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Its a no snow
Yes, it is definitely true; the lack of any snowfall in the Cascades makes writing about skiing and snowboarding seem fruitless. I have lived in the Northwest for many years and cannot recall a single time when all Western Washington resorts were closed in January and February, as they have been this year.
The lack of snowfall has also affected other states within the same general latitude as Puget Sound. The thin snowpack in Montana is approaching the record low set in 1977, at only 61 percent of average. At a Mount Hood site in Oregon, the snowpack was recently measured at the equivalent of 9.4 inches of rain, while the average from 1971 through 2000 was around 30 inches for the same time of year.
While we are not alone in this year's snow drought, one irony is that there are some really fantastic snow conditions in other parts of the West. The Sierras, Wasatch and Rockies all have resorts with higher snow totals than normal, not lower. Here are some places you should consider if you still want your mountain fix and haven't totally given up on the season.
I have been to Sun Valley this year, along with a myriad of Mercer Islanders it would seem, if table talk at the Roanoke is any guide. When I was there, the snow conditions just rocked. Light powder falling day and night for half a week definitely put a smile on my face. When I talked to marketing manager Jack Sibbach late last week, he said the mountain still had excellent conditions, even in areas like the bowls where there are no snow guns. He also said the mountain was not particularly crowded right now and that last-minute travel arrangements were available. What are you waiting for?
Another place I've skied this year is in the Lake Tahoe area. If you have been paying any attention at all to the weather, then you know that the Reno-Tahoe area has just been dumped on, with record high snow totals. If you took the very easy Alaska Airlines flight to Reno at a cost under $200, you would find close to 16 feet of snow at Squaw Valley, or 14 feet at Northstar, with similar totals at all area resorts. I skied Heavenly and Northstar when I was there in January, and highly recommend both.
If you haven't been to Heavenly in the last three years, then you haven't seen the new gondola that leaves from the heart of downtown at the south end of the lake. This really changes Heavenly for the better, as it truly links the casino and hotel area with the mountain, eliminating the prior need for a shuttle bus. Once on the mountain, the same great terrain (especially on the Nevada side) is rivaled only by some of the views out over Lake Tahoe and the Carson Valley. I stayed at the Embassy Suites Hotel and would do so again in a flash. This was my second visit there and the location, amenities and value are definitely worth it.
Northstar, of course, is on the north end of the lake, probably about a 1 1/2 hour drive around from the Heavenly area. Northstar is really an entire community, not just a ski mountain. Once you are there, you don't really need a car as shuttles run conveniently often.
Northstar used to be called ``flatstar'' because its terrain was so moderate. This is definitely not true any longer as the newer runs on the backside and Lookout Mountain area have raised the bar for more advanced skiers and boarders. The beauty of Northstar is that it is in a more protected setting than its neighbors Squaw or Alpine Meadows. When the upper chairs at most resorts were closed because of a raging snowstorm, Northstar had everything open with thigh-deep powder conditions you just wouldn't believe. This was certainly one of my most memorable days on a mountain in many years.
Lest you think I'm only California dreaming, I should also mention that for a $138 flight to Salt Lake, you can be on the slopes by noon on the day of arrival. As usual, the very popular Park City resorts have received less snow than Snowbird and Alta on the other side of the canyons, but all sport excellent conditions. After sampling what is called the ``greatest snow on earth'' in February, I can tell you conditions are just great. I have visited Utah lots of times, staying in Park City, Snowbird or in Salt Lake City itself, and each location has its own benefits.
If you want to try something new that is absolutely a hidden gem, try Snowbasin just outside of Ogden. It is about a 50-minute drive from the Salt Lake airport and is one of the best mountains I have ever skied. I never thought I'd have occasion to say that, but Snowbasin is very impressive, from its Olympic downhill course to base lodges that set the standard for creature comfort.
I have left several other options out of this story, such as Whistler, which always has snow at the higher elevations, or Sun Peaks in central B.C., which is setting records for skier visits, or even Telluride in Colorado, which in January experienced its highest monthly snowfall in history. My main purpose here is simply to remind you that the skiing and snowboarding season is just cranking into high gear in many locations, so don't give up on the season yet. There are some great turns waiting for you out there.
John Naye is a Mercer Island resident and president of the West Region of the North American Snowsports Journalists Association. Comments or questions can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org