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Early snow lifts Sierra Nevada ski industry's spirits

Things are looking up this winter after a miserable season last year because of poor conditions and the economy.

December 24, 2009|By David Morrill
  • Badger Pass has put billboards up to encourage people thinking about going to Lake Tahoe to come to the ski area, which is inside Yosemite National Park.
Badger Pass has put billboards up to encourage people thinking about going… (Kenny Karst / nps.gov )

Last Christmas, the Sierra Nevada ski industry did everything it could to put on its best face in light of little snow and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The smile was fake.

This year the optimism is genuine.

"Because of the early snow, everyone I've talked to has never been more optimistic about this season," said Rob Brown, president and publisher of Orinda, Calif.-based Mountain News Corp., which publishes Onthesnow.com and provides snow reports for media outlets. "I really believe it's going to be one of the best we've seen in a long time.

"There's a lot of pent-up demand since last year was so bad," Brown added.

An example of what a difference a year can make is the Village at Squaw Valley, Calif. Last season, the mountains there were mostly brown. Unheard-of offers such as one-night minimum stays were floated to try to lure people from their homes.

Last season at this time, occupancy was between 60% and 70% there. This season, it's about 90%. And there's nothing available below a three-night minimum, said Brandon Sirstins, spokesman for the Village at Squaw Valley.

"Snow trumps all," he said. "Even if it's a bad economy, if there's snow outside, the phones will start ringing."

According to Onthesnow.com, Squaw Valley had a base of 60 inches as of Tuesday afternoon. Other Lake Tahoe-area ski resorts including Boreal, Sugar Bowl and Kirkwood reported bases greater than 60 inches.

The only thing that could prevent an optimal holiday weekend is if a blizzard arrives at the same time that skiers are expected to come.

"People don't like to drive in bad weather," Brown said. "Unless you are a die-hard, if you have to put on chains, you're not going to come."

The industry is also optimistic that skiers will come from greater distances than in years past. According to AAA, more than 11.3 million Californians plan to travel 50 miles or more this Christmas and New Year's holiday, which represents an increase of 11% from a year earlier.

"The fact that more Californians are traveling during this holiday season appears to indicate that consumers are more willing to spend money on leisure travel," AAA Northern California spokeswoman Cynthia Harris said.

"Although many consumers are still feeling the pain of the current economic conditions, here in California they appear to be more focused on controlling costs rather than canceling trips."

Near Tracy, Calif., the Badger Pass ski area has put billboards up to encourage people thinking about going to Lake Tahoe to consider the Yosemite National Park area as well.

"We are 100% dependent on Mother Nature," said Kenny Karst, a spokesman for Badger Pass. "With the snow we've had, we're expecting a phenomenal season."

Morrill writes for the Contra Costa Times.

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