To most Western Montana alpine recreationalists -- even in light of the front that provided our first glimpse of the flaky, white stuff midweek -- last year's record snows color all discussion about the season ahead.
You can hear the faint sound of heartbreak in their voices. They know, despite the fact that each winter brings its own special moments of joy, that the chances of powdery love-in like last year's are slim indeed. Combine this knowledge with the fact that a big El Niño -- such as the one which should begin to influence weather throughout the Pacific Northwest by mid-January -- and you get the sense that skiers and snowboarders alike view last year's ski season as an affair to remember.
Those responsible for making sure the lift lines are long from Washington's Mount Baker to the Black Hills of North Dakota, however, have begun to raise a peculiar rallying cry. With only a trace of doubt in their voices, they argue that El Niño has no bearing on snow levels at altitude.
Besides, every area worth its salt has insurance -- namely in the form of snowmaking equipment. So while groups of telemarkers and other traditionalists are growing out their beards and getting ready for some serious naked snowdancing, the rest of us can rest assured that the precipitation techs are prepared to make it snow with or without Mother Nature's help.
Meteorologist Peter Felsch with the National Weather Service admits that he and the other skiers in his office harbor doubts about exactly how much is going to dump and where. Acknowledging that making long-term weather predictions is difficult, Felsch says that the best information he has indicates year's El Niño years tend to be warmer and drier than others.
"In general," Felsch says, "a stronger El Niño means below normal precipitation and above normal temperatures. That's generally in the valleys and doesn't necessarily mean much for the mountains."
It's a truism that resort workers like Gia Randono of Snow Bowl are counting on. While she cannot quite hide her anxiety on a recent pre-season tour of the mountain, Randono points out that weather patterns shift with altitude, and notes -- as most Missoula residents are well aware -- that the weather on top of Snow Bowl usually has little to do with whatever's going on in the valley below.
And despite the fact that she has no meteorological expertise, Randono counters Felsch's contention that the last big El Niño of 1982-83 was a particularly bad season for snow. The truth, she says, is that snowfall during that time reflected a spike during a crushing period of droughts rather than a drop from the 45-or-so inches which fall on Missoula most years.
"People call and want a forecast," she says. "But I'm not a meteorologist. All I can say is that El Niño doesn't have me particularly stressed out."
And while it remains true that most resort folks remain pretty lackadaisical about the possibility of a very disappointing season (Snow Bowl has just finished a host of lodge renovations; Big Mountain in Whitefish is getting ready to celebrate its golden anniversary; and the spendy resorts like Sun Valley and Big Sky have set Thanksgiving as an opening date) El Niño really could screw up wintertime fun.
El Niño, or the El Niño Southern Oscillation, in truth, is not something we will see in Montana. That name refers to changes that took place last summer in the eastern Pacific Ocean -- as they tend to do every decade or so -- and which cause a shifting in trade winds. These, in turn, usually bring increased rainfall to the southern United States, and drought to Central and South America.
In the Northern Hemisphere, Felsch explains, the weather impacts are much harder to predict. As the trade winds shift, so do the jet streams which carry storms to this part of the world from north and south. As these atmospheric disruptions take place, the storm tracks which contribute to precipitation break apart, often leaving more than a few dry spots on the map.
Even so, Felsch says, those effects can take until February to reach us, once again making it very difficult to predict what ski conditions will be through the winter. "There's always a lot of noise in predictions for an El Niño year," he says. "But you could get a storm or two which could set up a really good snowpack -- what the overall impact will be is hard to tell at this point."
Standing on the backside of Snow Bowl a couple of weeks ago, the sun was working hard to remove what could really only be considered a smattering of crusty white. It was hard to envision the fact that less than a year ago, as record snows topped the 10-foot mark on the Missoula ski areas, the Lavelle Creek lift had to be closed down due to lack of clearance.
