Snowmaking, creativity crucial for Lake Tahoe resorts during early-season dry periods | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Snowmaking, creativity crucial for Lake Tahoe resorts during early-season dry periods

Heading into Christmas and the new year, there will be plenty of snow at the resorts, but none in the forecast.

December has been a bit of a bummer when it comes to snowfall, but strong snowmaking, creativity and cold temperatures keep the slopes open and even help unlock more terrain.

With one of the most extensive snowmaking systems in the country, Heavenly Mountain Resort continues to expand its list of open trails, including today, Dec. 23, when the California side is expected to open.

The South Lake Tahoe in-town resort also had its snow fan guns pointed at Stagecoach on the Nevada side on Friday, Dec. 22, and that steeper trail will soon open.

"We can make snow on the majority of our named trails on the mountain in two states," said Heavenly's senior communications manager Kevin Cooper.

Heavenly's snowmaking system includes four pump houses, two reservoirs, almost 1,000 water and air hydrants on the mountain and over 60 automated fan guns placed on steeper terrain that can make nearly twice as much snow as the typical air or water gun, according to Heavenly's Bryan Hickman and Cooper.

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The resort also employs a "relatively large crew" that works around the clock in three shifts taking advantage of the cold temperatures when they can. The resort can make snow at their summit, about 10,000 feet, when the weather is warmer at the lake level.

About 15 minutes west of South Lake off U.S. 50, Sierra-at-Tahoe relies on creativity, including "snow farming" and a "bucket brigade" during low snow years. In past years, Sierra has farmed natural snow from its 13 acres of parking lots and also in the trees to keep the trails supplied and safe. But the conditions haven't yet forced those strategies.

"Snow making is important — but luckily in our location on Echo Summit, we historically get some of the most natural snow in Tahoe," said Sierra's communications manager Thea Hardy. "While we are not a snowmaking powerhouse, we have seven guns that we use in pinch points on the mountain (area of high-skier traffic). December has not been the most impressive with snow this year, but it can still be considered early-season and while we want more snow especially headed into the Christmas holiday, the coverage on our open runs looks great and our mountain operations team is doing an incredible job at preserving the current snowpack. Our North-facing wind-protected slopes don't hurt either."

The storm Dec. 20 that cruised through the region didn't do too much for the snowpack but gave the slopes "a much-need refresh," Hardy said.

But it's still before Christmas and winter officially began Dec. 21. The resorts are not giving up on the season and are still hopeful for a January similar to last year, when the Sierra Nevada was covered in near-record amounts of snow.

The National Weather Service calls for a small chance of precipitation through Dec. 31, 20 percent on Friday, Dec. 29, and 20 percent on New Year's Eve.

"We'll do what we have to do to provide a fun and safe ski environment for our guests and employees," Hardy said.