Snowmaking in Tahoe
Northstar and Heavenly Pump up The Best Christmas Snow Conditions
Originally Published Winter 2011
Despite the sparse natural snow, Tahoe’s two Vail-owned resorts are pumping up their snowmaking muscle for Christmas week. We rode both of them on Friday, and have ridden three more resorts since.
Northstar is rolling out the white carpet to skiers and snowboarders in time for the holidays. Vail’s Sierra Nevada jewel is doubling up other resorts in terms of vertical feet open at 2,280 from top to bottom to go along with Northstar’s new Zephyr Lodge and backside lift, the Promised Land.
Director of Operations John Loomis, credits an exemplary snowmaking crew for the 25-plus open trails as well as owner Vail, who committed to pay for the resources it takes to blow snow for weeks on end. Some Tahoe resort officials say snowmaking costs—diesel fuel, water, electricity and manpower—can run into the tens of thousands nightly.
As far as the snow, it’s slightly better on the front of the mountain than the back, and I’d recommend you get your turns in early as the good stuff could be scraped by later in the day. That said, Northstar is more equipped to handle a full day of skiing than about anywhere else on the North Shore, with runs off Tahoe Zephyr Express providing a variety of beginner and advanced-intermediate terrain. Advanced terrain is open on the backside in Burnout, which is firm but very carvable.
Northstar’s snowmaking strategy is to build from the center of the mountain on up, ensuring skiable access to the Village at Northstar from the mountain and plenty of variety for skiers and riders, Loomis says. Another priority centers on Northstar’s most famous soon to be resident—Shaun White—and his 22’ superpipe, which resort officials expect to have ready by Christmas.
Old Man Winter’s been stingy so far, but Old Man Heavenly’s creating enough Christmas snow to keep Santa, his reindeer and all his elves happy, too. When I went sliding there 0n Friday, December 16, the wind was blowing hard out of the northeast and the gondola at Stateline was on wind-hold. So I drove up Kingsbury Grade to the Stagecoach, 7480 feet elevation, and two lift rides later found myself carving freshies.
Or what passes for freshies, anyway, when the snow’s machine-made. The layer of untracked, however, spread over the surprising soft-pack of Big Dipper run was tantalizingly close. Heavenly has the region’s most powerful snowmaking system, and that combined with its high-elevations and the many sub-freezing nights we’ve had, has created miles of spot-less runs.
There was serious fluff on Comet trail and good corduroy on Stagecoach in the morning. The top of Dipper and Comet chairlifts peaked into the sun above a cloud cap, which lit-up the frosted trees coated mostly by snow guns, but also from last week’s brief natural snowfall—about 4 inches deep in the trees—sad it’s not 4 feet.
The weather forecasts are for high pressure to block storms through year’s end, then winter is supposed to finally get started. But if you want to do some Christmas carving in the meantime, Heavenly’s Nevada-side ain’t chopped liver. Because of the long-traverses between the resort’s two sides, you presently can’t ski between the two. California might be the better choice for lower-intermediates, Nevada for upper. Both sides have their traffic chokepoints when things get crowded, but the California-side is probably worse, at least until more runs open. ***
If the crowds get over-whelming at Tahoe’s big resorts this Christmas week, the little gem above Incline Village might be the answer. Diamond Peak has top-to-bottom skiing open on its classic Crystal Ridge run, as well as a good lower-intermediate run and first-timer terrain.
Way back in the ‘70s, Diamond Peak was the first resort to install snowmaking at Tahoe, so it’s long known the importance of getting a large volume down on the slopes early. Crystal Ridge trail doesn’t have a rock showing, with enough snow on it to last through Christmas, predicts Brad Wilson, Diamond Peak’s new G.M.
“We’re planning to have another 4 runs open by Christmas week,” says Wilson. Diamond Peak increased their snowmaking capacity 35 percent over the summer, with enough power to likely open another run off the high-speed Crystal Express chair—the chair where advanced skiers and riders will want to hang. Crystal Ridge heads straight toward Lake Tahoe, well-groomed if a hint crunchy on Friday due to its southern exposure. On the right day and time, however, this run can deliver perfect corn snow. Lakeview lift is the choice for lower-intermediates, and Schoolhouse is an ideal first-timer chair.
I rode Alpine Meadows for the first chair both Friday and Saturday, and the terrain the mountain does have open is impressively well-covered. By the end of last week, Alpine snowmakers opened almost 1,000 vertical feet of skiing, spinning the Roundhouse, Hot Wheels and Meadow chairlifts. The snow was best in the shade on Friday down Weasel and under Hot Wheels, and the grooming on the runs down from Roundhouse kept the snow in clean, corduroy lines, though it held firm early in the morning and may be best to wait on.
Dave “Rasta” Thatcher, the mountain’s maintenance manager, made it a priority for snowmakers to get coverage on a variety of interconnected terrain. Alpine has the most impressive park riding I’ve seen on the North Shore, and there’s also room for the beginner ski teams.
The next challenge for the snowmakers—who need a mix of dry and cold conditions to continue to make quality snow—is to get coverage on the runs leading down from Summit Chair, Thatcher says. From the looks of the dry terrain that high on the mountain, it’s a tall task, but doable, Thatcher says.
Alpine may not have enough open terrain fill a whole day for you, but the skiing that’s there is as good as you’ll find along the North Shore.
Another real option for a morning of carving or flying fun this holiday season is Sugar Bowl, which has open both terrain features and great advanced and intermediate skiing off it’s Mt. Lincoln summit.
On Monday, 12/19, the east wind blew and the upper reaches of Lincoln had spots of rocks on the trails. If the wind calms down, which it should, Sugar Bowl should be able to add to its snow depths to these high, exposed runs prior to Christmas.
For the time being, bring your rock skis for Lincoln. There’s better coverage on the lower terrain off Jermone Hill chair, and over a traverse to Judah’s terrain features—looking good!
If the resort can keep good coverage on Lincoln, this is good early season warm-up run, either down Lakeview and Hellman’s Chute to the wide-open G.S. of the lower run. Hit it early in the day over Christmas week, as this trail is best served uncrowded.
High and dry, conditions at Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe couldn’t be better given Ma Nature’s lack of help. Excellent man-made snow exists on the runs off the top of Northwest Magnum, giving the mountain a variety of terrain for those looking for a challenge. Its shielded, north-facing slopes are holding the blown snow quite well, and the grooming is great on the wide boulevards off of Ponderosa and Galena chairs.
While the terrain is still slightly limited (it’s open top-to-bottom, but you won’t go off-piste or down the chutes quite yet), Mt. Rose officials aimed to cater to the beginning skiers and riders who populate the slopes over the Christmas holiday, says Kayla Anderson, who works in public relations at the Nevada mountain.
With four of seven lifts open, Rose didn’t crowd terribly on Sunday, the opening weekend of the holiday season. If snowmakers can open some more advanced terrain and the temperatures don’t warm up too much, Rose is one of the best bets on the North Shore.
Published: February 7, 2015