Artificial intelligence and other smart innovations at California and Western ski resorts


Technology continues its inexorable march into the mountains of North America this winter.

Vail Resorts, corporate parent of California’s Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood, is debuting Emma, a digital assistant that can answer ski-related queries in real time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Her expertise includes snow conditions, lift-line wait times and parking, and finding late-night cocktails, family-friendly meals or even a fashionable ski jacket.


Emma knows what time ski school opens, how much lift tickets cost, and can direct users to an expert trail, an ice skating rink or nearby s’mores. If Emma can’t answer a question, she’ll connect guests to chat with a customer service agent for help.

Emma is available this season at Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood and other Vail Resorts properties, including Keystone, Vail, Beaver Creek and Breckenridge in Colorado; Park City in Utah; and Whistler Blackcomb, Canada.

But there’s more to talk about than just a talking head. Here’s what else is new at resorts in California, the West and Canada.

Southern California

Big Bear Mountain Resorts (Snow Summit and Bear Mountain) has invested $3.6 million in snow-making enhancements and two new grooming vehicles. Bear Mountain’s new Adventure Academy is a 6,000-square-foot, one-stop learning center (with rental equipment for adults and kids, lift ticket sales and lessons registration) in the Bear Mountain base area.

Also new: Frusion juice and smoothie bar serving acai and pitaya bowls, salads and kombucha on tap; and the Soaring Eagle zip-line at the Big Bear alpine slide.

Mountain High’s two new snow parks each feature tubing, snow-play areas (where kids and adults can throw snowballs with a Yeti and friends) and “grab-n-go” ski and snowboard lessons with roving instructors.

Snow Valley is debuting enhanced Wi-Fi connectivity through the ViaSat-2 satellite network.


Mammoth Mountain has three new flights to Mammoth Lakes, including a new daily, year-round United nonstop from LAX; new seasonal nonstop service from Orange County on JetSuiteX; and a new daily, seasonal United nonstop from Denver starting Dec. 19.

The resort also is offering new introduction-to-backcountry clinics, backcountry tours, side-country tours and free uphill access tickets (for those with alpine touring gear or snowshoes between 7:30 a.m. and 3 p.m.) at the Main, Eagle and Canyon lodges.

The second phase of Canyon Lodge’s $20-million renovation, scheduled to begin in spring, includes two flights of escalators, an expanded entry, and remodeled restrooms, fourth-floor dining facilities and third-floor guest-services area.

Boreal Mountain in Truckee, Calif., unveils the California Cruiser, a new beginner chairlift.

Diamond Peak in Incline Village, Nev., offers the Village, a new lower mountain terrain park.

Heavenly, in South Lake Tahoe, debuts guided 45-minute scenic utility-vehicle tours leaving from the top of the gondola, at 10,000 feet above sea level.

In Truckee, Northstar California’s ski-in, ski-out Summit Smokehouse has a new menu.

In Twin Bridges, Calif., Sierra-at-Tahoe has added two new grooming vehicles, one designed specifically for terrain parks.

Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows in Olympic Valley, Calif., has reopened the Alpine Meadows Base Lodge after a $1.4-million renovation that includes a renovated food court, expanded marketplace, a self-serve barista bar and new outdoor furniture.

Alpine Meadows also has expanded its snow-making coverage to include the Subway beginner area.

The two resorts are now drawing their electricity from 100% renewable sources through Liberty Utilities’ Green Tariff program, a change that will reduce the resorts’ total annual carbon footprint by almost half.

Sugar Bowl/Royal Gorge Resort in Soda Springs, Calif., has invested the first $3 million of an eventual $8-million snow-making system upgrade, doubling water pumping capacity and reducing energy consumption and the time it takes to cover its snow-making terrain by two-thirds.

Tahoe Donner’s new Snowbird triple chairlift replaces the resort’s circa 1971 double chair and provides improved access to beginner terrain at the Truckee resort. The cross-country center offers expanded grooming, new demo and rental equipment, and new signage throughout its 62-plus miles of trails.


