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THE CALIFORNIA DELUGE : Above the Rain, Snowfall Is Extravagant : Mountains: Sierra ski resorts get a big lift. Precipitation since Oct. 1 is twice the average.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One year ago, the Boreal Ski Area alongside Interstate 80 atop Donner Summit had one foot of snow on the slopes, and the resort’s operators had to make snow nightly to cover the rocks and other obstacles in the path of the skiers.

On Wednesday, the only obstacles in sight here were the huge mounds of snow in Boreal’s parking lot, left over from the ceaseless snowfall of the past week. The slopes are blanketed with 12 feet of snow, including 24 inches that have fallen since Tuesday morning.

“There’s too much powder,” 20-year-old Nathan Arritt of San Jose said Wednesday, during a break in a morning of snowboarding. Smiling, he added, “I keep sinking in.”

The warm, moisture-laden storms that have flooded much of the rest of California have also brought rain to many parts of the Sierra.

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But at the highest elevations, ski resorts and mountain dwellers have been enjoying--if that’s the word for it--a seemingly unending string of massive snowstorms.

“There’s no such thing as too much,” said Ellen Frisbie, spokeswoman for Squaw Valley USA near Lake Tahoe. “At this rate we’ll be skiing in July.”

Precipitation since Oct. 1 has been nearly twice the average for the last 90 years at the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory, operated by the U.S. Forest Service near Norden on California 40.

For the ski resorts, the snow is good news, as long as skiers are willing to brave slick highways and high winds to drive into the mountains. For the residents, the piles of snow are a mixed blessing--beautiful to look at but a pain to shovel and slog through.

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Oren Horst, a retired realtor who runs a grocery store in Soda Springs, said this season’s snowfall is as deep as any year since he moved here in 1964. Horst sold many of the lots and homes in nearby Serene Lakes, which on Wednesday was a snow rabbit’s warren--the streets piled so high that signs were buried and drivers could not see over the banks.

Horst’s wife, Diane, said all the snow doesn’t bother her a bit.

“I don’t mind it,” she said. “If you’re going to shovel one foot, why not 10?”

The latest storms have only added to what has already been a strange season here.

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In November, a U.S. forest ranger was killed in a freak accident at the Alpine Meadows ski area when an artillery gun used to break up potential avalanches misfired and showered him with shrapnel.

In early December, a skier at Squaw Valley went up the lift for one last run, then vanished. He was found two days later, in fairly good condition, after spending two nights in a handmade snow cave he constructed when he became disoriented just a short distance from the resort’s developed areas.

Last week, another skier disappeared, this one at Alpine Meadows. He, too, was missing for two days before searchers found him wandering not far from the resort.

Then came the spring-like rains, which lasted just a day at the higher elevations but have pounded the mountain valleys, washing away most of the snow in Truckee and causing flooding that closed Interstate 80 above the 6,000-foot level briefly Tuesday night.

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“I like the rains,” said Linda Saylor of Truckee, who commutes daily “up the hill” to Soda Springs, where she runs a restaurant. “It’s a nice break from shoveling all that snow.”

The snow that followed the rains was wet and sticky.

Randall Osterhuber, a researcher at the Sierra snow lab, said the most recent storm, because it was so warm, had a water content of 26%--nearly three times the moisture contained in the light, dry snow skiers prefer.

“It’s like gunite, the stuff you use to make swimming pools,” Osterhuber said. Others call it “Sierra cement.”

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The warm weather also is the enemy of the “chain monkeys” who service cars climbing I-80 over the summit--$20 on, $10 off, but nothing at all when the rains mean there is no need for chains.

On Wednesday it was snowing again, but chain monkey No. 395--he wouldn’t give his name--was still complaining that the rain and the high snow level had limited business and produced working conditions even more uncomfortable than usual.

“It’s brutal work,” he said as he lay in a puddle mixed with snow and water, installing chains on a woman’s car. “But it’s one way to make ends meet.”


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