BOOM AND BUST

HARD RE­AL­I­TIES AND OP­POR­TUNIS­TIC SKI­ING DUR­ING CAL­I­FOR­NIA’S DROUGHT. 410 Av­er­age an­nual snow­fall (inches) at the Cen­tral Sierra Snow Lab­o­ra­tory on Don­ner Sum­mit 815 Inches of snow that fell at the Cen­tral Sierra Snow Lab­o­ra­tory in 1952, the deep­est winte

Skiing - - Focus - By Jeremy Ben­son

WHILE ON A SKI TOUR WITH A GROUP of friends late last spring, I asked one of the old-timers, who has skied in the Sierra since 1967, if he’d ever seen a pair of con­sec­u­tive be­low-av­er­age sea­sons stretch into a third year as the win­ter of 2013–14 had done. With­out hes­i­ta­tion he replied, “Of course. This is Cal­i­for­nia.” One look at the Cen­tral Sierra Snow Lab­o­ra­tory’s his­tor­i­cal snow­pack and snow­fall graph, which shows cu­mu­la­tive snow­fall data from 1879 to the present, con­firms his ex­pe­ri­ence. The lines on the graph rise and fall as pre­cip­i­tously as the peaks and val­leys of the mighty Sierra. But that’s part of the rea­son why skiers like him stick around. Each year can be dif­fer­ent. Sure, some are bet­ter than oth­ers, but even the bad ones are only as bad as you let them be.

In the mid-1800s, the Cal­i­for­nia Gold Rush drew peo­ple hop­ing to strike it rich and helped pop­u­late this great state. While the Cal­i­for­nia ski in­dus­try isn’t ex­actly a gold rush, the frozen pre­cip­i­ta­tion that falls from the sky each win­ter is nearly as pre­cious, and not only be­cause of the win­ter recre­ation op­por­tu­ni­ties it cre­ates. Nearly one third of the state’s wa­ter sup­ply is con­tained in the snow­pack that ac­cu­mu­lates along the spine of the Sierra. Spring runoff feeds nu­mer­ous wa­ter­sheds, count­less reser­voirs, the ci­ties on the coast, and thou­sands of miles of farm­land in the Sacra­mento and San Joaquin val­leys of cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia.

Much like the gold rush—and mod­ern-day equiv­a­lents like the real es­tate and dot- com bub­bles— Cal­i­for­nia’s snow­pack has been boom­ing and bust­ing for as long as records have been kept. Skiers of the Golden State are a hardy bunch who’ve learned to play the hand they’re dealt. And it can go both ways. From Ta­hoe to Mam­moth, re­sorts of the Sierra logged as much as 800 inches of snow dur­ing the win­ter im­me­di­ately pre­ced­ing the cur­rent rough patch. As deep as it seemed to be, the 2010–11 sea­son of end­less pow­der days doesn’t even crack the top five win­ters on record. Cal­i­for­nia can ski even bet­ter.

While it’s cer­tainly added to the cli­mate- change di­a­logue, the re­cent de­mor­al­iz­ing stretch has been more than just bad for the soul. Tough win­ters and tougher press have had real im­pacts on the re­gion. Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Ski Ar­eas As­so­ci­a­tion,

the Pa­cific South­west re­gion, which in­cludes Cal­i­for­nia, Ne­vada, and Ari­zona, has seen skier visit num­bers plum­met. Last win­ter’s late start led to em­ployee lay­offs and fur­loughs through­out the Ta­hoe re­gion. Ski shops slashed prices shortly after New Year’s to cut losses. In one of the more ex­treme cases, Porters Sports, a well-known ski shop with lo­ca­tions in North Ta­hoe and Truckee, closed its doors for good last Fe­bru­ary. “There were a cou­ple of fi­nan­cial as­sump­tions that didn’t pan out that were the real source of the demise of Porters,” says John Chap­man, for­mer co- owner of Porters. “But the past three abysmal sea­sons only nailed the cof­fin shut.” For­tu­nately for many Ta­hoe-area busi­nesses, sum­mer tourism has been ro­bust enough to keep the ink black re­gard­less of the sea­son’s snow to­tals.

