By: Ryan Dunfee
Ed’s Note: Powder Contributor Ryan Dunfee spent the last week following the rhythms of an extended Tahoe storm. Through rain and snow, blower, cement, six year olds and fresh lines, this is what he saw. Pay witness through the eyes of a believer.
Act I: Tuesday
The collective excitement at the barrel of incoming precipitation is felt nowhere on the quiet, wind-swept slopes of Sugar Bowl on a Tuesday. Most of the lifts are closed, most of the pitches are empty and barren. The sideways wind that rips across the lift line and leaves the open pitches a smooth desert of compacted snow cuts off the connection between skiers that Tahoe’s usually collegial sunny days promotes. The excitement feels muted, internal, buried beneath balaclavas and Gore-Tex. But in the trees, that community is nurtured again. Between the stoic trunks painted white, the snow is deep and smooth, the giggles, yelps, and hollers reverberate in the quiet confines and the smiles come out from behind jacket collars. That eerie almost hateful torment of energy felt in the open alpine in replaced by the protection and warmth provided by the fur trees’ glowing lichen and friendly, tree-well-less trunks. It is that contrast between the raw desert of the open mountain and the protection of the gladed glens that produces storm days, one of skiing’s most rewarding and unique experiences where bad weather produces good days. Not to mention the free refills for everyone.
Act II: Thursday
With the freezing level climbing and falling, the precipitation getting thicker and thinner, wetter and lighter, the confusing signals of the elements forces life to retreat for a few days to the valley. Some days we wake up with snow, others with a puddle. This storm is confused, her intentions alternatively benign and malignant, the evidence of her mood swings in every change in water content and temperature. Helpless, we wait her out, seeing where her mind will finally end up.
Act III: Saturday
In a cold final swing, she minds our wishes and drops 20 inches of thick, supportable powder on every aspect of the North Lake. She leaves her signature etched across all the features of Squaw Valley. The bare rocks of the Fingers are now drooping spines of white. The fur trees sit proudly weighted with their new coats, the spaces between them soft and deep. And at the base, thousands of skiers and snowboarders, like an army of mercenaries, wait impatiently eager to claim their share of the spoils. As the chairlift loads, sets of humans swathed in primary colors to the summit of these glorious peaks, the gorgeous canvas beneath them is rapidly torched, the snow shredded at an aggressive, almost hateful cadence.
My sadness at paying witness to this death by a thousand small cuts is accentuated by my current charge, which is to ferry around a crew of five six-year-olds through the deepest snow of their little lives. Desperate to feel that sensation of fresh snow billowing over the body, even just once, I make the mistake of dropping a sliver of untracked knee-deep powder in front of my kids. The unmistakable smile I grin at the bottom while covered in glorious snow is immediately cut short by the wales of my pack of toddlers as I turn my head back towards the top of the pitch. Half of them are upside down, skis missing somewhere deep in the snow, crying out at their utter helplessness in the face of a medium that engulfs their tiny, unappreciative bodies. They will learn to love the powder, but not today. Today they will suffer, and I will suffer every moment with them.
Act IV: Monday
After two days of experiencing life on skis as Sysyphus, the Greek king punished with the task of rolling an immense boulder up a hill only to watch it roll back down and to repeat this for eternity, I am released from my heavy burden and let loose to charge into battle along with the rest of the locals. With the Headwall chair finally opening for the first time after the storm, I shimmy my way up with the rest of the eagers and await my turn to prove myself in the field of battle. I quickly find myself above a cliff I am second-guessing until a siren comes to lead the way. Out of nowhere, a fearless snowboarder friend charges the opposite side of the gully, barreling over a 10 footer in a wild cloud of red outerwear and white snow, tumbling down the run-out until she finds her feet for an exiting straightline. Seeing the day’s pace shoved in my face like that, I have no choice but to follow the prescribed rhythm and turn my skis forward off the diving board and into the ether.
Act V: Tuesday
We wake early, and she tempts us with dark, quiet skies that indicates a cool day that promises to keep the newly fallen snow friendly to our purposes. As we climb the skin track, the sounds of muted fawumps as warming snow falls from the trees increasingly echoes through the steepening forest. A light drizzle glazes the snow as we climb, a small hint that our time to score the epic is coming to a close. Skins off, we drop with that sinking feeling that these will be the last good turns she will let us enjoy. The snow is depressingly heavy and by the time we reach the bottom saddle, the sun comes out like a microwave from hell, zapping the season’s worth of fresh snow around us like some evil alien laser bent on crushing human dreams. As the soaking snow pulls at our bases until we crawl to a stop, the snow falls from the trees as if in a hurry, and water cascades down out of nowhere. It is as if this fantasy world is being deconstructed, bit by bit, right in front of our eyes. The door is closed on our heels and our tragic hero returns sulking to the car, wondering why the gods would not let him play in the great playground of nature for just a little longer.