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SPORTS WEEKEND | SKIING / PETE THOMAS

New Year Arrives Minus Hard Rain

January 02, 1998|PETE THOMAS

They rang in the new year in grand fashion throughout Lake Tahoe, reveling in the streets some 50,000 strong.

And their ears probably were still ringing as they made their way up and down the snowy slopes on New Year's Day.

But at least it wasn't raining. . . .

A year ago at this time, they could have been swimming in the streets on New Year's Eve, and they could have gone rafting down the slopes on New Year's Day.

It's not something resort operators like to talk about, especially with this year having started off so smoothly, with most areas running at or near 100%, but at the same time they cannot help but recall a season that started with even more promise than this year--with as much as 10 feet falling before Christmas--before Mother Nature decided to rain on everyone's parade.

"The big, bad rain came New Year's Eve," said Judy Daniels, a spokeswoman for Northstar-at-Tahoe on the lake's North Shore. "It started raining at about midnight and it didn't stop."

Rivers and creeks overflowed, the lake rose and water gushed down even the highest of runs.

"We had 175 skiers on Jan. 2," Daniels said, "compared to our normal 8,000-9,000."

Flooding was extensive in some areas of the North Shore, but it was the South Shore that experienced the most telling blow financially, as mudslides on Highway 50 cut off its lifeline, restricting access for skiers from the Sacramento and San Francisco areas.

The highway was opened within two weeks, only to be closed again 10 days later after a colder snowstorm dumped four to six feet of snow in 32 hours and triggered more slides.

Ski Area Management Magazine, a trade publication, described events that took place around the 17 resorts in the Tahoe region as "the largest and most widespread natural disaster in the history of American skiing."

Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Assn., which represents 36 ski resorts in California and Nevada, estimated financial losses--in terms of skier visits, not counting physical damage or residual sales lost--at about $40 million.

"They lost one million skier visits, easily," Roberts said. "Slap a $40 lift ticket onto that and that's $40 million."

Roberts said that statewide, the best year ever was 7.1 million skier visits, and that a normal year is 6 1/2 million to 7 million. Last year there were only 5.7 million skier visits to resorts throughout California.

"The flooding was so extensive during last January that people weren't thinking about recreation," he said. "They were thinking about their basements getting flooded. They were worried about what the Napa River was going to do. . . . By the time things got back to normal, the momentum just wasn't there."

Meanwhile, skiers and resort operators throughout the region are putting a sodden 1997 behind them and are off to a flying start this holiday season.

Northstar-at-Tahoe last weekend reported "record-breaking revenue in retail and food and beverage [sales]" and 8,000 people on the slopes Saturday and Sunday.

Said Sierra-at-Tahoe spokeswoman Nancy Harrison: "Business is excellent. Year to date, we're doing twice as well as we were last year. We've had a few storms, but so far it's been a pretty cool, clear winter."

With not a drop of rain.

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