The crazy-quilt weather pattern of the past week with heavy snow, then rain, then a wintry mix topped by a dusting, depending on locations, elevation and local anomalies, has turned the holiday weekend into a guessing game for many across the high country.
The good news:
- High country powder: Tahoe-area resorts reported snowpacks of 50 to 70 inches at their high-elevation bowls and slopes, which will open many runs for the first time this winter and new vast areas of terrain for intermediate and advanced skiers and boarders.
- Roads clear: After last weekend’s deluge, the roads were clear and dry on Wednesday, and according to the forecast, expected to stay that way through most of the weekend (with a chance of showers on Saturday and Sunday). Clear roads and no big storm on Friday or Monday will make the drive into the high Sierra easier to deal with, with no chain controls, snow or black ice expected on major highways
- Openings: Dodge Ridge, off Highway 108 east of Sonora, opened for the season on Wednesday. Badger Pass in Yosemite National Park opened this week as well. Tahoe-Donner downhill plans to open Friday with limited terrain. Last Sunday’s temporary closures from avalanche danger at Squaw Valley and Kirkwood, are now long past, the parks are ready for the weekend with good conditions.
- Snowplay: Leland SnowPlay near Strawberry (and Dodge Ridge), the family hill with surface lifts for tubing and sledding, reopened on Tuesday and will be open for the weekend. It was shut down Saturday by rain, which turned the snow into something resembling mash potatoes. But a light dusting and freezing temps at night earlier this week made it viable again, even if conditions are far from pristine.
The not-so-good news:
- Saturday’s breezes: There’s a chance for wind on Saturday. With forecasted gusts on the ridges at 20 to 30 knots, some resorts can put lifts on hold for access to the higher elevations where snow conditions are best. There’s also a chance of rain and snow showers in the Tahoe region, with temps forecast up to 50 at 6,000 feet.
- Still closed: In the era of corporate ski takeovers and high prices, most root for Mount Shasta Ski Park, still privately owned and designed for families. First drought, then rain, has kept it shut down. As a storm moves through this week in the north state, for instance, the snow line at Mount Shasta is 7,300 to 8,400 feet; the ski park has a base elevation of 5,445 feet and buttes with staging areas at 6,150, 6,600 and 6,880 feet.
The best prospects at Tahoe are the intermediate and expert runs at the higher elevations, where it snowed all last weekend, not rained. As the week progressed, freezing temps at night, a light dusting and snow grooming gave mid-level runs a boost as well.
One of the best examples is at Heavenly at South Lake Tahoe. After last weekend’s weather event, heavy snow then rain, Heavenly received a nice layer of four inches on Tuesday, and with freezing temps at night, Snowcats turned the surface into corduroy and added vast terrain. The Milky Way Bowl has had deep powder.
On Wednesday, Heavenly reported 19 of 29 lifts were operating for access to 65 of 97 runs. Last week at this time, skiers and boarders had access to only 271 acres out of 4,800. That’s been raised to 2,240. Better yet, the snow surface in many areas is the best of the season.
“Terrain is opening continuously,” said Heavenly’s Liesl Kenney, who was on the mountain on Wednesday. “That includes favorites like Milky Way Bowl, Pinnacles and Upper Gunbarrel.”
Most parks the high Sierra range are expanding the runs and terrain available for the three-day weekend.
In north Tahoe, Northstar off Highway 267 has 13 of 20 lifts running on Wednesday for access to 70 of 97 runs. At Kirkwood, an hour south of Tahoe near Carson Pass, operators reported 8 of 15 lifts for access to 49 of 86 runs (10 of 10 beginner runs, 17 of 26 intermediate, 21 of 33 advanced, 1 of 17 expert).
The biggest park with the most lifts, runs and terrain accessible is Mammoth Mountain, perched high near Minaret Pass in the eastern Sierra: 25 of 28 lifts open for access to all 151 runs, and all 3,500 acres available.
If you drive up to Tahoe, you will find strange snow conditions on the way there. In the Tahoe Basin on Wednesday, all the roads, 80, 89, 267, and 50, were clear and dry.
In Truckee, South Lake Tahoe and lakeside, for instance, snow is minimal, and in many areas, you see bare earth. On the way up, how much snow you see depends on elevations and exposure.
Going up I-80 from Auburn, you’ll see snow alongside the highway at Kingvale, past Castle Peak/Boreal and up to Donner Pass, then it becomes bare dirt as you pass Truckee.
If you head up U.S. 50 out of Placerville, snow adjoins the highway all through Twin Bridges to Echo Summit. Then it dissipates into sparse cover and less as you descend to Meyers and South Lake Tahoe.
Tom Stienstra’s Outdoor Report can be heard Saturdays on KCBS (740 and 106.9) at 7:35 a.m., 9:35 a.m. and 12:35 p.m. E-mail at email@example.com.
Chron ski blog: http://blog.sfgate.com/ski.
Snow report: All resorts listed at www.onthesnow.com.
Road conditions: (800) 427-7623, www.dot.ca.gov/cgi-bin/roads.cgi.
Caltrans live highway cams: http://video.dot.ca.gov.