Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

How to ski through a blizzard

March 9, 2014
The visibility got much, much worse than this.

After experimenting with the various Tahoe resorts last winter, we took the plunge and bought a season pass this year. To make the pass worth it, we would need to ski six days (a single-day ticket costs between $74 and $116). At the beginning of the year, it was looking like we had miscalculated — through the end of January, we had only skied one day and the mountains were barely open. Determined to go up again even without snow, we booked a hotel and car for one of the first weekends in February.

And what did the forecast for that weekend turn out to be? Snow from Thursday night until Monday morning with accumulations of up to six feet in the mountains. Six feet! When I was a kid, there was one winter where we got as much snow as Michael Jordan is tall (6'6") and it was a record. And Tahoe was going to get that much snow in a single weekend.

Lest you praise our perfect timing, it turns out that skiing in a Tahoe blizzard is not exactly ideal. First, you have to get to Tahoe, a 3.5-hour drive in the best conditions, with at least one mountain pass above 8,000 feet. Second, it was actually raining at lake level (5600'), with the rain turning to snow at about 7000', which meant skiing involved crossing the rain/snow line as you descended. A lot of people drove up to Tahoe that weekend and didn't ski at all. Not us.

We skied both days at Northstar because it was the only one of the Vail resorts that was open all weekend (Heavenly closed because of wind and Kirkwood because of avalanche control). Most of the mountain was in the "snow zone," but it was very wet snow (a.k.a. "Sierra cement").

Things we learned about skiing through a storm:
  • Cover every inch of skin and do not uncover anything once you step outside. Don't take off your helmet to put on a neckwarmer; don't lift your googles to scratch your nose; don't take off your gloves to read a trail map. Once you let the water in, you will never be dry again.
  • Don't go off the groomed trails. If you do, you risk getting buried chest-deep in snow. It will not be easy to free your skis from the crushing pile of snow.
  • You cannot turn on the ungroomed trails; your only choice is to follow the tracks of the previous skier. Stopping will require tremendous effort by your iliotibial bands. You can try purposefully steering off the trail but you risk getting stuck (see previous bullet).
  • Memorize where you're going. Your trail map will disintegrate as soon as it gets wet, leaving it utterly useless for finding your way back to the lodge.
  • You won't be able to see more than a foot or two in front of you. This will make it even harder to find the lodge as you won't be able to see any of the trail signs.
  • You will be able to wring water out of your gloves. But don't: There might still be a dry layer somewhere in the glove; wringing it out guarantees it will be 100% wet. 
  • Don't go into the lodge until you're ready to be done for the day. Once you take off your gear, you'll discover just how wet you are. The line to use the blowdryer in the bathroom will be longer than any lift line you've seen all day.
It was all in good fun. We're not complaining, especially because this is where we found ourselves two weeks later:

We're hitting the slopes again this week, new GoPro in hand.

- Steph

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