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 winter-sports 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-than-never 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 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.