Before I moved to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, I had my first taste of mountain living in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California back in the 1990s. I had what I fondly referred to as a “Young Life” crisis and ditched my job at a consulting firm in Washington, DC to move to California to become a ski bum. It seemed like such a romantic and daring thing to do at the time. When I arrived in Mammoth Lakes, California in November, 1991, I started to second guess my impulsive decision, as I found out that California was in the throes of a 7-year drought. I spent five winters living in the Sierra, working for the ski resort industry, first in Mammoth Lakes, and later in Lake Tahoe until 1999. Fortunately for me, shortly after I arrived, that drought broke, and in fact, I experienced some of the snowiest winters ever in Lake Tahoe, including the big El Nino winter of 1997-1998. That winter, the storm door was open and Kirkwood Ski Area received almost 900 inches of snow. I was very fortunate because I always had steady work, and enjoyed the benefits of my employee ski pass to the fullest.
This year, my heart is breaking for my former friends and the residents of Lake Tahoe, as they have experienced one of the worst winters in history with snow pack levels reaching historic lows. In the west, snow depth is often measure through Snotels, an automatic device showing snowfall and depth. At some of the Snotels, snow pack levels are coming in at less than 10% of normal for this time of year. The classic song, California Dreamin’, has a line, “All the leaves are brown..” Well, California’s ski season has turned into a California Nightmare instead, where instead of brown leaves, the ski slopes are brown, as in brown dirt. Typically, this time of year is when snow drifts will be 10-15 feet alongside the roads of the towns surrounding the Lake, like Truckee, where I used to live. These days, nary a patch of snow dots the ground in town or along Lake Tahoe. Of the fourteen downhill ski resorts in the area, more than a third have closed early due to no snow and extremely warm temperatures. And there isn’t a single cross-country touring center open.
It’s not just the lack of snow, which can commonly happen in the Sierra, where you will get stretches of sunny skies, but the incredibly warm temperatures, which even in mid-winter reached upwards of sixty degrees. The warm weather insured that resorts couldn’t even make snow, which they routinely use to build snow pack when Mother Nature doesn’t bless the ground with natural snow. Instead of skiing at Christmas, many people were hiking or mountain biking instead.
This is the fourth and worst year of an epic drought for California, which of course, extends damage to the state well beyond its ski resort industry. But as someone who has so many happy memories of my first winters living in the mountains, living the dream of a ski bum, I feel for my brethren who are suffering. It’s hard to imagine how they deal with this going forward. Ski resorts pad their coffers with season pass sales for the following year. After four years of increasingly worse conditions, who would want to plunk down money for a ski pass? For their sake, I hope the weather Gods show compassion and bring back the snows for next year…