Indian Winter

An October to remember in Lake Tahoe, California

Trick or treat? Daron Rahlves goes for the treat. PHOTO: Grant Barta

This story originally appeared in the February 2013 (Volume 41, Issue 6) issue of POWDER, which can be purchased here.

WORDS: Ken Barta

The wind whipped and clawed at the windowpanes as I lay half dreaming in the early morning dark. Did I tie up all the trees in the yard, or did I miss those crab apples? Is the snowblower ready? Wait, temps are in the 70s; it's an Indian summer. No, that was yesterday. Thump! Whap! Thump! Fully awake, there was no mistaking the sound of heavy, wet snow blowing out of the pines and hitting the roof. I felt an involuntary smile creep across my face. A warm glow of contentment spread through my belly. Not only were all the trees tied up, the snowblower gassed and ready, but it was only October 22, and the forecast called for three solid days of snow.

This was the start of my 43rd season skiing the central Sierra Nevada mountains of California. Over those decades, there have been a handful of decent October starts to the ski season, but this one would prove to be exceptional. On Thursday morning, October 25, dawned clear and calm, 40 inches of fresh snow blanketed the runs at Sugar Bowl, which sits above historic Donner Pass at Norden.

The lifts were closed, but along with their open boundary policy, Sugar Bowl also permits preseason hiking. Normally, with so much new snow, the avalanche danger would have been a big concern. But because the interface of new snow and a ground still warm from summer was now 48 hours old, the snowpack was about as stable as it gets.

It became clear right away there would be a different sort of Donner Party that day. As we skinned up for our first run down 8,300-foot Mount Lincoln, it seemed like half the town of Truckee was out to celebrate the early season powder.

My brother Grant snapped this shot of Daron Rahlves on our last run of the day at 3:30 p.m. on the '58 Slide Path at about 8,000 feet of elevation. The air was still, the snow perfect, and the late afternoon light slanted softly over the rugged, dark wall of the Palisades, perfectly illuminating Rahlves powering through his final face shots of an all time October dump.