It was certainly a year to remember, with long-time local fixtures shaving their heads in honor of the incredible snow. And all over the state, from Lost Trail to Red Lodge to Bridger Bowl, similar ritualistic behavior was taking place. Until, at long last, with muscles aching and sore from overdoing it, those amorous snow bunnies hung up their gear, and cursed the blessed clouds for bringing Heaven down to earth.
Looking back on that experience, Randono -- who had only recently come to hold her position as goddess of Snow Bowl promotions -- lets on that if we were to see snow like that again, her smile might not be as bright. Between the road plowing and Montana Power breakdowns, the folks at the Bowl didn't just have to deal with record dumpage but record crowds as well.
"From a skier's point of view, even, there were some problems with the amount of snow," she says.
Even so, this week, Randono notes that the cold weather and recently reconditioned snow-making equipment have allowed some start-up accumulation. And she assures me that there is no chance that skiers will not be able to ski from top to bottom -- referring to a couple of nightmare years only old-timers remember.
Of course, if Snow Bowl marks the pinnacle of backyard experiences, there are other nearby places that also have guaranteed snow -- both natural and machine-made.
The Big Mountain, which just completed more than $3.7 million in capital improvements, traditionally has had plenty of snow. Its nickname, the Big Fog, reflects the propensity of the 3,000-acre hill to hook and hold Pacific weather patterns, averaging more than 300 inches of snow per year. And if El Niño dries things up a little, perhaps the views of Glacier National Park and the Flathead Valley will be visible from the summit instead of hidden in the clouds.
Over by Bozeman, the folks at Montana's premier resort seem downright optimistic. With more than 50 snow-blowing guns in place this week, publicist Maclaren Johnson says that everyone is good to go for the Thanksgiving opening -- and, she adds enthusiastically, Big Sky has already extended its ski season from April 12 to April 16.
Further afield, in Idaho, Sun Valley's been gearing up for its Thanksgiving start for nearly a month. Boasting the world's largest computerized snow-making system, it's good to know that the operators of Hemingway's favorite resort (although one suspects he might hate it today) have found a wise investment for the money they've been making off Hollywood's high rollers.
"It's a great insurance policy," Jack Sibbach says of the $22 million system, which can make snow with 10 different degrees of humidity in temperatures up to 35 degrees.
Being the purveyors of snowy fun, the match-makers of our wintertime hearts, Sibbach, Johnson and Randono are ready to send the alpine crowd a valentine. Never mind your memories of the past, they urge, there are plenty of fish in the sea, plenty of mountains in the West and -- perhaps best of all -- machinery to guarantee your good time.
File photo The annual Gelande jump at Snow Bowl requires nearly perfect conditions -- but for now, crews on the Missoula hill are simply praying for snow. (file photo)
Photographer Steve Fuller, who heads maintenance at Canyon Village in Yellowstone, describes the nation's first designated national park as a great outdoor museum -- where he has the good fortune of living year round. As an employee, Fuller can step inside the display case so to speak, exploring the wilderness which forms his front yard.
He explained this to me last December, when I had the opportunity to join him and my friend, writer Doug Peacock, for a week of cross-country skiing. With the roads closed to all but park personnel, I had my chance to step into the natural museum of Yellowstone for a week in Hayden Valley and catch a rare, near-solitary glimpse of the park.
Saturday, Dec. 7: Canyon Village
Peacock and I meet Fuller at Mammoth Hot Springs, where he keeps his car for the winter. I've never met the man before and have little to go on now. All but his eyes are covered with layers of clothing, and even these will soon disappear under a pair of goggles. He's dressed for the 60-mile round trip snowmobile ride to his home in Canyon.
I ride behind Fuller most of the way, my arms and legs wrapped tightly around this stranger as we take perilous turns and mount snowbanks, while Peacock sits in the makeshift sled that also carries our gear. By the time we arrive, we've still got a few hours of daylight and it seems judicious that we try out our skis.
It's probably been 10 years since I last strapped a pair to my feet. Peacock has almost exclusively used snowshoes during his treks in the wild looking for grizzly bears. Before the relative quiet of the valley is shattered each January with the whine of snowmobile tourists, Fuller has the valley to himself and spends many of his precious daylight hours on skis, exploring and photographing.
