Mens Adventure Travel Writer/Photographer Andrew Slough travels to distant corners of the planet208 720-5356

El Nino

It is the first week of March 1998 and everything from plagues of rats, locusts and killer bees to smog, cyclones and black ice is being blamed on El Nino. In Peru heavy rains and mudslides killed three hundred people before driving another quarter million from their homes.

Sparked by prolonged droughts, Brazilian forest fires have burned an estimated ten percent of the Amazon rain forest, thirty-eight people died when ten tornadoes swept through central Florida, malaria cases in Columbia have doubled and unseasonably warm ocean temperatures have bankrupted the Chilean fisherman who originally coined “El Nino.”Highway 49

Closer to home, San Francisco received record rains rain while Mt. Shasta, the Tahoe Basin and Yosemite National Park, have weathered the decade’s heaviest snowfalls. During February, Tahoe’s valley floor was buried benath seventy six inches with no change in the forecast for the next two months. No skier could sit in Idaho while the most powerful winter in a hundred and fifty years gathered strength in the North Pacific. Range Rover ShastaLike Ahab, Herman Melville’s tortured anti hero in Moby Dick, I wanted to stare into El Nino’s dark eye––to gauge its fury and ski its deep, cold powder on California’s unplowed back roads and high Sierra ski resorts.Jason Barr Morgan Thunburg Substituting a Range Rover 4.0SE for Captain Ahab’s Pequod, I mapped a five hundred mile route from Shasta to Alpine Meadows to Sugar Bowl and finally to Badger Pass above Yosemite Valley.

The National Weather Service’s ten day forecast predicts a massive storm will slam into California. The only group not frightened by the forecast are skiers who live in the Sierra resorts. Unlike the imperiled souls perching on California’s waterlogged hillsides, next to swollen creeks, or trying to stare down thirty foot combers hammering against the break water, skiers are among the rare few who divine a happy face in the towering thunderheads. Their only worry is whether a vagrant blast of arctic air will both turn San Francisco’s six inches of rain into six feet of Sierra snow and close the roads.

Snow is falling at a ferocious two inches an hour on the winding road that climbs to Mt Shasta Ski Park. The old Shasta Ski Bowl was leveled by an avalanche that roared off the volcano. Taking an expensive lesson from the devastation, Mt. Shasta Ski Park was rebuilt in a protected area on the cone’s south east flank.J Barr Shasta Catching the quad to the 6,600-foot Summit of Douglas Butte, I meet Shasta ski team members Jason Barr and Morgan Thunborg who tell me El Nino is the best thing that ever happened to this Northern California resort. By mid February more than two hundred inches has buried Shasta and Jason confesses, “The skiing exceeds the best of the past three decades.”

Leading me to his private lines in the mature douglas fir off West Face, Jason rips through the glades and open meadows. Though El Ninoes are known for warm, wet storms, on this snowy morning, the powder swirls around our knees. We ski the black-diamond Red Tail, Black Fox and Halley where the torrential snowfall reduces visibility to a few turns. If I had come to Shasta to explore, or just see the super volcano, there is no way for it remains hidden for that day, all of the next and, after I left, for most of the remaining winter.

Taking Highway 89 from Shasta south through Almanor, Quincy and Sierraville, I have never seen it snow this hard. Not in Alta, Utah, New Zealand’s Southern Alps, Hokkaido’s Niseko Ski Area, or on Kamchatka Vilyuchensky Volcano. The Range Rover’s wipers are slamming from stop to stop in a mechanical frenzy and visibility is still down to a shimmering fog of fat flakes. Here, fifty miles from the nearest tow truck, the snow rises past the hubs, then starts to bang off the floor boards. Soon I’m down to ten miles an hour with the snow falling harder than ever. I begin to look for a plow and when none appears force a way through the white curtain.

Donner Summit Old Road 2It isn’t as if California, the U.S., and for that matter, the entire planet hadn’t been warned about this El Nino. Studying a plume of warm water that appeared off South America in early July, the National Weather Service postulated a winter of catastrophic rains and paralyzing snows. Then, always on the lookout for sex, violence and natural disasters to drive newsstand sales, the print media picked up the drum beat with headlines that warned of imminent catastrophe. Compared to this biblical deluge, California’s periodic earthquakes and fires paled to insignificance. Even Dan Rather, CBS’s conservative news anchor, added a closing El Nino watch to juice up his nightly news report. In hindsight, you couldn’t really blame Rather. If a picture was indeed worth a thousand words, the chance to sign off while California’s raging rivers, flooded tracts and buried mountain passes scrolled across the screen, could have well rated an Emmy.

