California is officially in a drought and snow levels in the mountains are nearly non-existent. But, it may actually be a better time than ever to head to Tahoe.
While the crowds are staying away, intrepid skiers and snowboarders are discovering that they have the grounds (albeit smaller) all to themselves.
According to Vail Resorts, which owns Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood, visitors are down by about 23 percent compared with last year – even though last year was also a relatively low snow year. While there are dirt patches and many of the smaller resorts are struggling to maintain conditions, the bigger places have turned to snow-making to create miles of skiable trails.
Heavenly Mountain Resort has the largest snow-making system on the West Coast with 200 guns making an average of 120 inches of snow each season. About a quarter of the resort is currently open, offering winter enthusiasts nearly 15 miles of trails to ski and snowboard. At Northstar there are 29 trails open and two terrain parks.
Here are some frequently asked questions about Heavenly’s snow-making and grooming operations:
What is the snow made of?
Water and air.
How do you make snow?
Water and air are pumped through a network of pipes and hoses on the mountain. A hydrant, acting like a sophisticated faucet, controls the amount of air and water that flows through connecting hoses and into the snowmaking gun. The air and water collide in the snow gun, where the water droplets are blown apart by the compressed air. The microscopic water particles are then shot out of the nozzle and into the air. As the vaporized water falls through the cold air, it crystallizes to form snow.
There are a wide variety of water/air combinations and nozzle settings that affect the snow texture. Based on water temperatures, air temperatures and relative humidity, the water and air settings are adjusted to achieve the desired snow quality and texture. In general, the more water added, the denser the snow; add more air and the snow is lighter. Early in the season, snowmakers attempt to make a heavier snow to establish a base. As a good base is developed, the snow is made with less water, producing a softer skiing surface.
Is machine snow icy and hard? Can you make powder?
They can make powder. Snow, whether man-made or natural has to be properly maintained and groomed. It also all has an aging cycle during which it becomes harder and icy.
How much snow can Heavenly make?
One foot over 43 acres over a 12-hour period. The system can cover 69% of the runs, but rarely do they make snow on all at once.
This isn’t the first time resorts have had to open without a measurable amount of snow. Boreal, in fact, was able to make the first snow of the season back in September because of the cold conditions. Unfortunately, the cold temperatures didn’t mean that the season was going to be as heavy as many hoped.
Ski areas are getting creative with the lack of natural snow this year. Heavenly is also trying to turn itself into a party spot, converting a grooming machine into a DJ platform and hosting a party at the mid-mountain lodge when the runs begin to close.
Right now this is what’s open: (subject to change)
Alpine Meadows: 46% of lifts open with 19 inches of snow at the summit
Heavenly: 62% of lifts open with 39 inches of snow at the summit
Kirkwood: 27% of lifts open with 21 inches of snow at the summit
Mt. Rose: 63% of lifts open with 20 inches of snow at the summit
Northstar: 70% of lifts open with 18 inches of snow at the summit
Sierra-at-Tahoe: 29% of lifts open with 22 inches of snow at the summit
Squaw Valley: 37% of lifts open with 19 inches of snow at the summit
Check [skilaketahoe.com](skilaketahoe.com) or [onthesnow.com](onthesnow.com) for snow conditions before you plan your trip, and here's a cool video about snow production.