By Chris Dehnel

Snow on the Strip a Flaky Occurrence


LAS VEGAS

Talk about being in the right place at the right time ...

It was about the middle of the day on Dec. 17 and things came to a crashing halt in a busy store near the Sam's Town casino. "Look," someone said, pointing to the parking lot. Big, fat, wet snowflakes were falling and the cars were getting covered in a hurry. Customers were dropping their selections to go stare out the window. Cashiers were leaving their posts to run outside. Several cacti were covered with snow.

About 3 miles away on The Strip, people were lined up to pose in front of the famous welcome sign, which had about three inches at it base. The last time this happened was 29 years ago, so in the neighborhoods, kids who had never seen snow were running around in a silly frenzy. The Luxor's pyramid, usually black, had turned white.

Airport officials had to ride out the storm as best they could. There were no plows. A snow day was announced for the schools. Yes. It was snowing. In the Valley. In Las Vegas.

Steve Peachey, the executive chef at Alen Alberts restaurant on The Strip, couldn't take his eyes off the weather report. He was like a kid watching cartoons. "Can you believe this?" he kept saying. "Look at this ... It's the desert ..."

Maynard Corey, a native New Englander, was unfazed driving around in a delivery truck. But he quietly admitted it was a circus out on the roads because most had no idea how to drive in the snow.

Vegas

Many forecasters had predicted the possibility. Several storms that had been coming down to Vegas from the primary section of the Sierra Nevada mountain range had been skirting the area, putting snow on top of nearby Mt. Charleston, but then turning to rain in the Valley. This time, with temperatures staying near freezing, the snow came. And it just dumped on Charleston, and come that Saturday, conditions were the best anyone could remember at the Las Vegas Ski & Snowboard resort.

"Oh yeah," Base Operations Manager Craig Baldwin said that morning. "Things have been good all week." Even with sketchy conditions, the resort is one of the true wonders of the industry. It is located about 40 miles outside town at the end of an easy drive. One must drive up to about 8,500 feet to get the snow, and about 1,000 vertical feet are developed.

The runs are short, the chairs are slow, and a small smattering of local skiers and tourists mingle with a huge contingent of 20-something snowboarders. It really doesn't matter what the makeup of the mountain is or its demographic. It's so close to The Strip. The storm that brought the 3 inches to the Vegas hotels dumped more than a foot-and-a-half to the resort, and Baldwin could not stop smiling. "This is the best snow I've seen in a long time," he said.

One skier, in Nevada from Sweden to work on the Encore tower of the Wynn hotel complex, was contemplating heading to Brian Head in southern Utah, a three-hour drive from Las Vegas. But he knew the snow was so good that the short drive made up for the lost vertical. "I'm officially -- how do you say it -- on duty," he said. "I just have to be near a phone in case someone needs to consult me on the project. But I can't get a cell phone signal, so I'm going to just enjoy the skiing." Every run was sweet. The groomers were smooth, the outlying trails had plenty of cover, and the trees were open.

The mountain is currently sporting a 32-inch base, not bad for a high desert peak that gets more than 300 sunny days a year and whose temperatures can fluctuate from 50 to the teens during the season. The resort is owned by Powdr Corp., which counts among its holdings Mt. Bachelor in Oregon, Park City in Utah, and Pico and Killington in Vermont. In all, the resort has 11 trails, but officials hope that can change. Plans are still on the books to essentially double its size both in terms of trail count and amenities. The master plan of development, submitted last season, is being reviewed by several regulatory authorities, both national and state.

Trail development up to the ride line could offer views of The Strip. Baldwin would not even offer a guess as to what the timetable would be, and that answer was perfectly acceptable, because the immediate future included a lot of snow.

At the end of the day it was gone in the Valley. The Luxor was black again. But way up on Charleston everyone was serenading themselves with Bing Crosby.

It wasn't a dream. There was plenty to ski and ride on.

Chris Dehnel is an associate editor at the Journal Inquirer ( Hartford Conn) and immediate past-president of the Eastern Ski Writers Association. His snowsports column runs weekly during the season.

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