A powerful winter storm is dumping buckets of snow across California, setting the state up for an epic weekend on the slopes — if ski resorts can handle the conditions.
With heavy snow continuing to fall, resort operators are bracing for an onslaught of visitors while grappling with the logistical complications and safety concerns that come with an extraordinary weather event. And the bounty of snow has them already looking ahead to an extended winter sports season.
Several resorts halted lifts Thursday due to strong winds and low visibility and warned of freezing temperatures, extremely dangerous road conditions and the potential for more closures.
"There will be delays over the next several days with the amount of snow we're receiving, so level-set your expectations," said Kevin Cooper, a ski resorts consultant who previously worked at Heavenly in South Lake Tahoe and Northstar in Truckee. "That's from Mammoth Mountain all the way to the Northern Sierra."
Early Thursday morning, Mammoth said the current storm had already brought up to 14 inches of snow to the mountain, which was facing "frigid conditions." The resort said all upper mountain chairlifts would remain closed for the day.
"We expect limited lift operations tomorrow," Mammoth, which predicted it could see up to 4 feet of snow by Saturday morning, said in an afternoon update. It later announced that all uphill routes would be closed Friday for avalanche mitigation work.
Just seven of the 34 lifts at Palisades Tahoe were operating at noon Thursday, with the entire upper mountain area on a wind and visibility hold, spokeswoman Maddy Condon said. The resort received 18 inches of fresh snow in the last 24 hours.
"We officially extended our season to May 29, Memorial Day — we announced that today," she said. "That's not to say we couldn't still see skiing in June or July."
During inclement weather, "there's always a delicate balancing act when it comes to the resorts," Cooper said.
Each company has its own mountain operations team comprising dozens of people, including lift mechanics and operators, ski patrollers and snow groomers. They have to work in concert, often around the clock, to assess fast-changing conditions and weigh the risks before mobilizing to open as safely and quickly as possible.
"The resorts have gotten really good at getting people moving around on the mountain," said Jason Wong, a retired management consultant from Oakland who drives to Lake Tahoe every other weekend to ski. The slowdown comes from "getting to the mountain and getting off the base of the resort — you have to get past that bottleneck."
Ski resorts across the state have been consistently packed this winter thanks to a series of storms that have pummeled the slopes with snow. Roads leading to top ski resorts have been jammed, and traffic conditions this weekend could be especially nightmarish.
"Southern California roads are not used to that amount of snow, so it's certainly going to take more time to clear," said Michael Reitzell, president of trade group Ski California, which represents 35 resorts including Big Bear Mountain Resort, Mountain High and Mt. Baldy.
[Mountain High is Southern California's closest winter resort with no mountain driving. Located just an hour and a half from L.A. and Orange County, you won't find an easier drive to the mountains anywhere.]
"This is probably going to be one of the best Marches in Southern California history when it comes to skiing and snowboarding," he said. "But with that certainly comes its challenges."
Transportation officials have encouraged people to postpone nonessential travel until after the storms pass and have closed roads or implemented chain requirements around the state due to hazardous conditions.
"The really important thing for guests to know is check the roads before you go and be prepared," Reitzell said.
Snow chains or cables were required on all roads to Big Bear Mountain Resort on Thursday, even for vehicles with all-wheel drive. Highway 330 was closed, so visitors were being directed to take alternate routes instead.
The resort said it had received more than 2 feet of new snow in the previous 48 hours with forecasts "calling for a significant amount of more snow through the weekend."
Mammoth, meanwhile, cautioned that "there are very dangerous whiteout conditions on the roads."
"Travel to the area and around town will be difficult," it said. "Carry chains, know how to use them and do not drive if you are not comfortable."
Or consider staying home. Dan McKernan, a spokesman at Big Bear Snow Play, said that if weather forecasts are correct, the snow tubing park will be hit by a "monster storm" the likes of which he hasn't seen since 2010.
"Maybe it's best to stay put until this storm's over," he said. "Safety comes first, so let's do it right and wait till we get everything situated. There's going to be plenty of time to play."
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