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Ski season just getting started at Tahoe (w/video)


Last weekend's storm brought much-needed snow to Lake Tahoe ski resorts, just in time for the three-day President's Day weekend.

Many ski runs, kept closed because of a lack of snow coverage, will open for the first time this winter. And roads are clear as thousands wax their boards and skis, ready to hit the slopes.

Add a dash of hype from the ongoing winter Olympics, and ski resorts are anticipating big crowds of fans who finally will have more than just a limited number of runs available.

"The natural snow creates a lot of buzz. With the Olympics it gets people out there to start their own Olympic dreams," said Sally Gunter, spokeswoman for Heavenly Mountain Resort at South Shore.

It took until early February for a real winter storm to blanket the upper Sierra Nevada.

Thank goodness it finally did, said Santa Rosa Ski and Sports co-owner Mike Conway.

The difference between the bustling store this week and two weeks ago was "night and day," he said, probably four times as busy.

"People in this area were waiting for snow," he said. "They were getting antsy."

Bus trips leaving from the store were booking up fast, he said — but the store will keep booking as many buses as customers fill up.

December and January, the best months for ski stores, were about 40 percent slower than usual, Conway said.

"The drought really hurt us," he said. "But anything through this month can really get us back up."

Between 3 and 6 feet of snow fell last weekend onto the mountains ringing Lake Tahoe. It came thanks to a monster two-day storm that brought up to 15 inches of rain to parts of Sonoma County.

Prior to the storm, some Tahoe ski resorts had reported a total of 33 to 60 inches of snow had fallen from November through January, said Ken Clark, meteorologist with AccuWeather.

"Out of one series of storms, at least in the high elevations, they got as much snow as they've had all year," Clark said.

An average year of snowfall for the region is 300 to 400 inches, which shows just how paltry the initial 60 inches was for the first two months of an average four-month snowfall season.

And at about 100 to 120 inches or so in total snowfall so far, the area remains solidly in drought status.

Winter this year "has gone from an 'F' to a 'D,'" said Shane Snyder, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Reno.

Still, it's an improvement.

"Friday we are going to be finally 100 percent open," Boreal Ski Resort spokesman Tucker Norred said Thursday.

The resort, off the summit along Highway 80, offers six ski lifts. "We haven't been able to do that this year," he said.

At Heavenly, at the south end of Lake Tahoe, the new snow means 21 of 29 lifts will be open, as well as 3,700 acres of the 4,800-acre resort.

The larger resorts have been making snow since late last year, but much of the region's usually skiable hills have stood barren while rocks, dirt patches and tree stumps have made some thinly covered runs a little dicey.

At Tahoe Dave's Skis and Boards in Truckee, workers have noticed some of the rental gear taken out prior to the weekend storms has come back with scars from the rough terrain.

"A couple of scratches coming in from the conditions out there. It was a little more than usual," said boot technician Danny Hembel.

More snow is due Saturday to help a little more with the coverage.

"Saturday's story is wind," said meteorologist Snyder. "We've got quite a system coming in."

A high-wind watch has been issued by the National Weather Service for the region from Saturday morning through late that night.

Skiers Saturday afternoon could see strong winds of 25-30 mph with gusts to 55 mph — and even as strong as 85 mph that night on the highest, exposed ridges.

It's expected to whip the lake up with an impressive chop and waves of 3 to 5 feet, especially closer to the east shoreline.

The rain and snow should start Saturday night and last into Sunday morning, then taper off.

"It's not nearly the kind of storm we saw last weekend, not anything close to it," said Clark.

It could bring 6 to 12 inches of snow to levels over 6,500 feet. Rain was expected under about 5,800 feet.

Sunday should be partly cloudy and Monday should clear, offering a dry trip home for end-of-weekend travelers.

Afternoon temperatures don't look good for holding onto snow, with predictions of mid-50s and 40s.

After this weekend the next chance for snow is Wednesday or Thursday, and that doesn't appear it will pack much of a white punch.

At the Rental Place in Sonoma, manager Jesus Hernandez said he can tell there is more snow and a holiday weekend approaching by the increase in business.

"They just started calling about prices, if we still have (skis and boards) and snow chains," Hernandez said.

Napa residents Steve Coultrup and Kelley Jacob beat the holiday weekend crowd and were snowboarding Thursday at Boreal.

"From about 10 until noon it was raining on us; after that it was nice," Coultrup said. "The snow was good. It was a little bit icy, but it wasn't bad."

Staff Writer Lori A. Carter contributed to this story.