The Winter of Our Discontent

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Early January, 2012

I went upstairs to wake the kids a few days ago and the first thing my younger son uttered was, “Is it raining?”
“No,” I answered, a triumphant hint of optimism in my voice. “It’s cold and gray.”

Something on the other side of the room made a quilt-muffled snurfling sound, and Thing 1 piped up again, cheerlessly, “This is like the worst winter ever!”

He’s not far off, though old timers, especially parents, will always find another, worse instance of anything about which you complain.

I bored my kids with tales of a New Years Day in the late Seventies when we hiked bare trails through Tahoe’s Desolation Wilderness, to skate on frozen Sierra lakes that were typically buried in snow by then. As proof of past suffering my husband pulled out a high school yearbook. “See here. This picture was taken January 18, 1980.” In it high school boys dressed in ski pants and padded sweaters, bound on leaves and rocks through slalom poles set in the brown woods. This bit of perspective was of interest to other old timers, but offered no consolation to the youngsters.

The most troubling aspect of the winter—the country-wide suckishness of it—is actually a bit of a convenience in our household. There is no east vs west undercurrent of superiority when it’s this bad everywhere, when the east coast slopes, along with the entire swath of ski areas from the Rockies to the Sierra are down and quite literally dirty. Just the other day a good friend did not recognize my car because it was thoroughly encased in a brown, ultrasuedeish coating of dirt.

But I will say this. It could be worse. In fact it was much worse just last month. Early season skiing, with too many people hurtling down too few trails on what is fondly referred to as the “white ribbon of death,” in ever-dwindling daylight, is always somewhat tough on the psyche. This year it was brutal.

Our ski club scrambled to get on any snow, and convened at a resort that shall not be named. I won’t name it because all resorts had similarly challenging conditions in early December–a skimcoat of snowmaking that turned into a concrete base, topped with a layer of gravel and sugar. Skis were destroyed, but spirits remained defiantly high. While riding through the frozen murk and deafening hiss of snowmaking guns on an especially unhospitable December Saturday, I remembered why we do this. It has to do with that spirit, and with being surrounded by people who think, through optimism or pragmatism, “What the heck else are we going to do on a winter day?”

Beyond the benefits of a self-selecting social circle, there are indeed some positives to this “worst winter ever” experience. Here are just a few so far:

Snowmaking: It’s a good thing, and these days it’s really good. When it gets cold they can make lots of good snow fast. When it gets warm and rains, making our moods plummet, the snowmaking ponds (and our potential for hope) refill.

Slalom training: East to west, rock hard conditions and the necessity for repetition of drills and basic skills (how many ways can you tackle one trail?) are making for epic slalom training.

Little areas: When you only have a few trails you can cover ‘em deep. (Thank you Dartmouth Skiway). And on that note…

Less feels like more: I got a press release from Jackson Hole about “6 INCHES OF NEW SNOW!” I’ll bet they haven’t been so fired up about that in a while.

Desperate Optimism: My husband has pledged his allegiance to a meteorologist who specializes in long term forecasts. He is convinced that it’s all going to change in a matter of weeks, that the ocean temperatures, gyres and currents will conspire to shift the jet stream and open the door for winter to rage upon our doorsteps. Rather than question this information, we cling to it.

We had our first snow day yesterday. At 5 am there wasn’t a speck of white in sight under the still bright moon. Nevertheless, at 5:30 a town snowplow was rumbling past, scraping sparks from the same pavement that the town will likely be repairing in July. The phone rang with the automated message kids live for. Snow day! It was probably unnecessary, in that the storm event did not begin in earnest until 8 am, and was well over by 3pm. But the snow day was necessary in other ways. It gave us a chance to put our snow boots on and get out in real winter weather, to saturate our butts on a snowy chairlift, catch snowflakes in our mouths on the way up the mountain, and glide through 3 heavenly inches of “the best powder of the season.”

The kids are back in school and at the moment it’s dumping outside. We get it Mother Nature–we’ll take what we get and do our best to enjoy every last flake. So please, please, please, just bring it on!