Alta’s newest lift, a fixed-grip quad, connects the ski area to the newly renovated and expanded Snowpine Lodge, scheduled to open in January.

Deer Valley’s $8.1 million in capital improvements includes replacing the Homestake lift with a new high-speed quad.

Park City Mountain’s new High Meadow Park at Canyons Village is a dedicated learning area designed for beginning skiers and served by a new high-speed quad lift. High Meadow Park features three new adventure trails and a Candy Cabin with sweets and chocolates.

Snowbird’s two new pedestrian bridges allow for easier access to the Cliff Lodge, Snowbird Center and Lower Village. From the base of the Peruvian Chair, the 70-foot Peruvian Bridge provides direct access to the aerial tram. The 491-foot Chickadee Bridge covers the entire expanse of lower Chickadee trail.


Arapahoe Basin’s new four-person Beavers Chair provides access to the Beavers’ 468 acres of intermediate (two trails), expert and extreme terrain.

Beaver Creek’s two new beginner lifts — the Haymeadow Express gondola and the Highlands lift — serve Haymeadow Park, the resort’s new learning area.

Breckenridge’s new Breck Guides program gives participants early- morning access to lifts before the public, a behind-the-scenes look at the ski patrol’s morning meeting, and a local’s insights about the best snow, hidden powder stashes and glade runs in the resort’s high alpine terrain, all courtesy of an elite group of 10 ski and snowboard instructors.

Copper Mountain has completed renovations to its American Eagle and American Flyer lifts. Eagle now combines six-person, high-speed chairs and gondola cabins. Flyer is now a six-person chair with a weather-proof bubble screen.

At Loveland, Chet’s Dream (named for former owner Chet Upham Jr.) is the resort’s first high-speed quad chair.

At Aspen Snowmass, the current phase of the new Snowmass Base Village, a 10-year, $600-million development project, takes the wraps off the 99-room Limelight Hotel (with, among other features, a five-story indoor climbing wall that’s open to the public), ski-in/ski-out residences, an events plaza with ice skating rink, new restaurants and bars, and a community center.

Steamboat’s new Taco Beast (imagine a food truck masquerading as a customized snow cat) will roam the mountain, parking for a few days at a time at several locations. Among the menu items: tacos and esquites (Mexican street corn).

Telluride’s Meadows, the popular beginner area, has a new 320-foot covered surface lift.

Winter Park, owned by the city and county of Denver but operated by Alterra Mountain Co., is unveiling nearly $30 million in capital improvements. A new $16-million, 10-person gondola, replacing the Zephyr Express quad, runs from the main resort base to the Lodge at Sunspot.

The base’s redesigned village plaza features an in-ground snow melt system and a permanent performance stage. The resort also has invested about $4 million to upgrade its snow-making system and purchased two new grooming vehicles.

Wolf Creek, in most winters among Colorado’s snowiest resorts, is debuting the Charity chairlift, a new high-speed, detachable quad.

Elsewhere in the West and Canada

Idaho’s Sun Valley is offering Experience Cold Springs Canyon guided tours (recommended for advanced skiers but not snowboarders) led by instructors and ski patrolers, previewing a planned 380-acre terrain expansion for the 2019-20 season.

The project includes replacing the Cold Springs double chairlift, the resort’s oldest, with a high-speed quad, opening new bowl and tree skiing. The Lower Broadway run will be extended 3,400 feet to the new Cold Springs lift lower terminal.

Montana’s Big Sky Resort, three years into a 10-year, $150-million redevelopment plan, is adding the Ramcharger 8, an eight-person chairlift featuring ergonomically shaped, heated seats and a weatherproof bubble.

Wyoming’s Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is opening the new Solitude Station at the Sweetwater Gondola mid-station, dedicated to kids and adults learning to ski and snowboard. The 12,000-square-foot lodge offers dining and rental equipment and lessons through the on-site Mountain Sports School.

British Columbia’s Whistler Blackcomb adds the new Blackcomb Gondola with 10-person cabins. It connects to the Peak 2 Peak and Village gondolas, completing what’s described as the longest circuitous lift system in the world, a ride about 7½ miles long.