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On a powder trip

Bases are loaded for a winning ski season, thanks to recent snowfall.

January 27, 2008|Benoit Lebourgeois | Special to The Times

The Champagne corks had barely stopped popping in celebration of phenomenal snowfalls when California ski resorts began detonating charges to prevent avalanches. Locally, the early-January storms blanketed mountains with a couple of feet of fresh powder.

Within a few days, one winter storm after another crept up the Sierra, delivering an abundance of the white stuff, causing white-out conditions, shutting down Interstate 80 and grounding flights out of Reno. Now, ski resorts up and down the state are fully open and report snow depths that range from tolerable in Southern California mountains to impressive around Lake Tahoe and Donner Pass.

After a weeklong interlude of blue skies, snow showers returned this week and refreshed the snowpack with at least 2 feet of powder.

So much snow fell in early January on Sugar Bowl, atop Donner Pass west of Truckee, that operators had trouble keeping track of the amount.

"We did get hammered up here," said Greg Murtha, spokesman for the resort, which has 71 inches of snow at its base, 104 on top. "It was hard to tell when one storm stopped and the next one started."

The accumulation prompted Heavenly, at the southern end of Lake Tahoe, to christen the weather systems the "storm of the century," and to predict that the 8 feet of snow that had fallen there would set the stage for "an epic spring ski season." The resort is reporting a 58- to 80-inch base.

Exuberance and hyperbole come with the mountainous territory. But whether a resort claims 5 or 10 feet, the prodigious snowfall translates into ideal conditions to explore not just the groomed runs, but also the steeper faces and chutes without risking damage to the base of your skis or snowboard. Your body will suffer -- or rejoice -- from plenty of face shots.

By the Travel section's deadline Tuesday, Squaw Valley had recorded 144 cumulative inches for the season at its 6,200-foot base, a figure surpassed only once in the last 10 years, and snow depths of 88 to 118 inches.

Reasons enough to celebrate, but the storms' superlative bounty also caused headaches. When snowfall, measured in feet, is whipped by fierce gusts, conditions tip from delightful to dangerous.

Snow was still falling hard earlier in the month when crews at Mammoth Mountain and elsewhere fired howitzers and dropped hand charges to set off intentional slides before deeming the slopes safe for skiing and riding.

"The biggest challenge that we had was the wind that shut a lot of our chairs down. We were getting winds in excess of 100 mph, 160 mph on top," said Bobby Hoyt, ski patrol director at Mammoth Mountain, which reported snow depths between 80 and 100 inches.

Sierra-at-Tahoe hosted a National Ski Avalanche Awareness clinic, though the timing was coincidental, said spokeswoman Kirsten Catell. "It gets important to have it after a big snow because you have a lot more traffic going into the backcountry," she said. The resort reported a 48- to 90-inch base.

The storms were not as generous to Southern California's mountains, but enough snow fell to open all terrain. Big Bear Lake's Snow Summit and Bear Mountain picked up a respectable 16 to 20 inches. This week's dusting added to an already decent snowpack.

"Things are awesome. We are in full-blown winter operation. With the storm we got [earlier in the month], we've received more natural snow this year than all of last year," said Chris Riddle, spokesman for the twin resorts, which reported a 20- to 36-inch base.

Near Wrightwood, Mountain High snatched a little more with 2 feet of new snow, for a 30- to 59-inch base.

One SoCal ski operator eyed the storms closely because the resort does not make artificial snow. Six years after Mt. Waterman saw its last skiers, owner Rick Metcalf itches to reopen the San Gabriel Mountains ski area on Friday.

"We got 2 1/2 feet for a good base," he said. "We're waiting for the next storm."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

SNOW REPORT: CALIFORNIA SKI RESORTS

Report as of Jan. 25. Measured at base and top

Donner Pass

Boreal: www.rideboreal.com; 89 - 115 inches

Donner Ski Ranch: www.donnerskiranch.com; 28 - 36 inches

Sugar Bowl: www.sugarbowl.com; 71 - 104 inches

Lake Tahoe

Alpine Meadows: www.skialpine.com; 68 - 106 inches

Diamond Peak: www.diamondpeak.com; 57 - 96 inches

Heavenly: www.skiheavenly.com; 58 - 80 inches

Homewood: www.skihomewood.com; 46 - 71 inches

Kirkwood: www.kirkwood.com; 93 - 125 inches

Mt. Rose: www.mtrose.com; 46 - 82 inches

Northstar: www.northstarattahoe.com; 35 - 62 inches

Sierra-at-Tahoe: www.sierraattahoe.com; 48 - 90 inches

Squaw Valley: www.squaw.com; 88 - 118 inches

Central Sierra

Bear Valley: www.bearvalley.com; 62 - 72 inches

June Mountain: www.junemountain.com; 48 - 72 inches

Mammoth Mountain: www.mammothmountain.com; 80 - 100 inches

Sierra Summit: www.sierrasummit.com; 48 - 72 inches

Southern California

Bear Mountain: www.bearmountain.com; 20 - 36 inches

Mountain High: www.mthigh.com; 30 - 59 inches

Mt. Baldy: www.shopbaldy.com; 24 - 48 inches

Mt. Waterman (not yet open): www.skiwaterman.com; 18 - 24 inches

Snow Valley: www.snow-valley.com; 48 - 72 inches

Snow Summit: www.snowsummit.com; 20 - 36 inches

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