It would not be an odd sight in the spring. But there is something depressing about a closed ski slope in the middle of winter. The trails are bare and grassy. The chairlifts just hang there, waving a little with the breeze. It's like walking into an empty restaurant on a Friday night.
That is the mood at Lake Tahoe these days. Everyone is talking about this strange weather -- on the radio, in the shops, on local TV. You can't escape it. This is the fourth lousy winter season in a row for the ski industry, and it has been economically devastating for the area. Some of the smaller resorts are barely hanging on, while larger players are carving out new ways to turn a profit.
Homewood Mountain Resort is one of those struggling with the weather. It is a smaller ski area frequented by locals. Unlike the bigger resorts, Homewood sells lift tickets for under $50, and it isn't filled with restaurants and retail chains. The base of the mountain starts right at the lake, a relatively low elevation that gives it beautiful views but not much snow.
When I visited Homewood in mid-February, it was closed. There was a trail of snow where the bunny slope would be and another one leading up to the lift. They were both packed down hard, making a sad white outline around the patches of mud and grass that covered the bottom of the mountain.
Up top there was some snow, but Homewood doesn't have a gondola to ferry people up there. It's planning on building one in the next few years so that it can better handle the warm, dry weather.
This season, a lack of snow forced Homewood to shut down for two weeks in February. It partially reopened the day after I visited, thanks to a storm. But now it is closed again and, according to the website, “has its fingers crossed for Miracle March.” Homewood might get some snow this weekend, but who knows if it will be enough to reopen.
Homewood is not the only resort suffering. Donner Ski Ranch, Dodge Ridge and others all have gone on hold at some point this season. Even the bigger resorts have had to shut trails and rely on snowmaking.
Dennis Willard runs a sports and rental shop in Tahoe City. “I've been up here 35 years and it has never really been this bad,” he says. It is so warm that the golf course near Willard's shop has opened, and he says that some stores are renting out bikes alongside skis and snowboards. He has even started doing kayak rentals. The tourists who come up here are just searching for something to do, he says.
Willard runs the shop with his family. His son, Dax, worries that businesses like theirs will get pushed out by chain stores that can weather the unpredictable climate. Dax fears Tahoe will become more corporate -- “Wal-Martized.”
“People are leaving town," he says, "and the community and culture are getting lost a little bit.”
The ski resorts themselves are already getting more consolidated. Five of Tahoe's ski areas are now owned by either Powdr Corp. or Vail Resorts, both industry giants. Over the last few years, the private equity firm KSL Partners has merged operations at Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows resorts.
Professor Daniel Scott studies tourism and climate change at the University of Waterloo in Canada. He says variable weather favors bigger companies. “The problem with mom-and-pop resorts is if you have two or three bad years in a row, your financial reserves are gone,” he says. “You can't make a go of it anymore.”
Larger corporations are more climate-resilient, Scott says. They have capital reserves to ride out bad years and can invest in snowmaking to hedge a lack of precipitation. Many resort chains are now buying ski areas across the country so they can cash in wherever the snow falls. Scott puts it this way: Climate change is hastening the trend toward consolidation in the ski industry.
Some of the bigger resorts in Tahoe seem to be handling the bad seasons better than others.
Squaw Valley is a much larger and higher-elevation resort than Homewood. President and CEO Andy Wirth says the resort is doing well despite the record-breaking drought.
“We are facing the three driest years in 1,200 years,” Wirth says, “but at the same time we have increased season passes by 37 percent.” (By the way, that stat about the drought is shocking but true, according to recent data taken from tree cores.)
Squaw Valley has ways to make it through these dry winters. It offers season passes that can be used at other resorts, so skiers and snowboarders can chase the powder -- that is, if they have the money to travel. Squaw also has attractions besides the mountain: restaurants, retail, a winter park with tubing. And there is a plan in the works for further development.
Wirth says, “We know for a fact we need additional nightly rental lodging units of a higher quality to compete with the great ski resort complexes of Colorado and Utah.”
Not everyone is applauding this competition. Tom Mooers heads Sierra Watch, a local conservation group. He worries about the impact on the already drought-afflicted environment.
Mooers says, “You can make an argument for some kinds of amenities arms race, but that's probably not the best strategy for the long-term health of Squaw Valley and Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada.”
Mooers and I are standing by Squaw Creek, which has shrunk to a trickle during these dry years. It is a telling metaphor for Tahoe's winter sports industry. Like local businesses and resorts, the creek depends on cold, snowy winters. Without that, it could disappear altogether.