during ‘The Today Show.’ It kind of killed us.”

After the broadcast, Bandows said damage controllers had to talk several callers out of canceling their Christmas ski plans. Fears were soon alleviated with the onslaught of the December storms.

Man-made snow is nice in a pinch, but. . . .

“Natural snow drives the deal as far as the skier (is concerned),” Bandows said.

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After last week’s storms, phone-call volume increased 30% at the resort.

For another resort near Lake Tahoe, Kirkwood, which does not have snow-making capabilities because it is locked in a local battle for water rights, the storms were a godsend.

“Walking around here, everyone’s got big smiles,” Kirkwood spokesman Greg Murtha said. “There’s been a lot of pent-up desires the last few years. People wanted to go out skiing, but the weather hasn’t cooperated. We are snow farmers. Now, we’re reaping our harvest.”

In the Sierra, Mammoth Mountain is also posting impressive numbers. Before last week’s storms, the resort had already reached 74% of its normal seasonal snowfall.

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This year, Mammoth opened in October for only the sixth time in the last 25 years. December, which still is a long way from over, has yielded 90 inches of snow for only the fifth time in the last quarter-century.

“We’ll take it,” Pam Murphy, Mammoth’s director of marketing, understated. “Snow-making is great, but when you’re the size of Mammoth, with 150 trails, well. . . . We have snow-making on 35 trails. But when it’s only 35 out of 150, people say there’s nothing here.”

Most ski operators are amateur meteorologists. They read the Farmer’s Almanac, subscribe to long-term weather forecasts, sift through high-tech computer readouts.

“We read it all and believe none of it,” Murphy said.

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At Mammoth, there is an ancient Indian belief that the number of bees in the area during the fall relates to what kind of winter is in store. The more bees, the theory goes, the more snow.

So much for Indian customs. You couldn’t find a bee to save your life at Mammoth last fall.

The best local prognosticator might be an elderly resident named Ruth, who claims she can predict what kind of winter it will be by how many pine cones fall from her tree every October.

“She’s more accurate than some of those million-dollar computer guys,” Murphy said. “The biggest year we’ve had lately, 1982-83, she did tell me she thought it would be one of the biggest years ever.”

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This year, Ruth was right on pine again.

“In October, she said there were more pine cones than normal,” Murphy said. “She predicted it would be a heavier than normal year.”

Ruth said it would be like this.

Skiing Notes

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Locally, Mt. Waterman and Krakta Ridge in the Angeles National Forest opened last week. The ski areas are located about three miles apart and report about a two-foot base of hard-packed snow.

Timing is everything in Alpine skiing. For America’s top male downhill skier, AJ Kitt, timing has been all bad. In November, he sprained his ankle playing basketball and figured to miss the Dec. 4 World Cup downhill opener at Val d’Isere, France. Kitt surprised most when he squeezed his swollen foot into his boot and entered the downhill. Amazingly, Kitt was leading after his run. Then the race was canceled when the weather turned ugly. Last weekend in Val Gardena, Italy, Kitt had the best time in the final training run but wobbled in the race and finished 11th.

Julie Parisien’s first venture into speed racing was pretty much a bust. In an effort to boost her World Cup overall title chances, the slalom expert entered last weekend’s downhill and super giant slalom at Vail. Parisien finished 26th in downhill and 45th in super-G. Megan Gerety salvaged a disappointing day for American skiers on Sunday in the super-G with a ninth-place finish after starting in the 57th position.

The natives are restless: Italian Alberto Tomba has failed to win a World Cup slalom race in five attempts this season. Tuesday, he finished second in the slalom to France’s Patrice Bianchi at Madonna diCompiglio, Italy. The second-place finish moved Tomba to the top of World Cup overall standings with 256 points. It was another bleak day for the American men, who failed to qualify a skier for the second round.

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Names Department: The best name on the U.S. women’s team, hands down, is Picabo (pronounced peek-a-boo) Street. On the men’s side, there has been some confusion about the spelling of Kitt’s first name. He sets the record straight in this year’s U.S. Skiing media guide. “AJ has no periods,” he states. “It isn’t short for anything.”

Despite calls for boycotts of Colorado ski resorts because of the passage of Amendment 2, gay leaders in Aspen are still planning to celebrate their annual gay ski week in January. The Denver Post reported that the event may draw as few as half of the usual 4,000 visitors. Some out-of-state groups have provided $60,000 to the Aspen gay community.


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