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"
O'Rourke does have a point. A friend once described skiing as standing in a cold shower and tearing up $100 bills.
One way to maximize the experience is by finding the sort of experiences and visuals you'll remember long after the American Express charges come due.
For my money, Lake Tahoe's constellation of 29 resorts provides the most heavenly backdrops in the nation. The region boasted 40 to 70 feet of snow last season.
You read that right: 40 to 70 feet.
Thanks to $100 million in upgrades, Tahoe is greeting the new season with improved lifts, additional terrain, expanded grooming and snow-making capabilities.
At Squaw Valley, the big news is that an equity firm has taken the keys to the formerly family-owned resort and nearby Alpine Meadows, the sort of consolidation you're seeing at resorts across the nation. The good side to that is more money to expand, which both resorts are doing. Many observers expect the two resorts to one day combine, spread across eight Sierra Nevada peaks.
At Squaw alone, $50 million is going into upgrades that include mountainside lodges and what's said to be the world's first ski-in, ski-out Starbucks. The base area features a new restaurant and bar. Fire pits will be scattered across the Olympic House sun deck.
At Northstar, where new owners are spending $30 million, flame-haired Olympian Shaun White is setting up a snowboard training camp; the centerpiece is a 22-foot custom-built half pipe that will be open to the public.
Weather permitting, Northstar plans to have the half pipe open before Christmas. The public can use it whenever White is not training, at no extra charge.
Look for ski standouts in the Tahoe area this season as well: Julia Mancuso, Jess Sobolowski and Ingrid Backstrom (Squaw); and Glen Plake (Heavenly) training and occasionally working with guests on their techniques.
At Heavenly, the resort opened the striking Tamarack Lodge last year, and plans to build a similar structure to house a new kids' ski school. Heavenly is also finishing up a new 700-seat restaurant near the top of the Tahoe Zephyr Express lift, sure to offer spectacular views of the Pacific Crest.
At Kirkwood Mountain Resort, where backcountry adventure is available within the resort's boundaries, a new $1-million facility will be the departure point for backcountry runs. It includes a classroom/conference center, demo gear and a high-end store.
Like Heavenly, Kirkwood is south of the lake. That area received more than 60 feet of snow last season, an astounding amount even during a La Niña year, when the resort's typical snowfall is generally 44% better than during a non-La Niña season.
"The way to ski these things is to go to total panic, then back off."
You don't have to drive eight hours to achieve total panic. Milky hillsides are within 90 minutes of downtown Los Angeles. Anyone who has skied the face at Mt. Waterman, one of the little ma-and-pa operations that still dot the San Gabriels, will vouch for the local mountains' expert terrain and great value. (Be sure to rent before going; the no-frills resort does not have a rental shop.)
The biggest news at Waterman is that Highway 2 has been repaved, making the twisty, hour-plus drive a bit less daring.
Big Bear, two hours from L.A., is offering some sweet deals — midweek lift and lodging packages as low as $69 per person per night, double occupancy. The lift tickets are good at the town's sister resorts: Snow Summit and Bear Mountain.
And the ambitious but underappreciated little resort of Mt. Baldy, 30 minutes up the hill from the 210 freeway exit near Claremont, is offering an interesting new $20 monthly membership that covers lift tickets for skiing, hiking and mountain biking.
All in all, it makes for some expansive choices this season for California skiers, where deals and deep snow are the norm, not the exception. Arctic oscillations willing, let the storms begin.