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Oh, what a difference one season makes for Western skiers

January 15, 2006|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

SO far this winter, it appears the heavens have answered the prayers of skiers, particularly of those who like to travel.

Ski conditions across the Western U.S. are the most consistent in years, and significant or adequate snow is blanketing resorts across the Sierra Nevada, the Cascades and the central and northern Rockies.

If the snow holds up or increases, those inclined to leave California for their winter vacations probably will find good, or at least decent, conditions at most ski resorts in the West.

Drought has cursed much of the West so far this century. The spigot was turned off last year over the usually soggy Pacific Northwest, and Colorado has had several mostly dry winters dating to the late 1990s.

Late last year, the weather picture changed. The snow started flying in early autumn in Colorado and, even better, has continued falling at regular intervals. Spots across the Rockies and the Cascades got a foot or more last weekend, and more snow was predicted in both areas last week.

"We're having the best early-season conditions that we've had in two decades," said Molly Cuffe, spokeswoman for Colorado Ski Country USA, a group that represents the state's resorts.

But Southern California and the Southwest have drawn the short straw this winter.

New Mexico, in particular, is hurting. Taos Ski Valley is relying mostly on man-made snow and has not been able to open much of its expert terrain.

In California, the undisputed champion at the moment is Mammoth Mountain, which in a three-day span over the New Year's weekend reported 125 inches of snow at its main lodge at 9,000 feet.

The snowfall was so heavy that virtually the entire mountain was shut down due to high winds and snow that had buried chairlifts. (The resort charged its full holiday price for adult tickets -- $73 -- even though only a few lifts were open.)

"I lived through last winter and thought it couldn't snow more than that," said Dana Vander Houwen, a resort spokeswoman. On Jan. 1, "I was shoveling my deck every hour ... and we were getting 6 inches an hour," she said.

The resorts that ring Lake Tahoe -- which are at a lower elevation than Mammoth -- didn't see those accumulations. But through last weekend, the major resorts -- Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, Heavenly and Northstar -- were open top to bottom.

Elsewhere in the West, conditions are prime at some of the largest resorts, including Mt. Bachelor in Oregon; Sun Valley in Idaho; Jackson Hole in Wyoming; the Wasatch Mountain resorts in Utah; and Vail, Steamboat and Snowmass (near Aspen) in Colorado.

One reason for the large snowfalls, meteorologists say, is that the polar jet stream has settled over upper Northern California, Oregon and Washington, instead of dancing across southern latitudes, as it has in some years. That, in turn, benefits resorts in the Pacific Northwest and the central and northern Rockies.

"Last year, what was happening is the jet stream was coming in at a lower latitude and bringing these big storms to Southern California, Arizona and Mexico," said Matt Kelsch, a hydrometeorologist at the University Corp. for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo.

"So places like Montana, Oregon and Washington were all missing out. But this year it has kind of flipped. I should add that just because that's the pattern now, there are years when there could be a change in midwinter, although a lot of times winters have a dominant pattern the whole season."

In other words: So far, so good. Cross your fingers and hope for more.

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