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.

Doug Pendleton says this is shaping up to be the worst winter ever for his hotel
Doug Pendleton, of Tahoe City, says this is shaping up to be the worst winter ever for his hotel. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

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 CEO Andy Wirth says the resort is doing well despite the weather
Squaw Valley CEO Andy Wirth says the resort is doing well despite the weather. (Sam Harnett/KQED)

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.

  • Adam Baillargeon

    Sam, this is an important topic and you have a great article here. However, these types of headlines and a lean on sensationalism, do NOT help businesses in the Sierra thrive. If folks from the Bay Area, Sacramento and the rest of the country believe that the situation is so bleak and there is nothing to do in Tahoe when the skiing is marginal due to yet another low-snow year, everyone loses. Truckee and North Lake Tahoe have TONS of other great things to do besides skiing (disc golf, climbing, mountain biking, the Truckee Bike Park Project, playing in or on Donner Lake and Lake Tahoe etc etc). I know for a fact that global warming / climate change / California drought are all VERY real. How can we combat this negativity? Showcase all of the other awesome things to do around here (yes, I live in Truckee). Oh, and by the way…it is currently snowing hard (10:24am 2/27/15)… 🙂

  • Kevin O’Hara

    The lack of snow IS sensational. It’s outright incredible. There’s no argument here that climates are shifting and changing. There are many ups and downs about the nonexistent snowpack. Namely, the difficult skiing and riding, and especially a difficult water situation. However, I agree with Adam. Amidst the disappointment, I am continually astounded at the resiliency of those in the west, and their ability to make lemonade when dealt lemons. I have plenty of friends in the Tahoe region (from once living there myself). Their alternative activities flood my media streams. Constant images of mountain biking, hiking, beach-bummin’, and paddleboarding (not to mention skiing too!) take up space on my Facebook feed. Please don’t forget to report on this resiliency, and glass half-full attitude. That’s what US mountain communities are known for. That’s why people choose to live and vacation in these places. This year, you can find this ethos from Mammoth, to Tahoe, to here in Bend, OR and Leavenworth, WA. All across The West we’re hurting; and we’re still living. Loving life! Oh, and It’s snowing here too (11:14 pm 2/27/15).

    • AB

      Kudos to you Kevin. You going to make a cameo at the Pain McShlonkey Classic? I heard that’s where people go to have fun in Tahoe…

  • Rick

    Lake Tahoe still has a lot to offer and has great history. I would encourage people to still travel and explore, less snow means that it’s easier to get up there at least,


Sam Harnett

Sam Harnett is a reporter who covers tech, capital and work at KQED. For the last five years he has been reporting on how technology and capitalism are changing the way we think about ourselves and what it means to work. He is the co-creator of The World According to Sound, a 90-second podcast that features different sounds and the stories behind them.

Before coming to KQED, Sam worked as an independent reporter who contributed regularly to The California Report, Marketplace, The World and NPR. In 2013, he launched a podcast called Driving With Strangers. In 2014, he was selected by the International Center for Journalists for a reporting fellowship in Japan, where he covered the legacy of the Fukushima disaster.

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