California ski operators often complain that they don’t have enough snow. This year, they’re complaining that they had too much.
Mountain resorts saw a 12% decline in skiers and snowboarders this season compared with the previous one, with attendance falling to about 7.1 million, according to the California Ski Industry Assn., the nonprofit trade group for the state’s major winter sports areas.
The trouble was that near-record snow too often closed roads or discouraged driving to the slopes under harsh conditions -- particularly during crucial weekend periods.
“Had the snow fallen in the right times, it would have been a sensational season,” said Bob Roberts, director of the trade group. “It was a challenging year.”
The bad timing began around the Christmas holidays and happened again in March, when fierce storms dropped so much snow on weekends that it prevented eager skiers and snowboarders from getting to the resorts.
Instead of colossal attendance numbers to match the massive snowfall this season, the state’s ski resorts have reported an overall drop in visitor numbers compared with last season, when there was less snow but easier access to the slopes.
In California, where all outdoor activities generate about $44 billion in spending annually, weather can affect ski resort revenue, the length of the white-water rafting season and even attendance at county fairs.
The state has long had a reputation for sun, surf and sand. But it is also home to a $3-billion ski industry, with 27 ski resorts and more than 2.3 million skiers, snowboarders and snowshoe aficionados.
With snow, it’s not always about quantity.
“The timing of the storms this year was very unfortunate,” said Chris Riddle, a spokesman for the Bear Mountain and Snow Summit resorts near Big Bear.
“Every time a storm came through, it was a Friday or a Saturday.”
Partly because of the bad timing, Riddle said, attendance numbers this season were about 9% below last year’s total. Another cause for the poor attendance was a powerful December storm that washed away sections of Highway 330, a key route to the resorts. The highway remains closed to all but local residents but is scheduled to reopen Friday for the Memorial Day weekend.
Meteorologists expected a La Nina weather system to result in a mostly dry winter in California. It has been anything but dry.
By the end of this winter, the snowpack on the Sierra Nevada measured 165% of normal levels, prompting Gov. Jerry Brown in March to officially proclaim the end of a three-year drought.
On Interstate 80, one of the key routes between the Bay Area and the ski resorts around Lake Tahoe, the total accumulated snowfall near Donner Summit hit 65 feet for the season, compared with about 35 feet last year.
“It wasn’t a record, but it was definitely one of the top five snowiest years,” hydrologist Randall Osterhuber said.
Because of the heavy snowfall, Interstate 80 was closed 181 times outside of the Lake Tahoe ski resorts from the beginning of November to the end of March for a total of 126 hours, according to the California Department of Transportation. During the same period the winter before, the road was closed more often but for shorter periods, according to Caltrans.
Several resorts near Lake Tahoe blamed the road closures for lower-than-expected attendance on the slopes.
Alpine Meadows, for example, recorded 202 inches of snow in March alone, a new record for the resort. “But attendance was not what we expected,” spokeswoman Rachael Woods said.
Mammoth Mountain, one of the most popular resorts for Southern Californians, recorded its snowiest December ever, with 209 inches of accumulated snow. But visitor numbers for the season remained on par with the previous season’s, partly because heavy storms fell during key winter weekends that month, keeping skiers at home, spokesman Dan Hansen said.
“We love to get as much snow as possible, but we like it to come in a pattern that doesn’t affect visitation numbers,” he said.
The good news, Hansen added, is that the mountain may have enough snow to stay open again this year until July 4.
Mark Glasmeier of Newberry Park organized five trips to Mammoth Mountain for the Conejo Ski and Sports Club this season. But he said during two visits the conditions on the mountain were too severe to ski. Heavy snow on the roads added about three hours to the drive from Southern California on another trip, he said.
But after the storms passed, Glasmeier said the conditions were fabulous. “There was lots of powder,” he added. “Much better than the previous year.”
In the San Gabriel Mountains, Mountain High Ski Resort recorded about 155 inches of snow this winter, about the same amount as last year. But the resort in Wrightwood served only about 450,000 skiers this season, 25,000 fewer than last season.
Resort spokesman John McColly said the resort would have served more guests if it had not been for heavy rain in December and snowstorms in March that hit on the weekends instead of during the week.
“I kept looking at the storms, saying, ‘If only this would have happened on a Tuesday,’ ” he said. “But of course you can’t control the weather.”
The abundance of snow in the Sierra Nevada is good news for other outdoor enterprises, such as white-water rafting outfits along the American and Kern rivers.
With so much snowpack in the mountains, Keith “Luther” Stephens, general manager of Kern River Outfitters in Wolford Heights, Calif., predicts that he will be able to offer rafting trips on the Kern River well into August. In typical years, he said, the season ends in June, when water levels drop too low to float a raft.
But if the mountains are hit with a heat wave this month or next, Stephens knows the snowpack will melt quickly, cutting the season short. With weather, he said, there are no guarantees.
Said Stephens: “You never know if Mother Nature is going to throw down a raging torrent next week.”
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About this series
This is one in a series of occasional articles about the effect of California’s outdoors on the state’s economy.