The Edge of the Storm

On March 24, 2013, in Uncategorized, by admin

Somehow we find ourselves once again a few short weeks from the end of the ski season, at once sated with snow and cold, and wishing it could go on (and on and on). Yesterday, several days deep into technical spring, was a perfect reminder that the White Mountains have little regard for calendar dates or large, impudent, weather-predicting rodents. Yesterday, blustery and cold, was a sharp counterpoint to the bright sun and alarmingly warm temperatures this time last year.

This winter has been a good, not stellar, snow year. As often as not, we’ve been on the fringes of storms scudding by, farther out to sea than nor’easters of yore. The weather tracks, driven by deep dives in the jet stream, have forced storms hundreds of miles offshore. Coastline Massachusetts has had excellent powder conditions, while the White Mountains have had a couple unpleasant warm, wet spells. Luckily, the cold and snow have flooded back in just in time to save the day, and the skiing, several times this season.

The funny thing about being on the edge of a nor’easter at Waterville Valley is the utterly predictable results. We may not get a ton of snow, but we pretty much always get wind as storms wrap around and accelerate away toward Nova Scotia. Yesterday, as we briefly contemplated a coffee break at Schwendi mid-morning, then bailed out down Sunnyside for more sheltered surroundings, we were reminded of another morning in late February when the winds whipped and swirled around the summit of Tecumseh.

The particular morning I am thinking of was a typical edge-of-storm morning. A few inches of fresh powder tempted us out of bed even though the dancing of the spruces outside the bedroom windows carried the promise of wind-holds and chapped cheeks. Nancy and I packed up and delivered our daughter to her job as a volunteer instructor with the Waterville Valley Adaptive Sports program, confident that she would most likely be spending to morning on the lower lifts and wouldn’t be too uncomfortable regardless of the winds. Once she was settled, we booted up and caught the White Peaks quad — crawling at half speed against the beating wind — up to the top of the mountain. The wind, blustery at the base, was fierce once you crested the top of the Chute, and pounded in gusts until you’d skied off and into the lee of the bull wheel to buckle up.

The first few runs were an exercise in everything good and bad about skiing. The snow, especially in the wind shadow of the trees along the edges of the trails, was boot-top deep in some places. It had also been scoured to slippery white concrete in others. When the wind died down, it was just mid-winter chilly. When the winds whipped back up, it downright unpleasant, whether you were on the lift or dropping into a tuck across the flats to minimize your wind-sail.

We took a few runs down the front, but the main quad was stopping with alarming frequency, suggesting at the wind was right on the edge of too much; we decided to give Sunnyside a try. In the lee of White Peak, things were a little better, and some of the falling snow had even managed to settle along edges in even layers. One run down Gema was enough to make you hoot and holler for more, and the ride up the Sunnyside chair was definitely more comfortable, if only because it was shorter. All the same, by the time we were back to the top, we agreed a coffee break was in order. We fought our way across the knob and carefully tucked our skis in the rack, poles looped over the tips to keep everything together. I steadied Nancy on the slick hard snow leading to the deck, and we both staggered against strong gusts.

Settled at a table with a hot cup of coffee, we were in no hurry to faced the blast of the northwest winds. We sipped and chatted and watched out the windows… and we were impressed to see the winds picking up even more as we rested. The pennants along the deck whipped in the wind, eventually wrapping themselves tightly around their own poles. We watched as the Sunnyside chair disgorged its last skier, and as the main quad sputtered and stopped. Finally, we concluded that the chairs were likely shutting down, and we ought to make a break for the bottom and head on home to do errands.

We bundled back up tight against the cold we knew awaited us and slipped back out the vestibule into the full force of the wind. In the thirty minutes we had been resting, the winds had gone from a steady thirty miles per hour with gusts close to fifty, to an honest to goodness gale with hurricane force gusts. The snow of the knob, covered in skis when we came in, was scoured to a sheet of ice (and I suspect more than a few skis had blown down into the trees along Sun Run). The ski racks? Blown flat by the gusts. As soon as we rounded the corner by the vestibule, I had to drop into a low crouch to stay upright, and once we were off the deck and onto the polished snow, we literally had to crawl over to the flattened racks to dislodge our skis.

We found ourselves pinned down by the tremendous gusts. The shriek of the wind ripped past our helmets, and pellets of ice stung our faces. Shouting to be heard over the wind’s howl, we debated going back into Schwendi to ride it out. We decided that the winds were only getting stronger, and that it wasn’t going to get any better soon. Steeling ourselves, we crawled far enough away from the building and the sharp drop by the deck to crouch and click in. We waited, crouched low, till a particularly strong gust had passed, then we literally “reverse tucked” to minimize our profiles and avoid being blown down wind while we skidded a couple quick speed-check turns and dropped down into Oblivion — the only sheltered way down given the prevailing winds.

Two hundred yards down the trail, we were finally out of the wind’s blast. I had to stop and pull my fingers out of my gloves to warm them. Just a few minutes in the fearsome wind and my fingertips were painfully chilled; I hoped no one was caught unaware by the ramping winds above treeline. Here we were, moments from the fireside warmth of a ski lodge, and the last few minutes had frankly been a bit scary. I didn’t even want to think about what it would’ve been like up on Franconia Ridge.

The higher summits catch more than their share of weather, and being on the fringe of the storm often means more than we expect. I doubt Nancy and I will ever forget our brief few minutes caught out in nature’s full force, and I know we will respect the lesson we learned for a long time to come.

*****

image of the Greeley Ponds Trail at the junction with Livermore Trail. Two trails diverge in a snowy scene.

Greeley Ponds Trailhead March 16th, 2013

I’ve been a bit slow with an update on the Greeley Ponds Trail project, but I have great news to share. Thanks once again to the extraordinary generosity of our donors, the Waterville Valley Foundation was able to meet our fundraising goal of $10,000, to go along with $10,000 already pledged to help restore the Greeley Ponds Trail, which was gravely damaged during Hurricane Irene in September 2011. Our funds will be matched by the National Forest Service and the National Forest Foundation, and we are hoping the restoration project will begin this spring. For updates, please visit the Restore Greeley Ponds Trail page on Facebook. As news breaks, we will be sure to post it there.