If a fresh layer of snow forms at a ski resort and no one’s around to shred it, did it even fall?
The answer over 2019’s Presidents’ Day weekend in the Tahoe area was a resounding yes. Throughout the Basin, the snow was so deep that even plows couldn’t drive. A normal hour-and-20-minute drive from Placerville to South Lake turned into a 10- to 15-hour drive due to the volume of snow (over 9 feet in some places) and periodic road closures for avalanche control.
California Highway Patrol begged people to stay home on the internet version of a bended knee: all caps. “To repeat what we have said all week, if you don’t absolutely have to go, then don’t. STAY HOME PLEASE,” wrote CHP’s Placerville division on its Facebook page.
And still the cars came, determined to holiday in Tahoe, yielding overcrowded mountain towns, a lack of restrooms, and skiers and snowboarders taking to the streets for recreation.
Now it’s 2019/20’s turn to become a winter wonderland, and while ski resorts have opened to eagerly waiting crowds, the impact of major snowstorms on travel is in the back of everyone’s minds, resorts included.
Our first taste of snowy winter gridlock came over Thanksgiving, seven days during which up to 6 feet of snow fell on North Tahoe resorts, and chain control and snow-related accident traffic gave us a preview of the days to come. Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows over in Olympic Valley doesn’t want your money at the risk of your life. Despite the ideal of receiving snow at its ski resort, Liesl Hepburn, public relations director at Squaw Alpine, emphasized the need for safe journeys to the resort in order to ski or snowboard in the first place.
“Getting stuck on the roads or in an accident is not the way we want people to interact with the mountains,” Hepburn explained in an email to Moonshine Ink. “That’s why, when we hit a severe weather pattern that impacts travel, you’ll see us switch modes to make sure our guests are getting the information they need to make decisions: travel and road conditions, parking, lift and terrain closures, weather conditions.”
Mike Pierce with Mount Rose Ski Tahoe encourages being informed above all else when it comes to extreme winter conditions, referencing resources like nvroads.com and Caltrans for road condition guidance. But resorts aren’t going to make the decisions for users, whether it be an average storm day or more extreme conditions.
“We don’t say go or no go,” Pierce said. “That’s the user’s choice.”
The link between skiing and safety is reflected in the policies and approach of CHP. Officer Andrew Brown, public information officer for CHP Placerville, said safety takes precedence during winter conditions.
“It’s definitely tricky,” Brown said. “We don’t ever want to discourage commerce from happening in the state of California, but safety is our goal. Life and limb always take priority over commerce. If we can make commerce occur, we will, but we have to take safety into consideration.”
Caltrans helps tag-team the push for safety among motorists on wintry California roads. Raquel Borrayo, public information officer for Caltrans District 3, emphasized the benefits of the partnership between agencies in advance of and during a winter storm in her conversation with Moonshine.
“If we’re looking at the weather and the snow’s coming down and the highways are collecting with snow faster than we can manage, or the conditions are whiteout,” Borrayo said, “we’re speaking with each other as agencies that are charged with keeping the public safe.”
Then comes the Caltrans traffic alert, recommending to people that they not travel during a specific time, or, at the very least, inviting travelers to consider the types of weather they could encounter on the roads.
“We can give people as much warning as we can, but ultimately it’s up to them to make those smart decisions as motorists and licensed drivers,” Borrayo said. “At the end of the day, we want everyone to get where they’re going safely.”
Of course, the destination needs to be open and accessible, too. If the weather’s bad on roads going to Tahoe resorts, it’s a similar story up top: 100 mph winds and 6 feet of snow on summit roads means all that snowpack piling on top of “every last chairlift chair, parking spot, and pathway,” wrote Squaw Alpine’s Hepburn.
“Like our local agencies, we are the experts at getting our operations open safely, and this can take time,” she continued. “Generally, if there [are] delays or closures on the roads, you can expect a similar story at the resort.”
Winter 2019 wasn’t as bad compared to previous winters in terms of road closures. It’s really how wet the winter is that determines how much time is spent with roads closed, and how many roads are affected.
“Obviously the ’16/’17 winter was a doozy,” Brown said. “We had both [Interstate] 80 and [Highway] 50 shut down for a time that winter. But this last year didn’t so much compare to that. But there [were] a couple of, let’s say, perfectly timed storms … they were definitely well-timed in a bad way.”
Hepburn said that winter was hectic for the resort as well, describing it as “parked out” 40 days that season — full lots, meaning cars were turned away. It was a lesson to be learned, and the resort has since improved its snow removal systems and the flow of parking areas, established additional free carpool parking, and introduced a shuttle to downsize the number of cars on access roads.
“We’ve also doubled-down on communicating transportation, road, and parking updates through all of our possible channels,” Hepburn wrote in her email. Because of the changes, the 2018/19 season saw only six parked out days.
Caltrans’s suggestion for the best look-ahead at traveling to, from, or within the Tahoe Basin during the winter is utilizing its QuickMap app — “really one of the best resources for what’s happening on our highways,” as Borrayo put it.
QuickMap provides real-time traffic information for its users, including traffic speed, road closures, and camera snapshots of conditions. Soon-to-come updates to the app include push notifications letting travelers know of imminent closures on roadways — helpful to those who may or may not want to extend their trip.
Main Image Caption: ALERTING TAHOE: Should one of the major roads feeding the Tahoe Basin need to be closed, Caltrans sends an email alert specific to ski resorts in the area to help them communicate the information to their inbound and outbound travelers. Photo courtesy Caltrans District 3