Central Valley

Where's the snow?

The calendar says December and temperatures are dropping throughout Central California, but where in the heck is Old Man Winter?

Hopefully, he's on the way. And soon.

That's the wish of skiers, snowboarders and mountain resort operators who are anxiously awaiting the season's first big dump.

Let it snow. Oh, please, let it snow.

"There are a lot of years where we're not open [in early December], but at least there's a little bit of coverage," said Boomer Devaurs, marketing manager at Sierra Summit.

"This year, it's completely brown out there."

Thanks to snowmaking, Sierra Summit is one of a handful of California ski areas operating in a limited capacity. Even though dirt and weeds still cover the 7,000-foot base area, the Huntington Lake resort had two lifts and some terrain park features open last weekend.

Sierra Summit closed during the week but plans to reopen Saturday and Sunday before beginning daily operations Dec. 15.

Resorts like Yosemite's Badger Pass that don't have snowmaking are in an even more precarious position.

Badger Pass is scheduled to open Dec. 14, an optimistic projection considering California's oldest ski area has no snow on the ground. Nearby Glacier Point Road, a winter haven for cross-country skiers, remained open to automobiles as of Tuesday afternoon.

Tioga Pass Road, the trans-Sierra highway that bisects the park, didn't close for the season until Tuesday morning.

"Do you know how to do a snow dance?" joked Ken Karst, spokesman for DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite. "Because I'd encourage everyone to do so. Up here, we're dancing every day."

It may be working. A minor storm that brought rain to some parts of Northern California on Tuesday morning was expected to deposit a couple of inches of snow in the Sierra Nevada. A larger storm is in the forecast Thursday and Friday.

Howard Sheckter, a private meteorologist based in Mammoth Lakes, says it's too soon to declare the season a bust.

"We're off to a slow start, but I'm not concerned a bit," said Sheckter, whose "Dweeb" weather reports are monitored by skiers and resort operators.

"La Niña winters usually arrive a little bit later, so this one will probably just start to get going at the end of this week."

The venerable Farmer's Almanac, which claims an 80% success rate in long-term forecasting, is also optimistic. The 2007 edition states winter in the Pacific Southwest (California south of the Cascades) will be "about 2 degrees above normal, on average. ... Rainfall and mountain snowfall will be above normal in the north and near normal in the south."

The almanac also predicts the stormiest periods will occur in late January, early February and early and mid-March.

Until natural snow arrives, skiers and snowboarders will have to make do with the man-made stuff.

Resorts make snow by mixing compressed air with water in cold conditions. Compressed air splits the water into tiny droplets, which when shot out of a snow gun spontaneously crystallize in the atmosphere.

Sierra Summit can cover about 40% of its terrain with man-made snow, including at least one run off all seven lifts, after doubling its on-site reservoir and purchasing new snowmaking equipment over the summer, Devaurs said.

"It's real snow -- it's just made by us instead of Mother Nature," Devaurs said. "It's very consistent, and we can create any surface we want with the grooming equipment."

Laurie McAnulty of Fresno, who skied at Sierra Summit on Sunday, said the conditions were better than expected.

"Going up in the chairlift is really weird," McAnulty said. "You don't see any snow at all, just trees and rocks. You wonder where you're going to ski, and then there's this strip of white."

Mammoth Mountain, located in the eastern Sierra, boasts California's largest snowmaking operation. The resort has seven lifts running with an 8- to 14- inch base and 2,200 feet of vertical.

Among Lake Tahoe-area resorts, Alpine Meadows, Heavenly, Kirkwood, Boreal and Northstar-at-Tahoe have at least one lift open. Sugar Bowl and Squaw Valley are scheduled to open Saturday.

In the central Sierra, Bear Valley Mountain Resort plans to open Saturday. Dodge Ridge, which does not have snowmaking, will unveil $6 million worth of base area improvements, including a new lodge, Dec. 22.