Ski-resort operators, by definition, view the world through a bright-colored lens.
To them, the cup always is half-full rather than half-empty. If they struggle through a few bad years, they insist better times are ahead. The snow-dumping storm they desperately need will arrive because their patience can outwait any stubborn weather system.
That said, the 2013-14 season – the season that hasn’t yet started – has furrowed the brow of Dodge Ridge owner Sally Helm. When she was asked if there was a chance Dodge wouldn’t open at all this year, Helm hesitated.
“Why would you possibly think we wouldn’t open? she asked.
Helm had a very good point.
Dodge has cranked on its ski lifts every year since its opening in 1950. The late early Earl Purdy, the original owner until he sold to the Helm family in 1977, reported only one truly bad year – in 1963 when snow didn’t arrive until March.
Dodge’s average opening dates are the second week in December. That point was passed long ago, of course, but late-January startups aren’t unusual for the Valley’s most convenient ski/snowboarding venue.
But while most resorts have opened – though they operate at less than full capacity – the cozy resort near Pinecrest still waits. That ridge of high pressure, like an imaginary bubble, hangs over Northern California this winter and refuses to budge. A promising snowfall at Dodge in December has melted and the Christmas holidays have passed.
“We remain hopeful and optimistic and are ready at a moment’s notice,” Helm said. “If we got snow overnight, we would open the next day.”
Until then, Dodge Ridge’s 25-person fulltime crew continues to work while its seasonal staff of about 300 stay on hold. The Helms have rejoiced and agonized over the whims of Mother Nature for nearly 40 years. Minus a water source, Dodge possesses no snowmaking capacity. It is dependent on snowflakes falling from the sky.
The Dodge archives tell the story of lean seasons happening every 10 to 15 years – the January opening in its inaugural season, the 1963 drought and other short seasons that Sally Helm remembers in ’77, ’91, ’00 and ’12. What’s different is the close proximity of the dry years in ’12 and now.
Conversely, the ’11 season played out like a winter wonderland – a record snowfall prompting an opening before Thanksgiving and a record 152 operating days. Last year, major storms in December and February were enough to nurse Dodge through the season. Ultimately, skiers, snowboarders and all cold-weather enthusiasts understand – some years it’s steak, other years it’s bologna.
“It’s like being a farmer. We keep hoping for opportunities,” Helm said. “We don’t look at this at all as a tough year at Dodge. It’s all about timing for us.”
Elsewhere in the Sierra, ski resorts also look to the sky with anxiety. Many are open but are limited due to snow shortages. Bear Valley off Highway 4 east of Arnold has ignited only three beginner-level chairs – Cub, Super Cub and Kuma – near its mid-mountain lodge. Officials at Badger Pass at Yosemite National Park still hope for the storm that will allow them to open.
Tahoe resorts received a 3-inch dusting (Bear Valley got 2 inches) over the weekend, though everyone wished for much more. Arguably the venue that is doing the best is Northstar-at-Tahoe, which has opened 15 of its 20 chairs. Consider the ratios at other snow playgrounds – four of 15 at Kirkwood, 11 of 30 at Squaw Valley USA, six of 13 at Sugar Bowl, five of 14 at Sierra-at-Tahoe and 18 of 30 at Heavenly.
“Everyone is suffering in some way, even the places with a lot of snowmaking,” Helm said. “You feel like a fish out of water.”
Don’t think fish, Sally. Think snow.