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Snow a no-show on the Continent

A lack of powder prompts flurries of the man-made variety. But out West, things are largely covered.

January 14, 2007|Benoit Lebourgeois | Special to The Times

THE snow gods have not been kind to European ski resorts so far this season, but they're smiling on many U.S. resorts in the West.

Mediocre snowfall from Spain's Sierra Nevada to Austria's Tyrol has delayed openings, reduced operations and forced alpine-skiing World Cup organizers to call off races. But in the Western U.S., many resorts have an adequate and even considerable snowpack.

On his second visit to Mammoth this season, Newport Beach snowboarder Kit Smith, 29, found a 3- to 4-foot base of snow last weekend, and enough of it was newly fallen to suit his fancy. Compared to Germany's Garmisch-Partenkirchen, which he visited last month, Smith said, "It's definitely looking better in Mammoth."

Across the Alps, snow depths at many mountain resorts barely topped the 30-inch mark (as of the Travel section's deadline Tuesday), about half of what's typical at this time of year. Small operations and big-name destination resorts alike -- La Plagne and Val d'Isere in France; Crans-Montana and Wengen in Switzerland; Bormio and Val Gardena in Italy; St. Anton and Kitzbuhel in Austria -- report marginal conditions and little, if any, off-piste skiing.

"It's not the first time this has happened," said Siegrid Pichler of the Austrian Tourist Office in New York City.

Representatives of French, Swiss, Italian, German and Austrian tourism offices say visitor numbers haven't been affected, despite the substandard quality of snow in the valleys. The upper slopes have adequate coverage, they say, and the weather has been cold enough to sustain man-made snow.

European resorts have ample snow-making capabilities, Pichler said, but they have not traditionally relied on it.

Detractors of man-made snow say its dense crystals are a poor imitation of real, feathery-light snowflakes. With its high water content, man-made snow also tends to ice faster.

Because vertical drops in Europe often exceed 3,000 feet, it takes a Herculean effort to cover that much ground with the manufactured fluff.

World Cup officials, meanwhile, are betting that favorable conditions will hold for this week's races in Chamonix, France, and Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy. "Even if the snowfall is scarce, the low temperature permits us to make artificial snow," said Luciana Pradetto, a representative with the Cortina organizing committee for alpine skiing's World Cup.

No need for snow-making in the Pacific Northwest, where storms have created an impressive snow pack: A minimum 100-inch base carpets Seymour and Whistler in British Columbia; Alpental, Crystal, 49 Degrees North, Mt. Baker, Stevens Pass and White Pass in Washington; and Mt. Bachelor and Mt. Hood Meadows in Oregon.

"This has been a phenomenal early winter season at Mt. Baker," where 140 inches have accumulated mid-mountain and another foot at the summit, said spokeswoman Gwyn Howat.

Mt. Baker holds the distinction of having the highest seasonal average at 643 inches as well as the U.S. record for the most snow, after 1,140 inches buried the mountain in the 1998-99 season. The resort appears headed for another banner year.

Mt. Baker's track record is impressive, but this is a fundamentally uncertain business.

"We're essentially snow farmers," Howat said.

During one recent winter, the resort was forced to helicopter snow down from the upper slopes to cover bare runs: "It's hard to be at the mercy of nature," she said.

From Montana's Big Mountain near the Canadian border down to Ski Apache in southern New Mexico, resorts in the Rockies report a suitable snow pack with bases in the 40- to 55-inch range, enough to cover ground and obstacles on beginner and intermediate terrain. (The storms that smacked Denver and the High Plains left most of their snow on flatlands.)

In Utah, Solitude, fully open with a 54-inch base, hosted a record number of visitors during the year-end holidays, spokesman Jay Burke said.

Mike Olson, one of the owners of Wasatch Powderbird Guides, a helicopter-skiing operator based in Snowbird, Utah, that accesses a 60-mile zone on the spine of the Wasatch Mountains, said the snow was good enough to attract European visitors disappointed with the conditions at home. "We've had people from Chamonix and Zermatt saying there was no snow over there," he said.

Lake Tahoe resorts also are doing a brisk business, thanks to good conditions on the slopes and on the roads, said Andy Chapman, director of tourism for the North Lake Tahoe Resort Assn.

When overnight temperatures dipped into low single digits in November, Alpine Meadows' snow guns created a firm foundation. Then Mother Nature came through with 3 feet in the final days of last year, which had Sierra Nevada residents and visitors rejoicing, said Rachel Woods of Alpine Meadows.

Without the benefit of large winter storms so far, local favorites Bear Mountain and Snow Summit in the San Bernardino Mountains are managing with a 12- to 28-inch base.

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