Sunday, November 25, 2007

Skiers, snowboarders forced to start Sierra ski season with man-made snow

Ah, summer in the mountains: Bone-dry sequoias scraping the clear blue sky, bare-dirt trails winding beneath them, birds twittering in the sunny calm. Tourists in shirt sleeves.

But wait - what's that the calendar says?

It's the end of November?

And it's what? Ski season?

Even a way-cool boarding dude could be forgiven for making the mistake. With temperatures high and snowfall nonexistent of late, you had to hunt pretty hard in the Sierra Nevada this weekend to find enough white stuff to carry a leaf, let alone a snowboard or ski.

Yes, a smattering of ski resorts including Northstar and Sugar Bowl were open on what is traditionally the longed-for Thanksgiving kickoff of the season. Practically all, though, just offered ice skating, low-level tubing or beginner slopes near the bottom of a hill. Thrill runs were short in supply.

But hold on. There was at least one sort-of Valhalla to be found for those who searched the hardest - and it was known as the awesome land of Boreal. OK, so it's really just Boreal Ridge ski resort.

But tell that to guys like Kyle Velo.

He drove up from San Jose Saturday morning after hearing that Boreal's snow-making machines had conjured up three actual snow runs. And the minute his eyes lit on that wide-open plain of 14-inch-deep ivory between boundless stretches of bare dirt and trees he dashed up the hill with his snowboard, goggles and underwear.

Yes, underwear.

On a dare, Velo, 22, snowboarded in nothing but his boxer shorts, this being the first real weekend of the season and all things being fresh and possible. In a rad sort of way. "All right, so as soon as I started, they threw me off the mountain and made me put on some shorts," he said, panting from a bumpy run down the jumping hills. "But this is the most awesome place ever!"

Velo rakishly hooked a thumb into the waistband of his blue basketball shorts, which, slid halfway down his hips, displayed hefty swaths of skin around his obviously torn boxers.

"I dared him, told him I'd pay his lift ticket if he went on in his underwear," giggled his friend Christina Valentine as another pal rubbed a snowball all over Velo's bare chest just to watch him shiver in the 45-degree chill. "Didn't think he'd do it."

So wasn't it too cold skiing in your near-altogether? Velo was asked by nearly everyone he met. And didn't it hurt when you fell down with no padding?

"Nope," he said with a disjointed grin. "I'm drunk. Jagermeister cures all."

Among the hundreds of others hitting Boreal's very short and hard-packed, but truly snowy, runs Saturday were the usual gaggle of avid boarders, a man in a gorilla suit and moms and dads towing tots behind them on skis. Depending on how many kids were in tow, the short length of the slopes was a bit of a blessing, several said.

"I've got two kids up there right now on snowboards, and with the runs like this I can keep a good eye on them," said Chris Chong of San Francisco. "They can't go too far like this."

There was also at least one filmmaker braving the not-so-scary drifts.

At least that's what 5-year-old Mimi Nguyen of San Jose said she was, despite no evidence of a camera anywhere.

Mimi stood with her equally young cousin in line at the kiddie-tubing carousel - which is like a pony ride with slowly revolving poles, only with inner tubes instead of ponies attached to the tethers - and squinted seriously at the lucky kids going round and round in the tubes.

"I'm making a movie, and I'm in the snow, and I'm the hero," she said as her aunt Noel Nguyen cocked her head to assess the creative young mind in action. "It's a really serious movie."

So where was her camera? Mimi was asked. Face as solemn as a nun, she made a circle with her fingers and peered through it - filming, as it were.

Well, then, who will she save in this movie? Mimi was asked. She rotated her finger camera until it lit on her cousin, and her face lit up.

"I'm saving her!" she piped.

A couple of snowballs and laughing fits later, Mimi lay giggling in one of the carousel inner tubes, going round and round, filmmaking forgotten. Until the next snowball, that is.

Farther up the Sierra Nevada, the Heavenly and Squaw Valley ski fields also opened low runs this weekend, as did Royal Gorge and Kirkwood. Most slopes are expected to be open by Christmas.

"It's a pretty awesomely nice day to get going even if there's not much snow," said Jennie Bartlett, Sugar Bowl spokeswoman. "And just wait - by early December this mountain will be covered."

-- Check out the Snow Report page with weather updates, resort profiles and features stories:

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