Skiers at Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe Ski Resort, Calif.

Skiers at Squaw Valley, Lake Tahoe Ski Resort, Calif. (Hank deVre / Squaw Valley)

First, a little question: Does anybody hedge their bets the way a weather forecaster does? Predictions for this winter call for another La Niña, the same cocktail of conditions that delivered last season's epic snowfall.

Sure to be a happy hour special this winter: La Niña Colada.

But squint a little and you'll discover some fine print. Specifically, something called the Arctic oscillation, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration considers a wild card in North America's upcoming winter.

The moisture-producing La Niña is expected to strengthen after a speedy start, but the Arctic oscillation could overwhelm it. Unlike Las Niñas — and much like winter storms themselves — Arctic oscillations are difficult to predict more than a week or two out.

It's always something.

Nonetheless, resorts in and around California are preparing for another year of serious snow play in a season that will also feature ticket systems, heated chairlifts and more family programming in a winter that's off to another stormy start.

Mammoth Mountain, the third-busiest U.S. ski resort and the hands-down favorite of Southern California skiers, is beginning a five-year enhancement plan. Already visible changes include a new high-speed quad chairlift to replace Chair 5. The new lift, the High-Five Express, will whisk 600 more people an hour than the old chair and cut ride time in half, not an insignificant development at a place where lift lines can resemble the 405 at rush hour.

In that same vein, the resort is upgrading its lift ticket system with passes that can be reloaded online or by phone, allowing guests to bypass ticket windows. With 68 RFID gates across 19 lifts, Mammoth will be one of the largest users of such a system in North America.

But where's the fun new stuff? Well, the half pipes at Main and Canyon lodges have been refined; the mountain now boasts 90 rails, boxes and jibs. And families will want to check out the new tube park, just above the village.

"The first fall of snow is not only an event, it is a magical event. You go to bed in one kind of a world and wake up in another.... "

—From an essay by J. B. Priestley

Since the Winter Olympics put Utah snow on the global radar 10 years ago, skier visits have increased 41%. It was more than a marketing triumph; it was the unveiling of a new and powdered world.

For the fifth straight year, readers of Ski magazine have chosen Deer Valley Resort in Park City, Utah, as the No. 1 ski resort in North America, and Park City ranks an impressive sixth in the same poll.

Utah's 14 ski resorts kick off the 2011-12 season with an array of updates, including new accommodations and added transportation.

For the first time, public bus service will be offered from Salt Lake City to Park City. Also new for the 2011-12 season, Ski Utah's Yeti Pass lets pass holders ski one day at every Utah resort for $499.

Also new: Heli-skiing will be offered directly from Canyons Resort, which also opens Ski Beach, a gathering area complete with beach chairs, lifeguard stands and an array of food and beverage outlets. While at Canyons, try out those heated chairlifts, said to be the first in North America.

Deer Valley has redesigned its beginner area and added 41 snow guns for the season.

Park City, already known as family friendly, also has enhanced its beginner hills. For teens, there is a new zip line this season, and the upgrade of three lifts doubles capacity to the terrain parks.


"The sport of skiing consists of wearing $3,000 worth of clothes and equipment and driving 200 miles in the snow in order to stand around at a bar and get drunk." —P.J. O'Rourke, in the book "Modern Manners"