This winter, I'm just getting in the car and going. Skiing, that is. No more checking the newspaper agate type, no more late-night vigils with the Weather Channel folks, no more logging onto www.noaa.gov. I'm just going.
Predicting ski conditions in the East, I've decided, is no easier than winning at roulette. Sure, you can pretty reliably find out if a storm is approaching or fair weather is ahead, but that's no better than knowing that the croupier is going to flick the little white marble into orbit. The key is knowing which color chamber the marble will land in.
Last winter, as everyone knows, the East was a disaster area, recording dismally low snow totals and skier visits. Conditions, except for a few rare instances, were universally appalling. Or were they?
Exhibit One In mid-January, having not seen even a flake all winter at our Westchester, N.Y., home, I headed with my family on a long-planned weekend to Mount Sunapee, N.H. Not only was it bone dry in all the big Northeastern cities, but the only slick spot seemed to be on I-91 where some joker in a sport ute found a small patch of black ice and spun out, stopping traffic dead for about 45 minutes just north of Brattleboro, Vt. It seemed like cruel irony.
It turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Thanks to consistent cold weather and some judicious snowmaking, we spent the weekend cruising Sunapee on packed powder the equal of the West's best rolled snow. And there was just enough dress-up snow in the forest and on frozen Lake Sunapee to make the place look wondrous.
Exhibit Two Two weeks later, I headed up on a Sunday evening to Stratton, Vt., for a ski industry on-snow demo. A small storm was forecast. Down at Queeche Lake, N.Y., about an hour and a half south, I stopped for a quick dinner. When I emerged from the restaurant, it was dumping-two inches of fluff were already sitting on my car. And it continued to come down heavily as I crawled up Vermont's Rte. 7 from Bennington to Manchester behind a timid winter driver. "Who cares how long it takes," I thought. "Tomorrow will be epic."
The blizzard continued through the night. At 7 am, I woke to the warning beep of a small front-end loader backing up as it cleared the Stratton Village streets below my hotel window. I twisted open the blinds and discovered that nearly a foot and a half of light and dry had fallen over night. "Epic!" I screamed, eagerly tugging on my ski clothing.
I dashed to an early breakfast so I could make sure I got dibs on powder skis at the demo van and rode the first gondola. I paid little attention to the unusually warm breeze blowing in. At 8 am, however, the cloud cover dropped and fog, accompanied by a misting rain, descended on the slopes. The precious fluff started turning to goo.
By 10 am, the fog and rain were gone but a cold front rolled in and turned most everything to crusty slop. A biting wind and dark skies helped flush the entire day down the drain. Epic had turned to eech. Demoralized by the sudden turn of events, I joined most every other industry member checking out the new boots on display inside the warm and dry base lodge.
But when I ran into my friend JP Cleajan later that afternoon, he was raving about the skiing. A regular at Stratton, he knew to head elsewhere on the mountain. "We skied the natural snow trails back in Kidderbrook," he said. "All the rain water percolated down and the snow was fine. Stick with us next time." Count on it.
Exhibit Three A month later, back in Vermont at Smugglers' Notch, I again thought I mined a nugget in a weak-veined Eastern snow year. Light snow had been falling consistently since just south of the Waterbury exit on I-89 and even better, most of the night at Smuggs.
I woke the next morning, the temperature in the 20s-the slate gray skies churning with wicked winds gusting to three times that amount. Most of the new snow had been blown off the trails or was whipping around in a face-sstinging cauldron. I sealed up in my foul-weather gear and headed out anyway. I skied four runs and called it quits when I saw a woman get blown over while studying a trail map board.
Exhibit Four In mid-March, I headed back to Stratton, driving up in a rainstorm that blessedly turned into a blizzard right at Manchester-just 20 minutes from the hill. Great luck!
A foot of fresh fell overnight. But again, it was fool's schnee, more sleet than snow. What wasn't groomed was crunchy and breakable. Even the manicured slopes broke down quickly, the low air content of the new snow turning them to sugar.
The following day, however, was glorious, silt-fine packed powder with frosty temps in the high 20s and brilliant sunshine. We ripped it up all day.
It wasn't just me who was baffled by the mercurial snow year, I discovered. Where I live in Westchester, a mere 3 1/2 inches of snow fell last winter. But, my friend Peter Van Raalte headed regularly to Thunder Ridge ski area, about 30 miles to the north, and reported decent skiing conditions many weekends through February. This, at a tiny hill in a Banana Belt.
Dave Anderson, marketing director at Loon, N.H., just shook his head last season when a client from Providence, R.I., cancelled his Feb. 22 outing a day prior. The temperature in the city had soared to 60 degrees. "The 22nd turned out to be one of our very best days," says Anderson. "Every trail was open, it was sunny, the temperature rose perfectly from the 20s through the 30s and into the lower 40s. We skied great packed powder all day."
I need no further evidence. This winter, instead of trying to discern where the rain/snow line lies or considering whether the approaching warm front will drop a hot dash of Elmer's glue on the slopes or skirt out to sea, just go. You'll never know unless you do. And as one of my first skiing mentors taught me: A bad day of skiing is better-much better-than a good day at the office.