Saturday, November 17, 2007

What's up with South Shore ski resorts?

unedite nov tahoe story

By Kathryn Reed

If new lifts are what excite you, head to Homewood and Heavenly. If backcountry terrain is the ticket, Sierra plans to have even more of it. If notoriety offers inspiration, Kirkwood’s image on the cover of Ski magazine will lure you there.
The four resorts South Shore riders regularly frequent are gearing up for what everyone hopes is a more bountiful snow year than last year’s dismal dump by Mother Nature.
Heavenly expects to open first – Nov. 16 as of press time, followed by Kirkwood on Nov. 23 and Homewood Dec. 8. Sierra, with the least amount of snow making capabilities, lets the real snowfall dictate when it fires up the lifts.
Homewood transforms itself
With the San Francisco real estate investment firm JMA Ventures buying the West Shore resort last year, it was inevitable this powder powerhouse would become more than a ski resort.
Homewood’s master plan, which will include the necessary environmental oversight, is in the works. Placer County and Tahoe Regional Planning Agency permitting processes have begun.
Homewood’s owners want to build various lodging structures – some traditional hotel rooms, along with condos to sell. Commercial entities include grocery and hardware stores and an ice cream shop totaling 15,000 square feet. An ice rink, pool, spa and amphitheater are in the works.
A 14,000-square-foot mid-mountain lodge is being talked about. It would include a gondola terminal and dining options.
Construction of the first phase at the north base could start summer 2009.
But what riders will care about this winter is the $4 million detachable quad known as Old Homewood Express. It replaces the Quad Chair that took 19 minutes bottom to top. More slope time will be the norm because the new lift takes just 6 minutes.
Massive helicopters were putting in lift towers on Oct. 22.
Down the road the resort expects to replace the triple Madden with a high speed eight-person gondola. All lifts will be upgraded – some day. A lift is likely to go from the residential area at the south base to the proposed mid-mountain lodge.
Looking like all the other villages in Tahoe is exactly what Homewood doesn’t want to do.
“(JMA) does a lot of restoration. They want to bring back old Homewood. What it used to be,” said Amber Kijanka, sales manager at the resort. “It won’t be a new looking glitzy place. It will fit in with the whole Tahoe theme.”
What locals won’t like is the hit to their wallet. Prices shot up to $39 midweek for adults, $53 on weekends and $58 during holiday periods. It’s still the cheapest around.
A slight consolation is JMA Ventures also owns Alpine Meadows. For $649 riders can access both resorts. That price is for a midweek pass. For now, no plans are in the works to link the resorts. The U.S. Forest Service owns the land between them.
Homewood applied to be part of TRPA’s Community Enhancement Program. The Governing Board will decide which projects best represent the new regional plan’s quest to redevelop blighted areas through enhancing the environment, community and economy.
Homewood is looking into renewable energy options – hydro, biomass and solar are options. Already hundreds of miles of roads have been taken out of use and re-vegetated.
Heavenly’s Olympic debut
Heavenly wasn’t as fortunate as Homewood with late October lift building. It couldn’t get any helicopters to put in towers because of the fires down south.
Nonetheless, the resort expects its high speed quad Olympic Express to start transporting riders Dec. 7. The 79 chairs will be able to carry 2,400 people an hour. It shaves 7.5 minutes off the ride time from the old Olympic chair.
This opens up the Nevada Woods area, which has three new trails. One is a groomed cruiser; the other two are more like gladed runs -- trails where the trees have been thinned.
The other new run is off Dipper Express called Nova.
The resort anticipates the zip line will debut Dec. 7 as well. The 3,100-foot line called the Heavenly Flyer goes from the top of Tamarack Express to the gondola deck at 50 mph.
With the master plan being approved this year and Vail Resorts buying the resort a handful of years ago, expect substantial capital improvement in the coming years. Already about $50 million has been pumped into the resort since the Colorado company took over.
Food options are a big change for all Vail resorts – it’s all about eating healthfully. The 400,000 lunches Heavenly serves each season will now come with hormone free meat and organic dairy products.
“Every food and beverage manager designs menus based on what people in the area like,” said Aimi Xistra, resort spokeswoman. “We love avocados. Some people in Colorado are not so fond of them.”
She didn’t have specific menu changes or prices to share as of press time.
Snowmaking capabilities have been increased so 70 percent of the mountain can be flocked with the fake stuff.
Heavenly doesn’t set its daily lift prices until just before it opens. But an increase is expected. The last chance to buy the $369 season pass will be at the Dec. 15 Snow Celebration at Heavenly Village.
Last year the dismal snow totals equated to fewer people on the slopes. However, in Vail Resorts’ most recent earnings report, season pass sales for this year are up 4 percent in terms of numbers sold and 16 percent in money collected compared to the 2006-07 season.
Mike Thomas, who has been at Heavenly the last three years, is now the terrain park manager.
