All in the family: How Donner Ski Ranch is weathering the dry winter
DONNER SUMMIT, Calif. — On Presidents Day last week at Donner Ski Ranch, skiers and riders whizzed down the snow-covered mountain, chairlifts whirred with passengers aboard and the parking lot was full of vehicles.
It was a welcome sight for the small family-owned resort that’s only been open 20 days this winter season due to a lack of snow.
“It saved us,” said Janet Tuttle, co-owner of Donner Ski Ranch, referring to the Feb. 7-9 snowstorm that dumped about 24 inches of wet snow on the resort’s base and 33 inches at upper mountain. “We’re so, so fortunate that we got that storm just at the right time. Otherwise, the whole season would have been a bust.”
Before the storm, Donner Ski Ranch was open just four days — Dec. 13-15 and Dec. 21, 2013, she said. After the snow, it was open from Feb. 8-23.
Presidents Day weekend (Feb. 14-16) marked the first major holiday Donner Ski Ranch was open this winter, meaning it missed out on Christmas and New Year’s week — which makes up half of the resort’s winter business, Tuttle said — and Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend in late January.
“There’s no way it’ll make up (for time lost), but it certainly helped,” Tuttle said.
Normally, weather permitting, the ski area is open from mid-December through April, if not May, reducing to weekends only toward the end of the season.
Roseville, Calif., resident Valerie Brown and her family were among the resort’s visitors this Presidents Day.
“I like the snow,” she said. “Unfortunately, it’s real thin, but the consistency is great. … I just wish there was more coverage like everyone else does.”
Unlike a majority of Tahoe ski resorts armed with snow-making guns, the roughly 500-acre, 52-run area on Donner Summit in the Tahoe National Forest relies solely on natural precipitation.
“(Waiting for snow) was kind of gut-wrenching because a lot of storms looked like they were promising and then went north,” said Lincoln Kauffman, general manager of Donner Ski Ranch.
Skiers and riders were also left waiting.
“This is my first time this season (skiing),” said Erik Finnerty, of Sacramento, who brought his two children to Donner Ski Ranch to learn how to ski. “We were sort of waiting for snow to hit, and when that big last storm came through, we were able to come up for this holiday weekend.”
Impacts of the late snowfall and visitation are certainly being felt, Tuttle said, everywhere from the resort’s food and retail suppliers to its employees.
Normally, at the height of the season (Christmas through March), Donner Ski Ranch employs approximately 130 people, Kauffman said. Currently, it has about 30 employees.
“It’s been brutal,” Tuttle said. “(Yet) as long as I can pay my bills, that’s all I need to do, and I’ve been able to do that.”
If snow hadn’t arrived in time for Presidents Day weekend, the resort would have opened following the next snowstorm, testing skiers’ and riders’ interest, she said. If interest proved minimal, opening again this season would have been evaluated.
“I still think there is pent-up demand for boarding and skiing. I think if there is a big dump, they’ll come, but we’ll see,” Kauffman said.
The National Weather Service in Reno is forecasting two winter systems for the region this week, potentially bringing two or more feet of snow by Sunday along the Sierra crest.
Donner Ski Ranch is closed until Saturday, March 1, in preparation for the storms.
“I hope to come up skiing at least a couple more times, if there’s snow,” Finnerty said. “We want to capitalize on the good lessons.”
And the resort would like to see the same.
“We’d like to see snow during the week, and (it) nice during the weekends,” Kauffman said. “… It would be good to finish out the season on a positive note.”
Donner Ski Ranch has offered skiing since 1937. In 2004, Tuttle and her husband, Marshall, bought the resort after it went into bankruptcy. It is the last family owned and operated ski resort in the Tahoe region. Learn more at http://www.donnerskiranch.com.