Un­like many win­ter des­ti­na­tions, though, when Cal­i­for­nia is dom­i­nated by high pres­sure, the weather is typ­i­cally agree­able—sunny and 50 de­grees—with corn and soft groomer ski­ing for days on man­i­cured man­made snow blown by some of the world’s most ad­vanced snow­mak­ing sys­tems. Even when bat­tling thin cover, the ad­ven­tur­ous can find back­coun­try turns on wind de­posits in the high peaks. (Just be sure to bring your rock skis.)

There can also be ex­cel­lent moun­tain bik­ing in Jan­uary at lower el­e­va­tions. Fat bikes en­joyed a dra­matic in­crease in pop­u­lar­ity, and savvy win­ter­sports re­tail­ers were quick to get some in stock. “It was the first time that we were rent­ing them,” says Mike Schwartz, owner of The Back­coun­try in Truckee. “We had about 10 that went out all the time. We sold some; it’s lots of fun. There’s plenty of op­por­tu­nity for year-round bik­ing in this area. Some of our cross- coun­try ski cen­ters are even al­low­ing fat bikes.” In March and April, a glassy Lake Ta­hoe can be per­fect for stand-up pad­dling. Re­ally, there’s no bad time to live here or visit.

Just as all my hope for deep-pow ski­ing seemed to be lost, things started to turn around, and a long­time lo­cal taught me the most im­por­tant les­son I’ve learned since mov­ing to Ta­hoe 14 years ago. “We’re skiers. When there is snow, we go ski­ing.” This sim­ple con­cept was lost on many by the time win­ter ac­tu­ally ar­rived in the Sierra. Those who weren’t al­ready “over it” re­joiced in the long- over­due early-Fe­bru­ary dump that smeared more than five feet of sea­son-sav­ing good­ness on the higher el­e­va­tions. It was a bet­ter-late-thann­ever sit­u­a­tion that showed just how quickly things can change. And it tasted all the sweeter after months of wait­ing.

On April 1, the snow-wa­ter equiv­a­lent in the statewide snow­pack, as mea­sured by the Cal­i­for­nia Co­op­er­a­tive Snow Survey, logged a mea­ger 32 per­cent of av­er­age. Un­for­tu­nately, late-sea­son storms did lit­tle to al­le­vi­ate the se­vere drought that con­tin­ues to plague the state’s farm­ers, fire­fight­ers, and mu­nic­i­pal wa­ter sys­tems. But from a skier’s per­spec­tive, they were more than enough to turn

JUST AS ALL MY HOPE FOR DEEPPOW SKI­ING SEEMED TO BE

LOST, THINGS STARTED TO TURN AROUND, AND A LONG­TIME LO­CAL TAUGHT ME THE MOST IM­POR­TANT LES­SON I’VE LEARNED SINCE MOV­ING TO TA­HOE 14 YEARS AGO. “WE’RE SKIERS. WHEN THERE IS SNOW, WE GO SKI­ING.”

the tide. Those ea­ger and will­ing to seek out good turns were re­warded. Many of the trophy lines at the re­sorts and in the back­coun­try re­mained un­skied while goal- ori­ented ski­ing took a back­seat to cre­ative and op­por­tunis­tic line se­lec­tion. In some cases the higher-than-usual snow lines ac­tu­ally al­lowed for eas­ier ac­cess and shorter ap­proaches in the back­coun­try. The sea­son be­gan late, but those who made the most of it didn’t have to hang up their skis un­til the end of May. By the time the sea­son wrapped up I’d nearly for­got­ten its ag­o­niz­ingly slow start.

If last win­ter was the “worst since 1977,” then I’m look­ing for­ward to the next 37 years. With a lit­tle work, as I found out, you can turn 32 per­cent of av­er­age snow­pack into one of the most fun sea­sons of your life. And for skiers, who are an in­cur­ably op­ti­mistic bunch, there’s good news. The Cli­mate Pre­dic­tion Cen­ter has is­sued an El Niño Watch for the fall and win­ter, which typ­i­cally means big things for Cal­i­for­nia’s snow­pack.

What will next win­ter be like in Cali? It’s too early to tell. All I know is that when there’s snow I’ll be ski­ing. And I’m sure I won’t be alone.

Jeremy Ben­son is a fre­quent contributor to Ski­ing. He prefers pow but evan­ge­lizes for ski­ing at any depth.

Low tide? Yes. Sick

corn? Ab­so­lutely. Amie Enger­bret­son

at Squaw Val­ley.

The au­thor strug­gles through the deep parts of last sea­son.

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