We shuffle around in the trees behind Fuller's house, falling into an order we'll keep most of the week. Fuller breaks trail, maneuvering across the gentle, sloping terrain of the hillside with ease. I follow some distance behind in a comfortable gait, remembering the gliding rhythm with my legs, feeling it in my lower back. Peacock comes last, preferring a slower pace, broken only by the hills where he inevitably slows himself by falling down. Fuller seems satisfied with our mediocre prowess, and we turn in for the night.
Sunday, Dec. 8: Mud Volcanoes
Mid-morning, we break through a dark cloud of snow flurries along the Yellowstone River on our way to Mud Volcanoes. The snow today is perfect -- slick without sticking to my skis. Trumpeter swans float in groups of half a dozen, oblivious to the deadly cold.
The first hill is a struggle and the cold air burns my lungs. I'm sweating by the time we get to the top and stop to tie my jacket around my waist, catching my breath as Peacock crests the slope. From there, we enter the woods, making our way through the lodgepole forest toward a thermal area on buffalo trails.
At the edge of the trees, not much more than a mile from the boardwalk where thousands stop to gawk each summer, we hit a clearing. Clouds of steam rise from multiple pools ahead and to the right, drifting like smoke from small campfires into the gray sky. We cross a thin creek without removing our skis with the help of a small logjam, leaning heavily on our poles.
Once across, we undo our bindings. It's a thermal area and the snow gives way to mud and sulfur. It's a place Peacock and I will return to, where I'll see my first grizzly as well as sandhill cranes. We will find four or five bison carcasses in the spring -- including one big, old buffalo -- all who came to this warm spot in the last stages of starvation.
Peacock explains how to walk in a thermal area: Follow the buffalo and elk tracks, and don't step where they haven't. The ground looks solid but isn't; a misstep can send you through the thin crust, resulting in severe burns or death. A Vietnam veteran, Peacock has spent nearly three decades tracking, filming and photographing grizzly bears in Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. He knows what he's talking about.
Tonight, after dinner -- chicken done Peacock-style (olive oil, garlic and wine) -- Fuller digs a slideshow out of boxes. He spends a month each year in Namibia, Africa, and has baboon, rhinoceros and hyena stories for us. The undulating sand dunes he projects on the wall look like the snow drifts piling up outside his windows. Peacock likens them to a woman's hips and belly; his arms wrapped around me, I have to agree. Drowsy, we retire for the night.
Monday, Dec. 8: Crater Hills
A shorter trip, which is fortunate because the snow falling last night and earlier this morning was soggy. I can't tell if the others are having much trouble, but my skis are as heavy as if I'd dipped them in wet cement. I have to make my way with an awkward trudge.
Eventually we struggle off the naked plains and into the trees. Here, the snow is drier and again we take advantage of the buffalo trails. Fuller's tracks freeze behind him, making for a slick, if slightly dangerous, run. More than once I fall to my knees to avoid knocking myself silly on a tree trunk.
We remove our skis where the snow gives way to smoldering earth. A good place to pause for a snack of cheese and crackers. No need to carry water -- we've been skiing on top of five feet of snow, and I get so I can stoop down and scoop up a handful without missing a stroke as I go.
Come spring, this area also will be strewn with dead bison. We'll find an intact carcass off to the side, between two hills. Grizzlies contribute to the spring food chain by ripping open winter-killed elk and buffalo whose hides are too tough for the other predators. The bears who have claimed this meal are apparently resting in an island of trees nearby.
We spend hours walking around this dream-like landscape, where snow and steam lie side by side. One pool is steamy white, with tiny black beads of rock ringing the pond-like scum. Another is a fleshy red, pulsing with fiery energy from deep within the earth. We explore endlessly, admiring the colors of the geysers and hot springs, inhaling the sharp sulfur, stopping only occasionally to rest to the beat of the gurgling from the earth.