Less sexy news involves the storm water work the resort has done. On Oct. 26 the second phase of the first project was wrapped up at the maintenance yard near the top of the tram. Instead of water from the building and the area where vehicles are parked running into the Heavenly Valley Creek it will go through a vault which will filter out sediment.
Earlier this fall, Lahontan Water Board agreed to let the resort delay the drainage improvements near the California Lodge.
“Better technology is coming out and the manufacturer suggested we take advantage of that and the (water) board agreed,” explained Andrew Strain of Heavenly.
Four treatment vaults have been installed in the main parking lot. The filter cartridges are what the resort is waiting for. Those should come in March before the spring runoff begins. They sift out fine sediment and dissolve nutrients.
Monitoring processes – part of the Lahontan permit requirements – is ongoing by a third party.
Not all the neighbors are thrilled with the extension and consider it “another broken promise from Heavenly and the failure of our water board to enforce their own rules.”
Rod Hayes, who lives downstream from the California parking lot and who has been a driving force to get Heavenly to keep its runoff off his street, went on to say, “I feel helpless and betrayed.”
Strain believes the resort is being a good neighbor by putting in state-of-the-art equipment.
Sierra expands options
With the Forest Service’s blessing, Sierra expects to ring in the New Year by having more expert terrain available. Gates to Huckleberry Canyon of the Grandview chair exist today for people to access at their own risk. The change would mean ski patrol would monitor the 320 acres.
“We want to expand the amount of expert terrain inside our boundary,” explained Kirsten Cattell, resort spokeswoman. “We’ve seen a steady increase of skiers and riders going back there.”
Backcountry education programs will be part of the mix. Free tours will be available and lessons for a fee.
“The tour will be one run. It’s less about ripping through it (and) more of an orientation,” Cattell said. “(The lesson) goes into everything.”
Food is also a biggie for Sierra this season. Grandview is home of the 360 Smokehouse BBQ. West Bowl has the Baja Grill.
“You are definitely going to want to eat on the hill,” Cattell said. “The Baja Grill will be super fresh food made right in front of you.”
A perk for season pass holders is a chance to carve turns before anyone else. On three powder days this season 10 different pass holders will be randomly chosen to schuss without the masses.
No longer do parents and kids have to be separated when it comes to lessons. With the idea that people actually want to spend time together, Sierra is teaming advanced instructors with mixed level groups which may have boarders and skiers in the party.
“If a son is ripping it in the terrain park and parents don’t get it, you have separate vacations. This way an instructor takes everyone into the park. Instructors can help parents have the experience a child is having,” Cattell said.
The buses transporting folks from town to the Echo Summit resort are new. The school buses are gone. The new ones have bucket seats and toilets.
People arriving in a hybrid vehicle will park for free in the preferred parking lot.
Booth Creek, the parent company of Sierra and Northstar, did a little reshuffling this fall.
“With the selling of Loon Mountain and The Summit at Snoqualmie, Booth Creek will have more time and resources to focus attention on its four resorts, Northstar-at-Tahoe, Sierra-at-Tahoe, Waterville Valley and Cranmore Resort,” said Julie Maurer, VP of marketing for Booth Creek.
Prices at Sierra went up a bit. Adults will pay $65 a day and $68 during peak times.
The annual Pray for Snow party is Nov. 15 starting at 7 p.m. at the Rockwater on Emerald Bay Road.
Kirkwood turns 35
Throughout the season Kirkwood intends to celebrate its 35th anniversary. A tribute of sorts will be made to the resort during the Dec. 15 Tahoe Adventure Film Festival at MontBleu.
With Burton’s help, a progression powder program is being launched.
“It’s the only program in the country designed for people looking to learn how to ski deep powder,” said Allon Cohne, resort spokesman.
Although no major on-mountain improvements will greet riders this season, this will not be true for coming years. After years of wrangling, the resort’s master plan was approved in late October. This paves the way for the resort to go forward with its real estate and mountain development.
Professional free skier Lynsey Dyer will be back to help with the women’s camps.
Also part of Expedition Kirkwood will be snow camping lessons taught by certified guides. Gear selection, best ways to pack, snow shelters and cold weather cooking are part of the education.
Amping up the events schedule includes making the 11th annual North American Free Skiing Championships a bigger deal.
The Kirkwood Cup Series, which is open to all levels, will be a year-round event instead of just a spring thing.
Kirkwood transformed the Mokelumne trail into a skier-boarder X course.
If you need a dose of caffeine, Alpen Sierra Coffee will be served throughout the resort.
The remodeled Monte Wolfe’s is now more of a self-serve restaurant. The General Store is revamped and has options for people who don’t want to dine in.
On the resort’s website, a carpool forum started this month so people from the same or neighboring ZIP codes can find rides. On certain days Kirkwood will reward cars with four of more people.
Green initiatives are big at the resort. Last year Kirkwood focused on employees – eliminating 500 cars on the road through carpooling.

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