When the Snowflakes Dance

After more than two months without snow, including the second driest December on record in the Lake Tahoe basin, it finally began to snow last Thursday night. The Sierra Nevada saw fit to redeem themselves and earn their moniker. I left town early Friday to beat the rush, and wound my way up the hills along the south fork of the American River on US Route 50, eagerly anticipating the onset of snow.

I could not help but recall one eventful weekend last year when Caltrans had set up chain control on the edge of Placerville. That is at only about 2,200 feet! That is rare. That drive was a total shitshow, with repeated hour-long shutdowns of Echo Pass, waiting in the car with the engine off, watching the snow fall, the drive clocking in over eight hours. I related this story to my girlfriend’s father, who abhors sketchy driving conditions and avoids driving up in inclement weather.

Funny, I said, I am just the opposite. As soon as a set of storms start rolling in like waves fetching from clear across the Pacific, I hop in the car and head for the hills. “Eight hours, huh?” he replied skeptically, “Was it worth it?”. Are you kidding? Of course it was.

The thirst for precipitation can leave one feverish and senseless, chasing things without rhyme or reason. This is particularly true in times of drastic drought. Last weekend found me in flight, up to Whistler, British Columbia, in pursuit of a respectable snow pack. And I found it, along with plenty of poutine, Kokanee and sushi. Talking to locals, I learned it has been a good year up there – the offshore high pressure systems blocking the jet stream from passing through California have diverted plenty of storms into British Columbia.

But, here in California, it was finally supposed  to be our turn. Battling torrential rain all through Sacramento and past Placerville, I watched my altimeter tick upwards, all the way to Echo Summit at 7,382 feet above sea level. Some trace evidence of snow was scattered on the side of the road, but it was a far cry from what I expected. The rain continued to pour.

Last week I joked that Governor Brown was going to hire the great-grandson of Chief Winnemucca to perform a rain dance to stimulate Tahoe’s economy. Well, it turns out I wasn’t too far off. It just goes to show how crazed everyone has become. We are desperate for deliverance, for salvation, for snow, and we really will turn anywhere for help.

Well, patience was proven a virtue this last weekend. Everyone in the Lake Tahoe basin went to sleep Friday night to the din of driving rain, only to be greeted in the morning by blankets of snow. It was like Christmas morning. I put on my snow pants backwards as I hastily danced a one-legged celebration, grabbed my skis, and dashed out the door.

Obviously, I was not the only one with this idea. At the resort I was greeted first by whoops of joy in the parking lot. The throngs of people out quickly proved to be an issue, due to the few number of lifts that were yet open. On the California side of Heavenly, with a base elevation around 6,255 feet, there still was not enough coverage to ski off-trail. Not even two lifts up to the top of Powderbowl. I did a couple of laps hiking up the ridge to find that fresh, virgin snow. Spotting a couple of skiers with skins on, heading up the mountain, I regretted leaving mine at home. But the bootpacking was worth it. The snow was glorious, the likes of which exactly what we all had been dreaming of.

It was once Heavenly opened Canyon Express that the real frenzy began. This was as close as anyone would get today to the peak lift-service elevation of 10,040 feet. This was the chair of day. There wasn’t enough snow to open access to the top of the mountain on the Sky Express, but what was accessible via Canyon was simply… heavenly. I skied all day and the next, open to close, no stop for lunch, blasting through the trees, jumping over logs, launching off rocks, having a riot of time. Everyone else I talked to on the lifts was equally enthusiastic, from the bachelor partiers from Reno to the Spanish tourists from Valencia. Depending on who you ask, we received 3-5 feet over the weekend!

Unfortunately, the lines were simply awful. I blame the months-long buildup of anticipation, the migratory weekend crowds (myself included) , and the one good chair running. Every time I finally made it to the chair I questioned whether I would stand to wait in line again. But after the thrill and exhilaration of every run, I relented for one more go. Yes, the lines were awful, and yes, this is the reason I started ski touring in the backcountry. But this snow was long overdue, and well deserved.

Upon returning to the office Monday morning, my sensibilities towards the weather felt downright perverted. Typical water-cooler conversations proceed, and I hear how lazy and bummed people felt because of the weekend’s storms. Although the Forty-Niners’ unfortunate divisional playoff exit was probably also an unspoken factor, I simply cannot believe the somber mood. “We didn’t even make it out of the house,” I overheard. We need these storms, people! The past two months of sunshine have been unhealthy. The Sierra Nevada is sitting on 25-30% of average snowpack for this time of year, and that’s after this wave of storms. We’re looking at the potential for severe drought conditions up ahead. But around these folks, cheering on the storm train, I feel like I’m rooting for the bad guy.

Well, to each their own. I am reminded of this time one year ago, when January in Lake Tahoe was bone dry. Sure, we had some semblance of a snow pack at that point, but we waited and waited, and the winter storms showed up again in February, and the mega-winter proceeded through June. I can only keep my fingers crossed (or pray, or do a rain dance, etc.) that we’ll see something resembling that this year, even though the next few weeks are looking like a pretty bleak return to the dry, sunny days I have come to dread.

In the mean time, back to Tahoe. And hopefully, with a little more coverage, out into the backcountry soon. Very very soon.

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