Wednesday, Dec. 10: Violet Creek
Having saved our longest trip yet -- 10 miles, or so -- for the last day, we have to rush to get out the door, knowing it will be a squeeze to make it back by dark.
The snow is good this morning, but we contour a couple of wooded hills with springs trickling out in broad swaths down the sides. This makes our skis stick to the ground like Velcro. It means we stop after fording each swampy seep, and take turns leaning against a tree while Fuller scrapes off the ice that's accumulated on our skis.
Peacock gives up after the first few wet areas and retreats down to the flat. Fuller and I continue on high, the terrain leveling out as we reach the week's holy grail: the promised hot springs. It's a creek, actually, lined with springs and soakable any time of year.
Most people don't come back here, but bears and buffalo do. We choose a spot where water cascades off the rocks forming a mini falls. The resulting pool is deep and wide enough for the three of us and I hurry out of my clothes, shivering in the cold. Intermittent gusts of wind whips snow off the drifts hanging in cornices above our heads.
We linger, sucking on ice drippings, but the gray sky is ominous. It will likely storm again tonight and we need to get a move on to beat the sunset.
Grizzly man Doug Peacock in a rare upright moment. Photo by Andrea Barnett.
Skiers and snowboarders aren't the only Missoula subculturites collectively sweating over El Niño. There exists in the Garden City a shadowy underground of hardcore snowfreaks who scoff at the pretensions of the Northface crowd. They are the sledders, and when the first heavy snow hits, the hillsides will ring with their hellion cries.
This small brethren prefers to seek winter thrills on backcountry roads in pickup trucks piled with inner tubes, old-school toboggans (from the French-Canadian adaptation of a Micmac Indian word meaning "thing for dragging"), hi-tech plastic racing models and laundry baskets.
And while they venture far and wide in search of action, there's only one Mecca in the greater Missoula/Lolo metro area that can call whole legions on any given night.
We're talking Blue Mountain, the steep, sometimes icy capo di tutti capi of the sled scene, where the cognoscenti gathers to shred legendary runs like the Grand Inquisitor, He Who Cannot Be Named, Monkey Dwarf and The Pause That Refreshes. Children run the hill by day, while the crusty old pros take over by night, hoping that one day they will join immortals like the never-beaten Zero Squadron in the annals of the hill's elite.
Even as this demi monde anxiously awaits the first flurries, the federal officials in charge of the mountain are left to worry about the risks of serious injury faced by said sled-dogs. As the pressure of a long season mounts, Forest Service managers fear some riders might get reckless.
According to Joe Kipphut of the Forest Service, his agency definitely does not endorse or encourage sledding on Blue Mountain. In fact, he says, he'd sleep a lot easier if no daredevils ever made the trek to the precipitous top of Blue Mountain.
"It's a very dangerous activity," he warns. "You could be maimed, killed, become a paraplegic or a quadriplegic very easily."
Despite the dangers, which are obvious to anyone who's ever tried the hill after it's frozen hard, Kipphut says that the Forest Service can't do much to shut down the scene. "We've posted a warning sign, a sign that meets all the federal legal guidelines," he says.
"We can't be up there 24 hours a day, and there are people up there literally 24 hours a day. For whatever reason, it's become a very popular activity in that area. It's a nightmare to even think about."
Judging from Kipphut's comments, a brown Christmas would suit him fine as far as Blue Mountain is concerned. "It might be a good opportunity for people to discover some of the other, safer recreation options in that area," he notes.
"There's a Frisbee golf course, it's a great area for hiking or jogging, and it's really one of the great mountain bike areas around. If it does snow, people might want the experience of cross-country skiing and really being one of the only skiers around."
Despite Kipphut's well-justified concerns about catastrophic injury, a few informal discussions with local sledders reveal only impatience with uncooperative weather. "I'm dying to head up there," says one, who declined to be named but did offer that he prefers to use laundry baskets. "I've been waiting all summer to 'talk' to the Inquisitor."