Fire-Ravaged Sierra-at-Tahoe Says “Goal Is to Open 100% Next Year”
An update on the resort’s status as it closes in on April mini re-opening
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“It was the most horrific thing I could ever imagine”
I’ll start with this: maybe because it’s not part of any national ski pass; maybe because it’s a node in that great clockwise Tahoe circle that includes Northstar, Heavenly, Kirkwood, Palisades Tahoe, and Sugar Bowl; and maybe because a local’s bump with drop-dead terrain is exactly what it wants to be, but Sierra-at-Tahoe sits comfortably off the national ski radar. From my perch in the Northeast megalopolis, this has always been puzzling: 2,000 acres, 2,200 feet of vert, 400 inches of average annual snowfall, and an expansive chutes-and-ladders lift system capped off with a trio of high-speed quads. That’s larger than Killington or Sugarloaf. Hell, it’s the same size as Telluride. A touch smaller than Beaver Creek. This is what we’re dealing with:
Or were dealing with. Last August, the Caldor Fire jumped the crest of the Sierra Nevada and bore down on Sierra-at-Tahoe, destroying several buildings, torching large parts of the lift network, and obliterating the ski area’s snowcat and snowmobile fleet. Up to an estimated 80 percent of the trees died in the blaze. As the extent of the losses crystalized, the resort pushed its estimated opening date further and further into spring.
Last week, Sierra-at-Tahoe announced that it would re-open, for two days only, on April 9 and 10, check-marking attendance for the 2021-22 ski season and nodding to its 75th year of operations. The skiing will almost be beside the point: only the slider carpet, the 160-vertical-foot Easy Rider Express, and the 322-vertical-foot Rock Garden double will spin. Longtime General Manager John Rice expects much of the energy to be focused on the 30,000-foot paved sundeck that faces the mountain.
“We thought, let's celebrate on the Plaza and let's bring all of our people back, our season passholders, our employees, and just have a big group hug kind of thing,” Rice said in a telephone interview with The Storm Skiing Journal earlier this week.
Even with minimal terrain available, the two-day event is a powerful symbolic step for the devastated resort, an emphatic middle-finger to Caldor’s terror and an assertion of Sierra’s will to return.
“Our goal is to open 100 percent next year,” Rice said.
The work ahead is enormous. Replacements for torched buildings need to rise. The resort needs to patch 12 communications lines on seven lifts – each one is a titanic effort requiring imagination and heavy equipment (the resort already patched its alpha lift, the Grandview Express). Supply-chain issues have complicated these projects, as well as efforts to replace machinery such as groomers and snowguns. But the biggest challenge will be the trees. Any fire-damaged tree within 150 feet of a lift, trail, or building is going to need to come down.
“These fire-weakened trees were falling on the liftlines,” said Rice. “We were continuing to have damage. When you have a tree strike a chair line, it can cause damage to the towers, to the cables. And so after about five of those, we decided let's go out and let's clear a margin around the lift line. I didn't think that the hazard trees were gonna be our biggest challenge. I thought it was just fix the lifts and pave the parking lot, and let's go.”
Sierra-at-Tahoe is working with the U.S. Forest Service and a third-party nonprofit to clear the trees over the summer. For long-time Sierra skiers, the changes will be dramatic – the 150-foot buffer will, in some cases, eliminate trees between trails, Rice said. These safety margins will not necessarily be open to skiing, at least at first. Rice said it’s difficult to understand the scale of the changes until you pull into the parking lot.
“A lot of people have driven by the highway, but they haven't really come in and looked at the resort,” he said. “They've seen drone footage. They've seen maybe some TV clips, but no one's really got on the ground and went, OK, I get it. It'll be good for people to come and see that.”
More than a dozen ski areas circle Lake Tahoe, and several of them have contributed to Sierra’s recovery efforts, Rice said. Palisades Tahoe sent a crew of 16 to help with lift re-assembly. The Alterra-owned resort refused to take any compensation from Sierra-at-Tahoe for the labor, and also donated three old-but-functioning snowmobiles.
“Sierra-at-Tahoe was dealt a devastating blow with the Caldor Fire. We’re a tight-knit ski community in Tahoe, and it’s not in our nature to sit on the sidelines and watch our neighbors suffer,” said Palisades Tahoe President and COO Dee Byrne. “We were happy to do what we could to help Sierra-at-Tahoe get back on their feet.”