I get lucky the morning after leaving Shasta. If I expect to fight road closures, the El Nino pattern has produced big dumps followed by blue skies. Cal Trans has kept Donner Summit open and skiers from Sacramento and San Francisco are on the move. A Cal Trans rotary was lofting a fountain of snow onto a ten foot bank while I follow Highway 89 above the Truckee River to Alpine Meadows. In many ways this gentle, clear day represents a calm before the storm. Ahab experienced a similar epiphany
while hunting Moby Dick. Contemplating the calm horizons and coming confrontation with the White Whale, he observed to his first mate, “It is a mild, mild wind and a mild looking sky, and the air smells now as if it blew from a faraway meadow.”

Alpine Meadows sits high in a canyon above Lake Tahoe’s still, blue surface. During a typical El Nino year, cold storms follow warm storms, which in turn are followed by other cold storms. During a normal winter Alpine will receive 420 inches of snow but in the day before I arrive, the resort received twenty-two inches in tenth-four hours. By late May this high cirque will be buried by five hundred and sixty-six inches–the third highest total in its history. Though snowboarders were once excluded from the resort, riders have taken Alpine’s surrounding steeps, glades and hikeable terrain to heart. By 9:30 fresh tracks claim The Buttress, Beaver Bowl and The Palisades.Columbia Street Scene

A soft sun is hanging above Alpine’s Base Lodge when I catch the Summit Quad from where I watch boarders and skiers float down Waterfall and Wolverine Bowl. Marked by blue skies and deep snow, it is the sort of powder day that rightly belong to Utah or Colorado. In early March I would have expected heavier, wetter snow in California but if the El Nino will eventually be blamed for rattlesnakes in San Diego and ragweed in Sacramento, it can also be credited for the best skiing in a decade. By May, the phenomenon will produce the third deepest snowpack and the second best skier numbers in Alpine’s history.

In the meantime, El Nino is brewing some weird weather. A snowstorm dusted Guadalajara, Mexico for the first time since 1881. Bismarck, N.D. city crews, which plowed a hundred inches in 1997, have yet to leave the city garage. In Florida, Hollywood Beach was so cold that the local lifeguards wore wetsuits while water skiers were seen on Lake Monona in Madison Wisconson, which hasn’t been ice–free this late since 1932.

I was a high school senior when I called five friends, put six dollars of ethyl my mother 62 Pontiac Bonneville and broke the legal limits to Sugar Bowl. Set in the lofty heights to the south of Donner Summit, Sugar Bowl typically receives five hundred inches of snow in a season. It is a prodigious figure- equivalent to Snowbird’s mythic totals but only a percentage of the seven hundred and city total the resort will capture this winter.McCloud Hotel

Except for new terrain on Mt. Judah, Sugar Bowl has changed little in the years since I pointed a pair of monogrammed Head Masters down Mt. Disney’s Nose. An updated version of the Magic Carpet Gondola still transports skiers from Highway 40 to the Sugar Bowl lodge and Mt Lincoln continues to offer some of the most challenging terrain in the Tahoe Basin.

On top of Mt. Lincoln, I started into Fuller’s Folly deep moguls where I met Jeff Holland, Evan Graves and Mark Walton. The three friends had driven up from the San Francisco Bay Area early that morning. Holland, a Los Gatos contractor, confessed that as soon as he decided El Nino was all bark and no bite, torrential rains forced him to spend much of February struggling to save people’s dream homes in Los Gatos. “El Nino knocked our socks off,” he admitted. “We never counted on this much rain and we were unprepared when the streams jumped their banks and the hillsides started to move.”

Recounting their run down the Steilhung, Mark Walton noted, “We discover El Nino’s icy history every now and again beneath the powder.”

