Snowmaking saves season for Tahoe resorts

Even though the snowfall has been really low in the Sierra, there is often a blizzard at some Lake Tahoe ski resorts.
January 16, 2014 12:00:00 AM PST
Even when skies are blue in the Bay Area, there is often a blizzard at some Lake Tahoe ski resorts. The snow is being made by machines, more important than ever to a ski industry hit by a third straight year of very little natural snow.

A few ski resorts began making snow in 1950's with a basic system that mixed cold air with water under pressure. The recipe is still essentially the same, but the process has evolved into a high stakes, high tech operation.

The last big snow fall in the Sierra was back in December, so major Tahoe resorts including Squaw Valley, Northstar and Heavenly are spending big money to keep at least some slopes covered.

Napa school teacher Betsy Masterson has been skiing at Heavenly for a week. She told us the conditions are great. "You wouldn't think driving up here, with no snow on the ground, but they are doing such a great job grooming the runs and I just had a blast."

That's the kind of endorsement that keeps Barrett Burghard warm, even while he's making snow. Burghard is in charge of Heavenly's snow making system which is the largest on the west coast. He's been at it for 26 years, and says he's passionate about the job.

When you visit Heavenly you can see rocky spots where there is no snow making going on. But on many ski runs, it's a different story with several feet of base and new snow on top. Only about 20 percent of Heavenly is open now, but the mountain is so big that's still 14 miles of trails available for skiing and snowboarding, with more expected to open in the next few days.

Heavenly is owned by Vail Resorts which reports the number of visitors at all three of its Tahoe ski areas is down 23 percent compared to this time last year. But many people who are here all told us there's enough snow to have fun.

A.J. Black is from Spokane, Washington and said the conditions were good at Heavenly. "Nice and warm. Could use a little more snow, but I'm not complaining because it's sweatshirt weather."

Heavenly's system includes more than 200 snow guns that shoot snow on to the slopes. Miles of pipe connect the guns to reservoirs that supply the water. And it's all monitored by an elaborate computer system with detailed readings about what is happening all over the mountain.

Just in case the snow is not enough to get you to Tahoe, Heavenly is working to turn the mountain into a party spot. A giant grooming machine has been transformed into a traveling DJ platform for music. When the slopes begin to close in the afternoon, a mid-mountain lodge starts an apres party with dancing girls, discounted drinks, and any crazy creatures who happen to show up. The day ABC7 News was there, a couple of skiers dressed as a banana and a Sasquatch. Now they want you to put on your best costume, come up and have a good time.

Despite the warm weather in the bay area, it has been cold enough for Heavenly to make snow 13 of the last 14 nights.

Story written and produced by Jennifer Olney

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