An Old Skier Looks at Climate Change in the Sierra Nevadas

I went skiing just recently – two perfect blue bird California mid-April spring skiing days – so perfect it opened some old links in my cranial hard drive and I was temporarily re-wired back to my youth as a Lake Tahoe ski bum circa 1970– and to a time when the weather in the mountains in California in the spring was different than it is today.

Among all its other splendors, California used to have the best spring skiing in the USA and probably the whole planet. Old school California pride for you there. The California corn snow was legendary, the perfect arrangement of geography, prevailing weather currents, proximity to an ocean, altitude and latitude. Like God wanted to be able to ski on really great snow in her cutoffs, a t-shirt and shades.

Sure the Rockies would get some good spring days, but California had an excess, an embarrassment of riches. California has the maritime snowpack, blowing in off the North Pacific, as opposed to the continental snowpack of the Rockies. The difference is that the water content of the maritime snowpack is much greater. The Rockies have the lightest powder, stripped of its water content by the Sierras and other mountains to the West, and California has Sierra cement. In the spring, Sierra cement atones for its shortcomings.

Disclaimer: this is not a scientific paper. It’s not based on stats, although it’s my hunch the stats would bear me out. It’s based on my experience of living most of my life in the Western United States, between California and the Northwest, meaning southern Idaho and later Spokane, WA, 20 miles from the North Idaho border. Its based on my being a skier and backpacker and river rafter and thus having developed a connection, an attunement let’s call it, to the patterns of when the snow and water are flowing in the West. Scientists, other skiers and ski resort operators might choose to disagree. End of disclaimer.

California gets ungodly totals of precip in some winters, like this one just past. Squaw Valley reported 300 inches in February alone this year (a monthly record) and 682 inches season to date. That’s right. Almost 58 feet of snow this winter, and it’s maritime snow. High water content. Easy to imagine how the snow packs down over the winter until it’s pretty much a giant Ice cube hanging off the highest peaks of the range.

California used to have the perfect spring temperature regime to create and sustain corn snow perfection over a period of weeks and sometimes longer. During the day it could get to 60 degrees or more even on the upper slopes, and every night it would get below freezing again (a huge daily differential). So every morning the upper few surface inches of that giant ice cube would melt into corn snow, the next best thing in skiing to deep, light powder, and refreeze again the next night. When you’re on 58 feet of snow you have plenty to last for weeks if only a few inches a day is melting.

Especially when the slopes are groomed flat this freeze/thaw cycle creates a super-fast, consistent surface where you can always cut your edges into the surface for control yet there’s not enough snow depth on the surface of that ice cube to slow you down. Skiing doesn’t get any easier. Or faster. It’s bombs away, take no prisoners skiing. It’s a gravity sport and a speed sport and an adrenaline sport. Yeah that’s redundant. And you’re doing it in blazing sunlight and warmth. You can ski in your cutoffs. At 9,000 feet suckin down the high altitude super pure air that clears your head and stimulates about every cell in your cortex in an orgasmically healthy way – while you’re enjoying an adrenaline saturated tanning session. Incredibly, perfectly warm. On an alpine snowfield in the hot but not too hot sun is something everyone should get to feel someday. It makes you feel glad to be alive. Sorta like roasting on a perfectly fired spit with an air conditioner running. And that’s before you get to the deck of the lodge.

Back in the day the seasons turned more slowly in the mountains of California. There would be a gradual transition from winter to summer, with that sweet corn snow zone in the middle. Now, when it snows at all, which seems less frequent after our recent four years of drought, it just gets too hot too fast in the spring. And the nighttime temperatures are not as low as they once were. That perfect corn freeze/thaw cycle is more of a rarity, as is the divine high altitude decadence of Cali spring skiing.

This year seems like an outlier. We got some, and maybe it will last a bit. There could be skiing into June in the high Sierras south of Yosemite for those willing to hike for it.

If there’s one thing a serious skier is, it’s tuned in to the weather in the mountains. You live and die by it. You know when the storms are coming in and you know when the best snow is going to be on the ground. And my guess is that if you’re a serious skier in Cali who’s been around 40-50 years or so, you know the weather has changed. So it’s kind of a bittersweet joy to get the Cali spring skiing high now, cuz you know it’s only going to be harder to find in the future, if available at all. Climate change is real. If you’re at all in touch with the living environment around you, you can feel it in your bones. Everyone human is feeling it now as part of the stressed organism that is our planet host and home, only some are more aware of it in themselves than others. We’ll all be there only too soon.

It’s past time to be there now. It’s time to recognize that in the deepest parts of our ancient brain, we are feeling it. That’s part of why it’s so crazy feeling all around us right now. We’re like the fish in the fish bowl always circling and looking for a way out.

Skiers already know this. Fact is, if you told me you were a hard core skier and that you don’t believe in climate change, I wouldn’t challenge your beliefs. I’d just have to challenge your claim to be a skier. More likely just a liar than dumb enough to not get that climate change is for real.

And end of day (which comes pretty early afternoon some days when it gets really hot and the snow starts to turn into slush), we retreated to the parking lot for a tailgate party. Several families, adults chatting and having a cold one while the kids sniped us constantly with snow balls from the snowbanks still stacked 15 feet high all around us. And everything, for the moment, was just too perfect to be true, and too beautiful to ever lose.

Jeff Sher is a journalist specializing in the health care industry. He lives in San Francisco.