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It's beginning to look a lot like ski season in the Sierra

El Niño, that global weather heavyweight, has flexed its muscles in the Sierra. For ski and snowboard enthusiasts, there can't be better news.

El Niño years usually mean increased rain and, around ski resorts, more snow. True to form, all ski resorts — including Dodge Ridge, Bear Valley and Badger Pass — have switched on their chair lifts before the holidays.

"If the storms come on the weekends, I'm a bad guy. If they're during the week, I'm good," said Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Association based in San Francisco. "Everyone thinks the weather is part of my job description. This is shaping up as a great Christmas and New Year's for everyone."

It is a weather-driven business, of course, and a single El Niño storm kicked off the entire winter season in the mountains.

"Last year was rough but it was due more to the weather than the economy," Roberts said. "A dry January hurt us, but when we had snow, it was great. Presidents Weekend was fantastic."

Dodge, the closest ski resort to the valley, opened a week ago — its earliest starting date since the bizarre Oct. 30 first day in 2004. About 450 employees, 130 of them snow school instructors, are geared toward a long and successful winter.

All 10 lifts are humming, and 95 percent of the mountain is open. Only the Granite Bowl remains closed. "One more storm," Helm said.

The first storm was bountiful. Within an eight-day period this month, 75 inches of snow dropped on Dodge. The result was 40 groomed trails this weekend.

"The skiing was beautiful this week," said Sally Helm, who owns Dodge Ridge along with husband Frank Helm. "We've got two terrain parks open, including Rocky's Road. This has been the easiest opening for us in a long time."

Dodge's new Family Lodge, a breakthrough for the tradition-steeped resort, enters its third full season. Coming in March are the Winter Senior Games, various races and competitions for the 50-and-older crowd.

Dodge's $59 lift-ticket price, the same as Bear Valley on Highway 4 east of Murphys, is among the most cost-friendly in the Sierra. Bear also trumpets easy access, a one-gas-fillup venue for day-trippers from the valley and the Bay Area.

The mid-mountain lodge has been renovated in recent years at Bear, which opened last weekend and then cranked into every-day operation Friday. The resort offers 400 new acres of sidecountry slopes, a new 40-foot school bus at its terrain park, discounted season-pass and lesson combo packages.

"Every season Bear Valley Mountain continues to provide skiers and snowboarders with improved skiing and riding experiences, families with affordable vacation packages, and thrill-seekers with access to more snow-covered acres and bigger and better terrain park features," said Martin Wegenstein, Bear Valley Mountain CEO.

Another new feature is the Bear Valley All Mountain Team. Teenagers 13 to 18 become "experts for life" through a program that teaches them how to navigate all parts of the mountain. For $625, teens spend six weekends with dedicated coaches as they make their way through groomed trails, moguls, trees and terrain parks.

At Yosemite National Park, historic Badger Pass swung into operation Friday for its 75th anniversary season. It's California's original ski resort, a haven for the Hollywood crowd during its early years, and one of only two ski areas in the country functioning within a national park.

Winter sports fans, many of them who plan their stay-and-play vacations at Badger, enjoy the cozy low-key atmosphere and the predominantly beginner and intermediate runs.

That said, Delaware North — Yosemite's official concessioner — has pumped $4 million of improvements into Badger the last two years. The Eagle chair was refurbished last year, and the new Badger chair was installed for this season.

"Considering the state of the economy, it's a very exciting time for Badger Pass," area manager Colin Baldock told The Fresno Bee. "To have two years in a row where we've undergone major improvements to our lifts is something to really boast about."

Access to Badger also should be easier, thanks to recent improvements to Glacier Point Road beginning at Chinquapin turnoff. The road features new pavement and wider turnouts on the uphill for chain installation. Badger's parking lot also has been repaved.

The new energy around Badger has tamped down rumors in recent years that the old resort would be closed.

Kirkwood, off Highway 88, picked up the pace Friday when Chairs 2, 3 and 4 on the backside opened. Lookout Vista and Covered Wagon Surface Tows will open after the next storm. Through Christmas Eve, Kirkwood guests who stay two nights will receive a third night free.

Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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