Snow hits Lake Tahoe area, Utah, Colorado slopes early and often this season

Special to the Los Angeles Times

The skies have dropped seasonal gifts of snow on many winter resorts in the Western United States, earlier and in greater quantity than expected.

Operators report substantial snow depths and superb conditions that have enabled early openings with more terrain than is typical before Christmas.

"We are in truly great shape," said Jessica Kunzer, director of communications for Ski Utah, a trade group that represents that state's resorts. "We feel very good about this year, a La Niña winter."

The Wasatch Mountains east of Salt Lake City have lived up to their reputation as a perennial magnet for storms. "We got out to a super head start," said Jared Ishkanian, a spokesman for Snowbird, where snow gauges topped the 100-inch benchmark on Nov. 22, putting the month on par with the normally snowier January and February.

Three days before Christmas, the total accumulation had catapulted to 224 inches, a phenomenal start for a season that sees more than 500 inches, on average, before it concludes in June.

Across the Rockies in Colorado, the season began on a spectacular note too. By the last week of November, a month that would end as the snowiest on record, 100 inches had fallen at Steamboat Springs. "We typically get to it in late January," said resort spokesman Mike Lane, who is optimistic for a superlative season.

The early bounty has extended to the rest of the state. "We have snow to spare so far this season," said Melanie Mills, president of the Colorado Ski Country USA trade group. "Many of our resorts saw more snow in November than they have seen in more than a decade."

Resorts around Lake Tahoe, on the California- Nevada border, also reported plentiful early-season conditions. Alpine Meadows collected 80 inches of new snow from a string of storms that slammed the region last week, and many resorts added more than 50 inches. As much as 151/2 feet — an astounding 186 inches — buried Mammoth Mountain on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada, yielding records for December and seasonal totals, according to Ashley Smith, snow reporter for the resort. One website claimed Mammoth Mountain had the most snow in the world.

Meteorologists credit the La Niña weather phenomenon for above-average precipitation in Northern California and the northern Rockies during years when lower equatorial sea-level temperatures in the Pacific Ocean provoke a shift in high and low atmospheric pressures.

"We've seen a lot of storm activity coming down from the Pacific Northwest," said Brian McInerney, hydrologist for the National Weather Service forecast office in Salt Lake City. "The ski areas that are in the northern Wasatch Mountains are doing exceptionally well," he said, in stark contrast to the last three years that witnessed little activity until mid-December.

But McInerney cautioned against drawing upbeat conclusions on the basis of strong early-season numbers even if historical data point to a wetter-than-normal season. "You don't want to bet the farm on long-range forecasting," he said, because models are unreliable beyond a seven-day window.

Mike Halpert, deputy director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Prediction Center, also hesitated to be too optimistic. "It's good news; it's better than being dry. The tilt is toward below-average rainfall for the southern part of the western U.S., more precipitation in the northern part, and no indication one way or another for the middle."

And indeed, scant snow has fallen across Southern California, Arizona and New Mexico, where it took Ski Santa Fe until Dec. 10 to open a small section of its terrain with 20 inches of combined machine-made and natural snow in spite of a base elevation of 10,350 feet in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Nevertheless, spokeswoman Candy DeJoia celebrated a small victory because the opening occurred a few days earlier than last season. With overnight temperatures in the teens, she was confident that snow-making would complement, or perhaps replace, storms.

In Southern California's San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains, several snowstorms dusted ski hills and temperatures dipped low enough in November to make snow, hinting at a promising season. "La Niña is not necessarily a bad thing," said Chris Riddle, director of marketing for Bear Mountain and Snow Summit, because forecasts predict a dry but also colder season that permits snow-making.

A few resorts opened, albeit with limited operations and single-digit snow depths in some cases. But warm temperatures in early December quieted the snow guns, and the storms that blanketed Northern California last week brought only rain, washing down the snow cover and forcing temporary closures.

At long last, 10 to 17 inches of snow had been wrought from the clouds above Big Bear Lake by Dec. 22. "It's been a bit of a struggle to get there, but we're in pretty good shape now," Riddle said.

Info: http://www.skiutah.com, http://www.coloradoski.com, http://www.skilaketahoe.com, http://www.skisantafe.com, http://www.bigbearmountainresorts.com

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