The early season has its challenges and rewards. I’ll start with the most glaring one at least for this winter: a freakish weather system that’s pushed temperatures into the 40s and 50s. One look at the four-day forecast can be tempting enough to leave the skis in the closet and keep biking until spring.
But we eastern skiers are a hearty bunch and after a while, they’ll take whatever they can get. When the mercury hovered at 30 this weekend, I filled a thermos with coffee, piled the gear into the car and set off toward the nearest ski area.
I was going skiing, forecast-be-darned.
While the valley floor was overcast with splotches of cold December sun, the access road ascended into a dense swirling cloud. These massive arsenals of snow guns create their own weather systems. I stepped out of my car into a shrieking gale with the howl of snow guns all around me. The first gusts of wind slapped me hard across the face and I wisely grabbed another layer from the trunk before hiking to the lodge.
While I was putting my boots on, I paused to appreciate the rare silence of the locker room. For a ski resort designed to accommodate hundreds, on a Saturday in mid-December the typically bustling base lodge was peaceful. It was so quiet in the locker room I could make out the lyrics to the soundtrack pumped through the speakers – Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival. I hummed along to The Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place” while I strapped on goggles and headed out into the latest flurry of snow that begun to swirl around the base area.
I smiled for the entire chairlift ride to the summit, loving the icy blast of the guns and their steady, whistling gasp. Ice quickly coated my beard, jacket and pants and I kept on grinning as the chair climbed to the top. While friends were still taking to trails on fatbikes, at elevations higher than 2,000 feet, winter was defiantly here.
The movements of skiing – that fine, dance-like shift from edge to edge down the falline – returns every year like riding a bike, but my muscle memory doesn’t’ seem to kick in until after the first 20 yards downhill. My first turns every season are a spastic mess, passing in skittering, knee-chattering terror down a first pitch of boilerplate hardpack. But after that initial shock, a switch in my head clicked, my knees stopped complaining and soon my 98mm Blizzards were blasting through the mixed conditions like a Ferrari with a snowplow on the front. Skiing became fun again.
Snowmaking crews had made a valiant effort to open and maintain a chain of trails from top to bottom and the recent temperature drop was a cue to throw the entire system into high gear. Where the snowmaking was running, the coverage was superb. To see the remaining trails covered in brown grass was slightly disheartening but I couldn’t complain, not with the open trails to myself
Back down at the lift, the lines were devoid of the usual ski area weirdness that I like to avoid; “Jerry” still hadn’t made his season debut, I only saw one Giants football jersey and there wasn’t a single ski blade or GoPro to be seen. Then again, there weren’t any lift lines at all. I ran laps for the better part of the morning, smearing creamy turns directly under the guns where most people seemed to avoid.
When the clouds rolled in, visibility dropped and the snowmaking made it feel like skiing through a carwash. What the hell am I doing here, I thought. That was immediately followed by a brief moment of clarity:
I’m out here because it’s December and my holiday shopping is done, gravity still works and I’m tired of hearing about how great the kids out West have it. There’s still snow on the hill and if no one else is going after it, then I might as well try. For what areas might lack in open terrain, they make up for in a relaxed atmosphere and plenty of space to get your ski legs back under you. In the meantime, just a handful of trails will do just fine. I left in the early afternoon feeling content and looking forward to skiing the next day.
I also decided a little snowfall wouldn’t hurt either.