Jewel Basin in the rough: anticipating El Nino

For the snow obsessed in my life, the approach of winter offers yet another opportunity to delve into irrational speculation that’s only as deep as the snow we’d prefer to be shredding. Thus, the most predicable thing about the winter is the way that we lead up to it online: winter forecasts start circulating in August, followed by reposts of Farmer’s Almanac quotations and snow maps in September. Then the first winter storm heads for the west coast, and multiple snow news sources write stories about some obscene NOAA point forecast from some high  point (13,000 ft on Rainier) on one of the Cascade volcanoes. This happened at least twice this year, and I’d find it acceptable only if the person who writes these silly things braves the crevasse hazard and red flags of  124″ of new loading over three days to actually go up there and ski it.

October brings that first snow in the hills and the inevitable, undeniable truth of the ocean temperatures: we’re headed for another El Niño winter here in North America. And since this is the second winter in a row of potential Global Weirding in Montana, there’s been an accompanying conversation that I’ve heard in bars, casual chats, and early season skin tracks. It goes like this:

“Wow, El Niño again. Last winter was terrible man, except that one day. It was dry at the hill for, like, a month. Let’s hope this one is somehow better for us in our corner of the world.” I recently heard a skin track addendum: “Gotta get it now [in November] while it’s still good.”

In response, I’d like to offer a series of evidence-based rebuttals from a day of touring this past March 22. For context: things were sunny and pretty dang thin at the ski areas in northwest Montana. The bottom five hundred feet of Griz chair at Snowbowl was completely snow free under the lift. It was spring slush and people were probably playing golf. An early forecast had even called for rain.

Evidence-based rebuttal number one: don’t conclude that a winter is bad based on lift-accessed conditions.

It’s 2015, people. Backcountry skiing and boarding has blossomed into the full, geeky flower of possibility, while lift lines and gargantuan parking lots solidly show the current state of  your favorite in-bounds powder stash. If you’re looking to find good snow without tracks on it, I’d recommend channeling whatever energy was going into complaining about weather phenomenons into walking uphill.

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Fortunately, my friends are on the same page. That day in March, Dave, Gary, Brad and I loaded into the Black Diamond Mortgage alpine bus and rallied for Jewel Basin. It was downright cruchy while we put skins on and rallied up the road in the morning shadows. Suncrust beckoned. And:

Evidenced-based rebuttal number two: it’s not the snow that terrible; it’s the attitude of the people you’re skiing it with.

Brad, Gary, and Dave are terrific in this respect. It’s a decently long approach just to get into Camp Misery, and we had no idea of the conditions we might find up high. March in a more normal year might mean layer on layers of storm snow in the same places we were walking through. Instead, a thin skim of new snow covered the crunchy sun crust, evidence that it hadn’t been quite stormy up there.

Once on the ridge top, it got windy. My ski crampons were a nice addition, as the crust was relatively slippery and rolled away downhill to the west. Props to the rest of the guys for going without.

Walking the finish to the top of Mt. Aeneas, I wondered a bit about how the skiing would go. Sandwiches appeared, jokes were exchanged, and we decided to give the East face a whirl, hoping that the wind on the ridge had seen fit to match the crust with some dust to scuff around in.

Just before he dropped in, Dave wasn’t unhappy. Which brings me to my third evidence-based rebuttal: you don’t know until you get out there.

A few inches of cream filled in the face. Buttery, soft, glorious stuff. Skiing  that wasn’t perhaps the stuff of legends, but was seriously worthy. We wouldn’t have known it was there had we not gone. We certainly wouldn’t have found it. And after a series of very complimentary things said about the quality of the snow, and the sunshine beaming down, we went back up for more.

Self-righteous aphorisms about earning turns pop up enough in ski writing, even though they’ve been worn more threadbare than a rock-eaten pair of skins. Everyone has their reasons for being out there. Personally, I keep coming back to the same thing: it’s easy to complain about the winter from a chairlift seat. But if you don’t like what’s under your skis, or if Global Weirding has served up another barely recognizable weather pattern, then go explore. Follow weather, seek out aspects, use elevation to your advantage. There’s almost always good skiing to be had if you want to work for it.

After our second lap, we dropped down the chute just below the summit of Aeneas.It was not quite as nice as the east face had been.

Which is the evidence base for my fourth conclusion: skiers are happier when they learn to love hard snow. Don’t get me wrong: pow is great. Soft snow is wonderful. And it’s made all the sweeter by enjoying the hell out of wind scour, sastrugi, icy mank, sludge, suncups, moguls, chicken heads, and runnels. Diversity keeps ski skill up, keeps the challenge hard, and makes the good days feel even more amazing. The winter I worked as a cat skiing guide, skiing powder got a little blasé due to too much repetition. You don’t want that in your life. Dig out the hop turns and find the crunchy stuff to keep it lively. We certainly did in that chute.

It was the nice bit of doodling down the flats back to Picnic Lakes. Gary made some silky tele turns in front of me.

Then, we bumped back up to the ridge to find springtime. Sun had softened the crust we’d skied in the morning, leaving a nice bit of surface corn for the enjoying in Crown Bowl.

Our exit down the road took a while, and eventually we walked a bit, but the day had been ours. It hadn’t rained. We’d found fun skiing and good snow towards the end of a “terrible winter.” And as we wander forth in the coming months, having no idea what this El Niño will bring, I keep thinking back to these good times as a touchstone and motivation to keep getting out, skinning a little further, and reaping the rewards.

 

 

 

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