Known as Mr. Sugar Bowl, Walton first skied here in 1963. Now living in Campbell, Mark has allowed Mike, the youngest of his seven children to cut high school. Mark explains, “It was a cold storm, followed by a clear day, followed by another storm tonight. Factor in the Two for One Wednesday, and
the planets were in alignment….we had to come!”Deep Powder Day

From Sugar Bowl, I followed Highway 80 west to Auburn where I picked up Highway 49 south to Placerville. A Sacramento radio station reports that scientists at an Australian conference on El Nino suspect that the weather phenomenon might also be responsible for the Bubonic Plague, Influenza Pandemics and the French Revolution. By now I’m convinced they’re right.Cal Trans Crew Installing Chains

If the Weather Channel once had a reputation as MTV for old folks, El Nino changed all that. Not that Janetta, Jim or the rest can control the weather but no matter how empathetic they try to appear, the mood here is ugly. Following a month of rain, floods, shattered homes and homeless people weeping on camera, California’s rank and file are ready to kill the messenger.

The latest satellite photos show a freight train of comma-shaped lows stretching back to Hawaii. Wound as tightly as clock works, the lows represent a great meteorological bulldozer lumbering ominously toward the west coast. Forecasters predict Tahoe will receive fifty inches of snow in the next week. Below 4,000 feet, torrential rains are expected to fill rivers and trigger mud slides of mythic proportions. By the time the jet stream shifts to the north, dozens of Bay Area homes will have tobogganed off their cliffside aeries.
Sudden Thaw
The following morning’s sunrise above Highway 49 south of Sonora echoes the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, “Red sky at morning, sailor take warning!”

Seen through the Ranger Rover’s windshield between Jamestown and Chinese Camp, the rising sun has tinted the deep cloud base penicillin orange, bruise purple and blood red–a deranged pallet that portends heavy weather and rough sailing.

Badger Pass sits 20 miles up a serpentine road above the Yosemite Valley. I am consistently struck by the grandeur of this most famous and over loved National Park and cannot resist stopping at the turn outs which face Half Dome. By the time I reach the ski resort, snow banks are ten feet and growing. Because it appeals to beginners, intermediates and families, Badger Pass does not need, or seek, big dumps.

Bruce Brossman, manager of Badger Pass recalls that during the El Nino winter of 82-83, Badger closed with 20 feet of snow. With six inches of rain forecast for the San Francisco Bay Area and the memory of last year’s flood that washed out Highway 20, Brossman was holding his breath. Badger’s problem is not snow on the mountain, but rain in the valley––so much rain that, Bay Area skiers stay home.Shasta Snowboarder 2

“In terms of skier numbers, February was a disaster!” Brossman admits.

If record snows were a problem, the worst was still to come. Set directly in the storm track, by May of 1998 Badger Pass had received 215% of normal precipitation–a total that translated into 360 inches of snow.Shasta Coffee Shop - Version 3By season’s end, skiers were forced to climb down to the lodge decks. On a more positive note, photographer Keith Walklet who lives in Yosemite said El Nino blessed the valley with the most beautiful winter in memory. “We had steady consistent snowfalls that draped the trees and rock faces in white.” he recounts then adds. “The real silver lining will appear when the snow begins to melt and the valley comes alive with waterfalls!”

It was late afternoon when I pointed the Range Rover back toward San Francisco. During the past week, I had driven five hundred miles from Shasta to Tahoe to Yosemite. I had fought deep snow, torrential rains and road closures and, in all honesty, I was sorry the journey had to end. Given more time, I would have turned the Range Rover around and placed myself in the path of the worst storms in a century and a half.Jason Barr Deep Powder West of Yosemite, the radio warned that heavy surf advisories were posted from Eureka to Santa Barbara. I was in the foothills east of Modesto when the wind increased and the first heavy drops exploded off the windshield. Half an hour later the rain was falling with a sensate fury. There was an intelligence in the motion of wind, rain and darkness…a concerted attempt to strand the long haul truckers, mini vans and station wagons full of desperate commuters. From the driver’s seat, the Rover’s long hood parted the rain like the Pequods bowsprit, racing to intercept Moby Dick.

The winter of 1997-98 would prove to be the wettest in a century and a half. It was still snowing in early June when I received a call from a good friend who lives in Squaw Valley. A champion Master’s Racer, he tells me when the plows ran out of room to push snow they were forced to let it pile up. Men who shoveled roofs or installed chains made fortunes. By winter’s end people were digging down to their front doors. The best description I can offer is, for a skier, El Nino is a blessed child.

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