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Making new inroads at state's many ski resorts

December 09, 2007|Benoit Lebourgeois | Special to The Times

Blue skies don't depress Rick Metcalf, although they probably should.

The meager snowfall last year at Mt. Waterman in the San Gabriel Mountains -- about 8 inches, Metcalf, the owner, said -- meant the resort, which has been shuttered since 2004, stayed closed.

Another dry winter is forecast -- although, Metcalf notes, no one can know for sure -- so he's not announcing his opening date until he has a 2-foot base.

Other California operators, meanwhile, are keeping their ski tips crossed. They have cut a few new trails and upgraded chairlifts at Golden State resorts, and skiers and riders will discover new activities and programs that can take them to locations they've never been to.

Here is a roundup of changes in California resorts:

In Wrightwood, Mountain High has added numerous new jibs for snowboarders. Count on great jumps off additional man-made features in the extensive Faultline Terrain Park. The tricky Cronk Rail, inspired by professional snowboarder Cory Cronk, will challenge most riders.

And in news from up north, the chair with the longest vertical rise at Mammoth Mountain will now carry six people instead of two and will climb the slope twice as fast as chair 9, its predecessor.

At Bear Valley Mountain Resort, the emphasis this season is on healthy. The central Sierra resort offers a First Tracks guided tour that will give you an early-morning workout along steeps and chutes as well as more sedate groomed runs.

It's also celebrating 40 years with new healthful dining options.

Heavenly Ski Resort, overlooking the south shore of Lake Tahoe, is going healthful too, switching to hormone-free meats and poultry and organic dairy products at its seven on-mountain restaurants.

Visitors also can consider a swing on the new zip line. The 50-mph ride is on a cable strung between the top of Tamarack Express and the top of the gondola.

Heavenly has upgraded the Olympic Chair to a high-speed, detachable quad, and it has carved two new intermediate trails, the Pines and Cloud Nine, that bring skiers and riders back to the chair's base and to the steeper new Bohemian Grove.

Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort is expecting approval from Eldorado National Forest to expand into adjacent Huckleberry Canyon. Ski patrollers then will guide tours into the bowl and glades.

"I am afraid that if I were to go with friends, I would get ditched," said skier Lisa Monrreal, "because there are no friends on a powder day." The South Lake Tahoe resident said she looks forward to riding Huckleberry Canyon with a ski patroller.

Kirkwood Ski Resort, 35 miles from South Lake Tahoe near Carson Pass, boasts a backcountry education program that offers courses on snow safety, avalanche terrain awareness, and transmitter and transceiver use.

A new snow-camping class offers instruction in gear and site selection, packing strategies as well as cold-weather cooking; it also includes an overnight camp-out to put the newfound knowledge to the test.

Kirkwood also encourages carpooling among Lake Tahoe, Reno, the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California. It hosts a forum on its website,, where visitors can provide or request shared rides and customize searches.

"The carpool forum will allow me to meet some new buddies to snowboard Kirkwood with, while splitting the burden of driving and cost of gas," said Timothy Burr Jr. of San Francisco. "More carpooling equals fewer cars equals less traffic -- and less environmental impact -- equals much more snowboarding."

Homewood Mountain Resort, on Lake Tahoe's western shore, also has decided to speed things up by replacing its quad chair with the Old Homewood Express, which transports skiers and riders in just five minutes, saving 14 minutes.

At the northern end of the lake, Mt. Rose resort's Wild Card Bowl has undergone some selective forest thinning and the removal of tree stumps and snags to improve trails. The Log Flume trail has been renamed Zephyr Return and re-graded to allow greater snow accumulation and improve early-season conditions.

Near Truckee, three ski areas report improvements.

At Sugar Bowl Ski Resort, the free ski valet service at the Mt. Judah base should abolish taxing trips through the parking lot.

Aside from a new chairlift that's meant to grant slope access to homeowners, Northstar has carved four new intermediate trails bypassing the Big Springs Express Gondola for the return to the village.

Austrian manufacturer Doppelmayr was kept busy, filling another order at Squaw Valley resort, this time for a high-speed, detachable, six-pack chair on the Shirley Lake lift. From the ski patrol shack, experienced guides will lead first-ever backcountry outings into an area known as the Canyons.

"People are trying more and more to experience the backcountry. Unfortunately, they may not have the education to minimize risks," said John Darby, manager at the Granite Chief, a specialty retailer that specializes in boot fitting in Truckee. "I'm very much in favor of guided trips."

Squaw Valley's new, full-moon snowshoe tours let participants trek to the resort's upper mountain to take in the alpenglow and views of Lake Tahoe, and imbibe in some hot chocolate and apple cider to help them forget how nippy it is at 8,000 feet after dusk.

A large in-ground halfpipe set to debut at the mid-mountain Central Park at Riviera Terrain Park rounds up Squaw Valley's new offerings.

Apart from enhancing skiing and snowboarding, some resorts are focusing their attention on operational issues.

Several years ago, ski resorts started to adopt environmentally conscious programs. Recycling, native plant revegetation and use of biodiesel fuel may not be very noticeable to visitors, but these efforts position the operators as responsible stewards of the mountains. Alpine Meadows, Boreal, Heavenly and Sugar Bowl are buying clean-energy credits to offset their carbon footprints.


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