Backcountry Skiing in the Golden State: The Waiting Game

What do you do when you’re writing a backcountry skiing guidebook and there’s no snow? Go to Canada

Avoid the south facing slopes in California. PHOTO: Jeremy Benson

Avoid the south facing slopes in California. PHOTO: Jeremy Benson

WORDS: Jeremy Benson

Based out of Lake Tahoe, California, Jeremy Benson has worked as a busser, landscaper, ski tech, bartender, waiter, and freelance writer to facilitate his skiing addiction. He is currently working on a backcountry skiing guidebook to the state of California for Mountaineers Books, and waiting for it to snow…

It turns out that Tom Petty was right all along, the waiting is, in fact, the hardest part. The lyrics of his hit song, The Waiting, have never resonated with me like they have so far this season. If you live in California, or anywhere in the Far West for that matter, then you know what I’m talking about. After back-to-back below average winters (2013 was the driest year on record for California—painful), I figured we were due for a big one, but so far we’re still waiting.

It gets worse. This year I have a vested interest in winter actually producing. I’m supposed to write a backcountry skiing guidebook for California, outlining 100 of the state’s best routes. I’d planned to spend the majority of my winter “researching,” as in revisiting favorite lines and discovering new zones and terrain for my route descriptions and photographs. So, come November I started waiting, hoping for that early-season dump to get us into the mountains on our skis.

November passed, then December, with little more than 20 inches of blower on top of virtually nothing. For the past five weeks we’ve seen high pressure anchored firmly off the West Coast, our temps hovering in the mid 40s with sunny skies. South faces are completely bare, and north-facing terrain holds some sugary snow that barely hides a myriad of season-ending surprises and will eventually become a persistent weak layer.

And this is what January should look like. With no snow in the golden state, Benson headed to Icefall Lodge in British Columbia. PHOTO: Jeremy Benson

And this is what January should look like. With no snow in the golden state, Benson headed to Icefall Lodge in British Columbia. PHOTO: Jeremy Benson

So far this season, linking five turns in a row without hitting a rock has been cause to celebrate. Sugar Bowl’s new “Uphill Pass” has been the highlight, enabling us to get out and hike without feeling like you might end your season at any moment. Never mind the backcountry, our resorts have struggled as well, with chair openings delayed due to “rock removal” on the runs—seriously.

Soul-crushing would be a good way to describe our lack of snow, the kind of drought that makes you question the sacrifices you’ve made to be a ski-bum and live where you live. Social media doesn’t help, the bitter taste of FOMO in my mouth after every powder pic on Instagram or Facebook from Montana, Jackson, Southwest Colorado, even Vermont. Sorry if I didn’t “like” your photo, but I was too busy wallowing in my own self pity. Try as we might, but apparently no number of hopeful “pleasesnowsoon” and “moresnowplease” hashtags or washing of cars can seem to reverse this problem. Weather forecasters continue to take shots in the dark at storms that might be “two weeks out” but strangely never materialize.

Sadly, it seems like hitting the road is the only option for us to get a taste of real winter. A few weeks ago, with the help of our persistent discouraging long-term forecast, I decided enough was enough. After a quick e-mail exchange with Larry Dolecki, the owner of Icefall Lodge near Golden, B.C., I secured four spots in powder-skiing paradise. After New Years, we packed up the van and drove straight to the Great White North, where the snow is plentiful and the weather is cold—as it should be in January.

We haven’t looked back, and definitely haven’t checked the forecast, but despite the distraction of faceshots and an endless supply of glorious powder turns this week, I’m hopeful there’s a major change in the weather coming for Tahoe. Sure it’s great to ski pow on the road, but there’s no place like home, and I’ve got a book to write, dammit!

