This winter marks the 60th anniversary of China Peak, the 1,300-acre ski area in the Sierra National Forest east of Fresno.
But instead of celebrating, owner/operator Tim Cohee is contemplating the ultimate bummer while struggling through what he describes as the worst season he’s experienced during more than 40 years in the business.
“We have reserves, but at some point they’re going to run out,” Cohee said. “At that point you have to shut the resort down. There is a scenario – maybe it’s not this year – but there is a scenario that says the ski area no longer exists because of these droughts.
“You can’t go on forever.”
In an average snow year, a busy Saturday in late January at China Peak would attract about 4,500 skiers and snowboarders. Last Saturday, with barely enough natural and man-made snow to cover the base area and two runs serviced by one chairlift, the total was 600. Yet it was still the busiest day of the season.
Following five parched years (2011-16) and one year of wet, snowy reprieve (2017), we’re back to the D word. Mother Nature and Old Man Winter again aren’t cooperating. As the calendar flips to February, China Peak reports season snowfall totals of 15 inches at the base area and 28 inches at the 8,700-foot summit.
Normally, those totals are measured in feet.
During the offseason, resort staff replaced the oldest lift servicing the upper mountain, Chair 2, with a quad chair that Cohee purchased second-hand from another resort. The project cost him $900,000, and the “new” lift hasn’t carried a single skier or rider.
“We didn’t borrow any money,” Cohee said. “We paid cash for it. Like to have that back.”
Compounding the lack of natural snowfall have been terrible conditions for snowmaking: nighttime temperatures that don’t drop below freezing.
The root problem, Cohee says, has been an inversion layer that causes the normal decrease in temperature with increasing altitude to be reversed. Meaning overnight temperatures on the Valley floor are colder than they are at 7,000-foot Huntington Lake.
“I was driving to the ski area the other day and in Madera it was 28 degrees,” Cohee said. “The base of China Peak was 45. So it isn’t just warmth. It’s inversion.”
Last week’s one-night storm, the biggest snow event of the season, deposited 6 to 8 inches. China Peak hoped to supplement that total with enough snowmaking to finally open the upper mountain.
For one night, things looked promising. Then the mercury soared.
“Thursday night (Jan. 25) it was colder than hell. It was in the single digits and we were pounding out snow,” Cohee said. “By Friday it was already back up to 30 degrees. And Saturday we couldn’t make snow again (because) it was almost 40.”
Of all the California ski resorts, only Mammoth Mountain in the eastern Sierra has anything resembling a decent snowpack. The worst off are those in Central California on the western side of the range.
Yosemite’s Badger Pass (don’t care what they’re calling it these days, I’m sticking with the real name) has yet to open and likely won’t unless there’s significant snowfall. Dodge Ridge, near Pinecrest in Tuolumne County, is having to shut down its lifts leaving only the base area open. Bear Valley in Alpine County has six chairs operating and base depths of 19 inches.
“What’s also particularly gut-wrenching is we’re kind of alone on this one,” Cohee said. “The Central California western slope, China Peak, Dodge Ridge and Bear Valley, are all in the same situation. Whereas Southern California has been able to make snow because their systems are so big and in Lake Tahoe they got that original storm in early December that basically put them all in business.”
Cohee and his partners purchased China Peak in 2010 for $3.8 million, restoring the original name. Owning a ski resort was the fulfillment of a lifelong team. Since then he’s poured in an additional $4 million in improvements. Everything from the hotel to the grooming to the food to the customer service is better.
But when the weather doesn’t cooperate, the paying customers stay home. Either because there isn’t enough snow or, as was the case last year, too much falls too soon and at the most inopportune times.
China Peak employs 35 permanent staff. Another 300 landed seasonal jobs this year, but only about a dozen have been called in to work.
“We hired a full staff – this was our best hiring year in probably five years,” Cohee said. “Now we’re probably going to have to lay people off again. There’s just no business.”
This week Cohee attended a meeting of the California Ski Industry Association, of which he serves on the executive board. Between 17 years as president and CEO of Kirkwood and now eight at China Peak, he’s the most senior ski resort operator in the state.
But with snow and customers both severely lacking, Cohee wonders for how long he’ll hold that distinction.
“My tenure may be short-lived at this rate,” he said.