Tuesday, December 4, 2012


Winter is when we rest our running bones, our hiking feet.  Skiing is perhaps the best exercise there is and it is time for something different. We all pray for snow and wake to rain. It has been a mixed bag in this transition time. December, and I wear shorts as I run. We are steeped in rain, the sky winter-dark as we open the gate in the morning, an uncanny relationship to Southeast Alaska. If I close my eyes I am back under a tarp on a nameless island, kayaks tied to trees, the beach shrinking with the tide.

But I'm snuggled up against a mountain range instead, and we have been battered by wind, ceaseless howling  of up to eighty miles an hour, scaring the animals and setting our nerves on edge. What can you do in this weather? The trails are dangerous, trees falling with muffled thumps. We wake up to detritus from the neighbors: garbage cans, pieces of roof.

When we hear the rumor of snow up high, it galvanizes us. We scramble to find our skis, put aside since May. We leave 4,000 feet in a driving rain. It does not look promising.

The mountain road is lashed by wind and rain. Rocks, some as big as cats, have tumbled down from the slopes above. We pass Target Springs and Headache Springs. Still no snow.

Finally at six thousand feet we reach snowline. This is as far from powder as you can get, not our usual snow. A warm storm sweeping in from California has ensured that the snow is the consistency of mashed potatoes. The meadows are awash in standing water. We stand, looking. We are not the only fools up here. An overly optimistic crew has toted snowmobiles up here and cranks them up. It will be slush riding for them.

Slush is better than nothing but the higher we get, the better the snow is. I'm reminded once again how the subtle gain of elevation can change everything. When I worked in the Florida swamp, mere inches determined what grew. The hardwood hammocks, bristling with oaks and gumbo limbo trees, were retreats that the small animals retreated to during the summer high water. Often we found their bones there; trapped by water, they died there.

Here we watch the snowline dip and rise on Chief Joseph Mountain, trees frosted just above us while we sit in the rain. Here it takes forever for winter to arrive and forever for it to leave. In between we have this elevational dance. Like I used to listen for tide reports, here I look for snowline reports. Five thousand feet, four thousand..where it falls makes a difference.

Our ski is short, perhaps a little over an hour. It is already thirty-seven degrees and later it will ice up, making skiing dangerous. You take what you can get around here. We climb on our skis, taking turns breaking trail. There is a hint of a glide, a promise of things to come.

We sometimes talk about moving to Canada, or someplace with more consistent snow. It sounds good when we are in this transition zone, waiting for the snow to move down. Someplace with longer summers and better snow? Does such a place exist? For now we'll  keep driving higher in elevation.


  1. Just catching up on all things Bloggy. I'm at home with the flu and there's plenty of snow out the front door. Exciting that you are doing an awesome chunk of the PCT!! This is an AWESOME section and was one of my favorites though I will confess I have a little amnesia already. Just wait until August.

    1. Ooh leslie, you are back. Can't wait to read about it.

  2. Long summers and consistent powder snow from November to March — I think a few higher elevation towns in Utah, i.e. Park City, fit that profile. Or Ouray, Telluride, Breckenridge, Frisco, Colorado mountain towns. Although in this volatile climate, who knows what things will be like? I have several friends in Colorado who are grumbling about moving to better snow and I'm thinking, where exactly are you going to go?

  3. We've been having the same wet sloppy unseasonably warm weather.

  4. And us, too....no snow here in the U.P. which apparently is nationally newsworthy...Weather Channel was in town to film open beaches and hills this week. Your fellow skiers here are also in a funk.

  5. If you find a place like that, let me know. Most years here, it is like that, just a short drive to the mountains and we hit the snow. This year it has been pretty dry or a lot of warm systems coming through so not much snow yet.

    Snow seems to be hit or miss in the higher elevations here in NorCal. Mt. Shasta is completely green, yet Mt. Ashland is like "wooohoo snow, come ski here!!" I think they're about 50 miles apart.

  6. Well, there is a national conference convening right now to discuss where our winters have gone, I saw it on the NSF website.

    We drove to Bozeman MT last weekend to see our son ski, after the normal opening supertour nordic ski races were cancelled in West Yellowstone due to lack of snow. It was 50's in Bozeman and snow for the races was slushy and thin. He's on his way to Quebec City for the World Cup races, I hope they have snow....
    It's been dismal here in SE Idaho too, rain and warm temps.
    I'm afraid this will be the new norm. yuck.

  7. No snow here either, but after the amount we have had in the past few years, I can say I'm rather happy. I would like snow for Christmas and then it can melt again.

  8. "Winter is when we rest ... our hiking feet."
    Not I. I'm a peakbagger, and for every list there's a winter list. Winter is when we break out the microspikes, the crampons, and the snowshoes and explore familiar mountains transformed into something brand new.


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