Add a comment

  • Mark Lee Ville

    I hope your book never gets published. It sounds like a guide to eliminate all of our favorite secrets this state has for backcountry skiing

    • 3degree

      You’re right Mark, let people go out there uninformed, and chasing rumors and legend. Cuz I’d rather let ‘em die than have to problem solve….or god forbid….explore new terrain in an attempt to better myself. You’ve never read a guide book? Gotten advice from a friend? Don’t be afraid of other people being educated, rather, you should worry about falling behind those who want it more than you.

      • DB Basher

        Great piece of fluff (NPI) journalism. Unfortunately, this is the immediate (and by that I mean next 10-50+ years) future of the Sierra. How could this have caught an aspiring ski guidebook author by surprise? It’s been in the climate models for more than a decade now. And 3degree: going out “chasing rumors and legend” used to be called adventure. I see you’re one of the new generation of the social media clueless…clutching at your apps to see where to go next. While Jones is out “protecting” our winters, your studying his online smut looking to ride on his jock.

        • J. Rando

          The irony of you calling another commenter “social media clueless…studying online smut” in an online comment is just too good. You’ve shit on Powder, the author, and Jeremy Jones all within <100 words. Oh, and toss in some subtle homophobia to round it out. Sublime trolling, bro.

          • DB Basher

            Come on Rando. Where else would I find the social media clueless but in the comments section of an online article? As for the author, well, any one of 2 million people in the last 3 decades could’ve written a Sierra guidebook to the killer zones, bro. But that isn’t the ethic there. And it never has been. So now Jeremy Benson’s dropping in just so he can make a buck. And then Powder publishes this piece on his apparent surprise over a well-established climate trend? Um, yeah, I guess I’ll wipe now. And don’t get me started on Jones…

          • Julie Bobulie

            3 years is a well established climate trend? 09-10 and 10-11 were huge precip years in Tahoe. I guess 3 years marks some sort of climactic trend in your world. Must’ve been too busy trolling to notice those epic seasons.

      • Mark Lee Ville

        Ok 3d. Nowhere do I say in my post I want people to die or not educate themselves or not explore. I simply think my personal spots are like a steamers lane line up when 3 years ago they were known by exponentially less of us.. Those who tell don’t know, those who don’t know, tell. Enjoy the snow. I don’t worry too much about other people’s accomplishments nor have I ever felt “left behind” because someone can ski or access better terrain. But you are right, perhaps it is time to work harder to get away from what skiing has become after this discourse. Make some turns for me, come out to Markleyville some time; there is great terrain.

        • Bob Gnarley

          I think you meant “those who tell don’t know, those who know don’t tell.” saying those who tell dont know and those who dont know tell is literally the same statement scrambled up…..sorry for trolling. good vibes

          • Mark Lee Ville

            yer whoops. ha.

  • Rico

    Back in the day, we held onto our inbound stashes, and then movie makers filmed “locals” skiing the goods and that was that. Heavy sigh.
    My buds and i have been “exploring” the Sonora Pass area since around 1970 and we are still alone much of the time. Didn’t need a guide book, just common sense and the correct equipment.
    Those who want to go get it will, and some will end up like the 7 (so far) in Colorado this winter. It happens, and it’s sad. But the suits are buying up the ski areas, oh wait, “resorts”, and they just aren’t as much as they were, back in the day.

    • DB Basher


  • Dave Gibbs

    Haters gunna hate

    • Jd

      Bitter bitches. Great day today in BC finally winter came.

  • ChillWillikers

    Wow. A lot of haters in this comment section. Sound like a bunch of old fogies who are pissed off that the younguns now have resources to go out and find nice back country lines without having to live in the area for decades. People complain about millenials spending all day on line and then when they use those online skills to find out door adventures those same people complain even more. Get over your selves. I thought skiing/riding was about sharing in the stoke.

    • Reality Bites

      Re: “using online skills to find outdoor adventure.” Too funny. The guidebook tells you exactly where the lines are. The bros post the Helmet cam footy. 30 other trip reports (including pictures) give you the step by step beta. The ski industry marketing machine hypes it. Then you go nab the 3000th descent. Shackleton would be impressed.

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