The Darkest Night of the Year

On April 7, 2011, in Uncategorized, by admin

You’d be forgiven for thinking the darkest night of the year falls in late December, around the time of the winter solstice.  After five ski seasons living full-time in the Valley, though, I can say with confidence that that’s not even close to the darkest night of the year.  For me, true darkness comes the night after the ski area closes for the season.

Each ski season has a distinct personality.  I’d go so far as to say, at least for the hard-core skiers I spend my time with, most seasons become living, breathing things.  Every fall, we wait with bated breath, looking for significance in each dip of the thermometer and every errant snow flurry.  By mid-November, we’re anxiously waxing and scraping skis and counting down the days, grumbling when it warms up or rains, irrationally buoyed if we get a dusting of snow.  Every autumn, we scan ski area websites looking for proof that snowmaking has begun and debating whether they’re really “going for it” or just testing guns and generating a little buzz.

We’re like kids on Christmas Eve the night we first see the light come back on at the top of the White Peaks Quad, because we know that it will soon be accompanied by the roar of the snow guns lighting up on High Country, and that it will only be a matter of days before we’re back playing with gravity.  We call each other on the phone and send emails to friends trapped in the flatlands.  It’s ON, we say.

This year was typical in the sense that it had its own unique life: cold early in the fall, followed by torturous weeks of temperature inversion, where it was chillier in the valley each night than up top, stymying the efforts of the snowmakers.  When the warm finally broke and cold flooded in, the snowmaking crews did yeoman work opening terrain quickly, and I reveled in laying in bed at night, watching the lights of the snowmobiles dart up and down, and the lights of the lumbering groomers moving with slow, precise grace.  The dark bulk of the mountain was alive with light each night.

We muddled through Thanksgiving and December on a thinnish blanket of man-made snow, but it was in January that this winter’s real personality began to shine through.  We caught a series of decent sized, well-timed storms — all-snow events that didn’t set records for depth, but mounted up steadily.  Even better, we never suffered the devastating January Thaw that so often seems to mess with things just about the time things really get rolling.

This year, we went through January and February strong, had a little adverse weather after all the key vacation weeks — then rebounded with still more steady snow.  Through it all, the nights were punctuated with the sweep of white lights moving up and down the face of the mountain each night.  More than once, the brilliant glare of a cat turning and pointing back down Sunnyside would fall through the window just so, waking me up for a moment.  I never really minded.  The lights on the mountain meant that the skiing would be good again tomorrow.

This winter, we powered through March with nary a bare spot anywhere on the mountain.  We had windy days and mid-winter-cold days and foggy days and a few warm, sunny days.  We had days when we could ski the very far edges of High Country for the first time in memory.  We had to pay attention as we skied the side of the trail — there was so much snow in the woods, we had three-foot snowbanks along the groomed piste in places.  This winter is one we’ll all long remember and occasionally miss, like a good friend we’ve lost touch with.

And that brings me to the darkest night of the year.  This Sunday, the lifts will spin down at four o’clock, and the hard-working crew of the mountain will go home for the night.  No grooming cats will fire up.  No shafts of white light will splash up and down the trails in the inky blue darkness.  The light on the top of the big quad will be out, and it won’t come back on till next November.

It’s alway very quiet in town that night.  A stillness, unfamiliar but welcome again, will fall over everything for the next month or so.  If this Sunday is like closing day the past few years, I’ll step outside on the deck after dark, stand in the chilly night air, and look up at the black bulk of Mount Tecumseh.  A shiver will pass down my spine as I remember the season just past and think of the long summer months ahead, when no lights interrupt the darkness.