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Why have so many ski lifts been closed lately?

A snowboarder rides a ski lift through a snowstorm at the Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort. | Jessica Christian/SF Chronicle via Getty

“Barely anything is open. Terrible experience. Horrible New Year @VailResorts.” 

That was just one of many recent posts on social media aimed at the companies running Northern California ski resorts. Over the holidays, as the state got slammed with consecutive storms, many skiers and snowboarders encountered hourslong lines and lift closures at some of Lake Tahoe’s most popular destinations. 

At Heavenly Mountain Resort, the storm even knocked out power on the Nevada side of the resort, hobbling its main gondola for three days and cutting off two-thirds of visitors’ access points to the mountain. 

That led skiers and snowboarders to rage on Twitter while crews worked furiously to de-ice and dig out chairlifts and parking lots.

Why were so many lifts down over the holidays? Put simply: Mother Nature.

The Tahoe region was walloped by a storm that dumped more than 5 feet of early-season snow—and rain that turned into ice—on the Sierras.

Tom Fortune, vice president and chief operating officer for Heavenly and its owner, Vail Resorts, in the Lake Tahoe region, said inclement weather has a way of disrupting even the best-laid plans and crippling even state-of-the-art technology.

“It's really dynamic; it changes all the time,” Fortune said, explaining that sometimes conditions on the mountain simply aren’t safe.

An official Twitter account for Palasades Tahoe posted a video of high winds swinging chair lifts.

And it’s not just strong gusts that worry chair lift maintenance crews. During the warmer atmospheric river that hit Northern California on New Year’s Eve, Palisades, which is located on the north shore of the lake, ran its lifts overnight—a technique called “bumping”—to avoid them getting covered in frozen ice. This so-called “rime ice” was up to 10 inches thick at times at Heavenly last week and can only be removed by crews chipping it off of each chair by hand.

“It's becoming Groundhog Day here because we’re just getting so much snow day after day,” said Patrick Lacey, spokesperson for Palisades Tahoe.

Both resorts say they’re fully staffed this year, Palisades for the first time since before the pandemic, which has helped get lifts up and running as quickly as possible. 

But even working around the clock, resorts still shut lifts down during dangerous weather conditions in high wind or when avalanche risk is too high. Fortune said crews use both automated weather detectors and their training to spot dangerous conditions.

“If there’s a big snow, [a closure is] almost always weather-related,” Lacey said, .

But skiers and riders can have little patience with resorts as they dig out during the busiest week of the year. 

Lacey said he hopes Palisades’ new base-to-base gondola will help alleviate some lines and open up more access. The gondola connects Alpine Meadows and Olympic Valley and finally reopened as one continuous route on Friday after issues with the gondola’s software earlier in the season.

And for anyone planning to hit the mountains during a storm, checking social media and ski resorts’ websites first for conditions updates is key.

“The holidays are always tough,” Lacey said. “But […] year after year we get better at what we’re doing.”