Apr 04 2014

TR: Tahoe rallys for best day of the season


Kris Thomas drops off Anderson Ridge near Sugar Bowl.

Kris Thomas drops off Anderson Ridge near Sugar Bowl.

The smiles around Tahoe are pretty deep this week. Most days you can find a smile on the face of any Tahoe local, especially if they’re a skier in the middle of winter. Work not withstanding, being in one of the finest places in the world to shred snow fosters an optimism that is harder to find in the big chity. Even when it has been the third wimpy winter in a row.

That enthusiasm for snow has been admittedly a dubious basis for good cheer recently, especially this season. As a backcountry skier though I must admit my patience for deliverance from the drought, however temporary, has been tested this winter. My smile, though not absent, was more stoic than bubbly. I noticed it with other backcountry skiers as well. The earning of turns has remained reliable throughout the season, especially with Sugar Bowl going official on their uphill policy. However, the turning has not been so good, at least, not compared to how good we know it can be.

Cherry pickin' Tahoe local.

Cherry pickin’ Tahoe local.

That all changed this week. It may not change the picture for water reserves this summer, but God rewarded the patient and delivered a harvest of powder that erased three seasons of just enough snow for cherry-pickin’ Tahoe* local snobs with four days of great snow, one of them sublime.

Now I’ll admit I’ve had deeper, and lighter fluff here in the ‘hood, but it has been a full two seasons. For most, it has probably been three, but I remember the snow billowing over my head on the heels of 18 inches worth of fresh at Hidden Peak. As the record shows, once again it was during the spring half of the season, in Awesome April, the first of April no less.

It was the same this April Fools Day 2014 when all the professional ski bums on Tahoe made arrangements to be bumming for the day. For myself, Ross, and Geoff, all signs pointed to South Lake Tahoe as the place to be, and Waterhouse was the easiest cherry to pick. It had a starting elevation above 7600′, so there would be good coverage even down low, with a summit 1700-feet higher. There were steep slopes and lots of trees to tame the wind and the resulting threat of avalanches too. And it was closer than any other option in the South Shore ‘hood. There was no reason to look any further.

Pow pow near Carson Pass.

James Donahue rips pow near Carson Pass.
photo by Jimmy Busher

Did I say it was sublime already? Geoff had put in a moderate trail to the summit the day before, but I couldn’t help myself and strayed from his established path to set my own and spend more time in untracked blower. Though it slowed my progress, I drank in the depth with every step, eagerly anticipating the turns to come, yet loving the uphill immersion equally as much, though more as a partner, less like the mistress that downhill romps tend to be.

The first lap was a due north aspect that drained east. Here the wind had dropped double the official total in back to back storms. The result was classic Tahoe bottomless, which isn’t actually bottomless, but the change in density from blower on top to soft foam below is so smooth and imperceptible that it feels like you’re floating on a cloud with nothing beneath but gravity to pull you down. Down and down we dropped, sweeping and sliding in the spaces between the trees, then launching from pillow to pillow in a stair cased final pitch to the flat meadow below.

Before we reached the bottom though, we put skins back on and plowed a fresh trench back to the top and did it again, this time down the southern side. A crust lurked beneath, but it broke easily to allow access to a hidden cache of whipped powder lower still, with over a foot of lighter fluff on top. The crust only added texture, like nuts in a bar of chocolate, enhancing, not detracting, from the main ingredient.

Back on the street today I made the rounds to see how other friends had fared that day. To a T none could contain their satisfaction that the spell of drought had been broken, even if only for a day, in some cases two. Jared, who lives at the bottom of Sugar Bowl’s famous Lake Run remarked, “That was great.” Then, as if to admit he had already conceded the season was over added, “Now I’m ready for paddling.”

I would be too, but there’s still turns to be had and my kites are tempting me to go further from the trailhead to extend the season. What ski bum can ignore such a call?

* – Cherry-pickin’ Tahoe local snobbery is not limited to the Lake Tahoe region, but does seem to be more prevalent with turn earning backcountry skiers and snowboarders.

© 2014