Mammoth, another flagship Alterra property, arrived with a flatbed of shivs, chairs, and cables to replace Sierra’s Yan chairlift boneyard, which it lost to the flames (Sierra-at-Tahoe still runs six Yan chairs). Powdr-owned Boreal donated a lift communications line. Vail, which owns Heavenly, Northstar, and Kirkwood in the Tahoe vicinity, helped secure low-cost season passes for Sierra’s employees. Sugar Bowl hosted all 50-ish of the ski area’s active employees for a free ski day. Many of the 550 or so employees that Sierra-at-Tahoe had to lay off were able to find work at competing resorts.
“The industry support has been phenomenal,” said Rice. “That's the kind of cool thing that just really makes you say, OK, I'm in the right business, you know? Of course we'd be there for them if they ever needed anything.”
Whatever cash it drums up from the one-weekend celebration, Sierra-at-Tahoe has weathered the entire winter with essentially no revenue. The ski area refunded passes for anyone who asked, and rolled access into next season for anyone who didn’t. The resort is the sole remnant of Booth Creek Resorts’ once-mighty roster of up to a dozen ski areas, which at one time included Northstar. The company’s CEO, George Gillette, still owns Grand Targhee.
Rice has worked at the ski area for 29 years, since Vern Sprock sold to Booth Creek in 1993 after 40 years of ownership. He said he’s had offers for senior leadership roles at “marquee large destination properties” over the decades, and that he’s turned them all down.
“There's just no place like Sierra. It’s got a vibe and a feel to it,” Rice said. “And the quality of the people, the sense of community. It's a good, good gig. That's all I can say.”
He had been contemplating retirement when Covid hit. Rice stayed to help the resort whether that crisis, a period that included intensive lobbying, as a delegate for Ski California, to allow ski resorts to remain open as Disneyland and similar venues remained shuttered for months.
“We had a great year during Covid,” he said. “It was different. Restaurants were closed. The parking lot scene turned into a total, like, football pregame tailgate. People cooking pancakes and dogs chasing Frisbees and music blaring at every fourth car. It just was a really neat sense of community. Now, when Covid was on its way out, I'm like, ‘oh, here we go. Now I can finish with a really good, strong purpose.’”
Then Caldor swept over the mountains. Rice, who is a member of the town fireboard, was able to “get behind the scenes and watch this fire” grow.
“It was the most horrific thing I could ever imagine to sit there and watch and have them tell you, ‘Get out, you have to leave right now.’ And I said, ‘I won't leave until you throw me out.’ And they said, ‘We're throwing you out right now.’ Wow. And then I had to go home and gather my stuff up, because my house was in the path of the fire. And then I came back and saw the damage. It just was heartbreaking.”
His house survived. So did Sierra-at-Tahoe, though the resort he found at the end of the access road off US 50 was different than the one he’d spent three decades nurturing.
“Just no words,” Rice recalls. “I choked up. Just so many memories. So many good times. And I really had to process that dark side quickly, because there's people looking at me wanting to see my reaction and it was important that I got through the steps, anger and denial and grief and all that.
“And once I got to the other side of rebirth and rejuvenation and regrowth, it really became an opportunity to reframe everything and say, OK, it's not the first fire that's ever hit. It's not the last fire that's gonna hit the ski area or a beautiful forest like this. And we're not gonna throw in the towel. We have too much history, we've got too many great people and people counting on us. And so that's what this celebration is about. It's thanking our guests, our employees, and just having a big group hug on the deck and music and, you know, have a beer and maybe take one or two laps on a bunny hill.”
Crushing 79,298 vertical feet at Stowe
On March 14, Green Mountain Adaptive skier and board member Tom Hall set out to raise $8,540 so the organization could add a Monique mono-ski and a Children’s Snowslider to its fleet. His mission was to crush 27 laps off Stowe’s Four Runner Quad, which would total 55,000 vertical feet.
Hall blew past both goals, knocking out 37 runs and 79,298 vertical feet. He raised $12,000, enough to purchase both machines, plus a replacement for the GMA’s “rather dated” adult Snowslider.
GMA will continue to accept donations through March 20. “There are always additional equipment needs,” said Hall, who says that the next priority is a children’s bi-ski. The gear “will be shared by many GMAS ski scholarship recipients, all adults and youth with disabilities who cannot otherwise purchase, or access the equipment. This equipment will be available for all, and put to good use for years to come.”
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