Snow conditions at Red Mountain Resort in British Columbia, Canada, on… (Charlie Jondal )
Last year, big snow allowed Badger Pass Ski Area in Yosemite National Park to open ahead of schedule on Dec. 4. This year, things couldn't be more different. Not only did the ski area miss its Dec. 16 planned opening, it's still snow-free -- with no opening date in sight.
Yosemite visitors are lacing up their hiking boots instead of snapping on skis during the unusually warm weather expected to last at least through this week. Bike stands and stables will reopen for those who want to indulge themselves in the summer-in-winter activities.
La Nina, the weather pattern cheered for last year's epic snow, is being blamed for this year's slower-than-average start to the skiing-snowboarding season, making it tough for those eager to make winter travel plans.
"I want to go find all the people who in August said it's going to be an amazing La Nina year and slap them," Powder magazine editor Derek Taylor says. "We get superstitious in the ski world."
Superstitious or not, many ski resorts across the country and in Europe are finding this year's La Nina delivering warm temperatures and not enough of the white stuff. In the West, the Sierra and Lake Tahoe as well as parts of Utah and Colorado remained snow-poor as the calendar flipped into the new year.
"This is an extraordinary low snow pack for the West and the East Coast as well," says Howard Katkov, owner of Red Mountain Resort in Rossland, British Columbia, Canada, one of the few ski resorts with snow right now. "It's a very, very unusual winter."
As of last Wednesday, about 22 percent of the U.S. was covered by snow, less than half of the total for the same date last year and the lowest snow coverage in the past eight years. Also last week, California's first snow survey of winter showed mountain snow pack among the driest on record for Jan. 3.
As a result, places like Badger Pass, Donner Ski Ranch and Mt. Shasta Ski Park remain shut until it snows. Homewood Mountain Resort in the Lake Tahoe area closed for midweek skiing until conditions improve.
But the big story is that big resorts such as Mammoth Mountain, Squaw Valley and others in Lake Tahoe aren't getting their usual hit. "It's certainly unusual for Mammoth on Jan. 6 to have such limited snowfall," communications director Joannie Lynch says.
Mammoth, the third-busiest resort in the U.S., saw a 20% dip in skier visits from last year over the Christmas holidays. Only about 30% of the resort's 150 trails are open, thanks to a 1.5- to 2-foot base created by about 100 snow-making guns. Based on modeling weather patterns, Mammoth is hoping for a snow dump about the third week in January, one of the latest starts to the serious snow season the resort has experienced, Lynch says. Last year, folks were skiing and snowboarding in July.
Southern California resorts (Snow Summit, Bear Mountain, Mountain High, etc.) received an average of 10 to 16 inches of snow during the Nov. 30 windstorm that snapped trees and power lines in L.A.'s foothill communities. The snow and temperatures cold enough for snowmaking meant resorts were able to open up most of the terrain for Christmas.
Bestsnow.net, which tracks snowfall rates throughout the country, reported low snowfall in the Northeast for November and December after a freak storm hurtled through the area before Halloween. Many Vermont resorts such as Stowe, Sugarbush and Killington had less than half of their areas open by the end of 2011.
So where is the snow right now? Mt. Baker in Washington, Mt. Hood in Oregon, the Canadian Rockies and interior British Columbia, New Mexico (Taos, in particular, is having a good year, Taylor says) and Arizona Snowbowl in Flagstaff, which has received 91 inches of snow to date this season.
Red Mountain, which doesn't make snow and hosts about 120,000 skiers and boarders a year, has an offer for U.S. skiers: free daily lift tickets for every night you stay at the resort's condos. Katkov says the idea, in part, is to counter the negative buzz about this year's season and to keep ski buffs pumped up. "It's time to put a positive spin on this," he says.
Grand Targhee Resort in Wyoming's Teton Valley, which has a 46-inch base, also has an incentive for the snow-starved. Season pass holders at U.S. and Canadian resorts can ski free for every night they stay at one of Grand Targhee's properties (three-night minimum).
But back to La Nina and what may (or may not) happen. Weather expert Ken Clark on his AccuWeather.com blog offers this prediction:
"There are bound to be storms that bring some precipitation, even into places like California, Arizona and Utah. But I think what it does mean is that there is a low chance of precipitation in that region being above normal and an extremely low chance of the season ending up even close to normal."
Stay on top of snow conditions at resorts in the U.S. and beyond at Bestsnow.net and OntheSnow.com.