Months ago, Santa Monica filmmaker Francis De La Torre and his wife booked a vacation home in Lake Tahoe over Christmas week. They were looking forward to days of skiing and snowboarding in fresh, plush powder -- conditions they can’t count on closer to home.
But all they found when they arrived were slushy bunny slopes with artificial snow in patches of shade. By their first afternoon, they had shed their wool sweaters because it was too warm, left the slopes and headed for the area’s beaches, hiking trails and casinos.
“This was going to be our Christmas presents to ourselves,” said De La Torre, 28. “But nothing met our expectations. It was kind of like snowboarding on ice.”
In stark contrast to last year’s huge snowfall totals -- 65 feet fell on the mountains around Lake Tahoe resorts, well above the typical 50 feet -- the snow this year is measured in inches.
At the Squaw Valley USA ski resort, 2 inches have fallen so far this month, compared with 150 inches last December. Mammoth Mountain ski resort also has had only 2 inches of snow, one of its driest Decembers on record, compared with 209 inches at this time last year.
The state’s northern ski resorts especially depend on the holiday season, said Joani Lynch, a spokeswoman for Mammoth Mountain, which had so much snow last year that it stayed open until July 5.
“It’s certainly having an effect on us now. Visitor numbers are down 18% behind last year,” Lynch said.
But it’s boom times for Southern California resorts.
The storms that have bypassed the northern part of the state have heaped as much as 3 feet of snow this month at Big Bear. And the colder-than-usual temperatures also have helped keep a 2-foot base at resorts such as Snow Summit and Bear Mountain.
With more real snow than expected, both ski resorts have been selling out of lift tickets this week.
“We’re having a great holiday. We’re way ahead of budget projections,” said Chris Riddle, marketing director for the company that owns both Big Bear resorts.
With 27 ski resorts and more than 2.3 million skiers, snowboarders and snowshoe aficionados, snow sports are a $3-billion-a-year industry in California. In the Tahoe basin, December tends to be the first month of consistent snowfall and kicks off a season that sometimes extends through April, depending on temperatures.
Just to open some of their runs this year, the Tahoe resorts have had to make a lot of snow on the slopes, something the Southern California resorts are accustomed to doing.
Kirkwood Mountain Resort, south of Lake Tahoe, has pumped 500 million gallons of artificial snow onto its slopes so far this year to supplement the few inches that have fallen.
Relying on elaborate and expensive snow-making systems that only recently were put into place, Kirkwood employees often spend hours grooming the runs to make them skiable. The extensive use of snow-making equipment has turned Tahoe resort operators into “snow farmers,” said Bob Roberts, president of the California Ski Industry Assn.
At Mammoth, much of the mountainside is brown, and only 46 of 150 available trails are open. Squaw Valley also has had only a light dusting of snow. Many ski lifts that shuttle visitors to the mountaintops are unneeded and not in use.
To attract patrons, resorts are selling daily passes at discounts. At Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley, two resorts that recently merged, lift tickets are 15% cheaper -- $79 a pop instead of $92.
Still, “if you’re a very good skier and a powder aficionado, you’re frustrated,” Roberts said.
Those who travel to ski and snowboard on the northern slopes simply want fresh powder.
Author and sports business consultant Marc Isenberg and his wife, Debbie Spander, are both such avowed powder buffs that they shun Southern California resorts. “I’ve never skied locally,” Isenberg said. “It just doesn’t compare.”
The Santa Monica couple canceled plans for their annual skiing vacation to Tahoe once Spander checked on the projected snow levels -- or lack of any. They plan instead to seek fresh snow in Utah or Colorado if the Northern California snow situation doesn’t improve.
“It wasn’t worth going up if we couldn’t spend our time skiing,” said Isenberg, 44. “All the ski runs we like would’ve been closed.”
Lamented Craig Swartz, 20, who has skied at Kirkwood for nine years: “We need snow. We need it bad.”
Many visitors to Tahoe instead are hiking, ice skating, shopping and eating out instead of hitting the slopes, said Jessica VanPernis, a spokeswoman for Vail Resorts, which owns the Northstar and Heavenly ski resorts in South Lake Tahoe.
Mammoth Mountain’s Lynch said many people still will come over the next few weeks because they already have lodging reservations.
“There’s no cause for panic yet,” she said.
Despite the slow start to the season and steep discounts to amenities and lift tickets, ski operators remain optimistic that the rest of the winter will bring plenty of snow and will allow resorts to hit their projections.
“There’ll be a lot of pent-up demand once the snow hits,” said Michael Dalzell, Kirkwood’s vice president of sales and marketing.