Friday, January 5, 2007

Gale-force senior skiing

Bear Valley, CA -- The first ski day of the year is picture perfect: clear blue skies; crystalline snow; groomed slopes, and me -- right there with the beautiful people -- looking youthful and slim.

In my dreams.

Today was -- for me -- the first day of the ski season. I even bought a season ski pass, determined to ski more and better than ever before.
Snow has been erratic so far this year. The ski resort 20 miles uphill from my home has been putting on a brave front for weeks, trying to entice people even though the snow pack has been the type that scrapes the bottoms of skis and sends you to the repair shop.

Today, according to the forecasts, looked perfect. Below freezing temps, but not brutal. 12 inches of new snow on top of the old thin base. And "breezy" weather.
So we packed up the Subaru with all the excess stuff I always carry, plus a good book for Pat to read while snuggled down in the lodge, and headed up the mountain.

The road up the mountain was reasonably clear,  and the breeze blew bits of snow across the road en route.

When we drove over the shoulder of the mountain, known locally as Mount Reba, the wind seemed to pick up a bit. Then a lot more. Then a whole lot more.  By the time we reached the lodge the wind was howling like a banshee. Parking lots were crowded, but a suspicious number of cars seemed to be pulling out and heading downhill.

We started to walk toward the lodge one hundred yards away. A gust of wind almost knocked the skis out of my hands, and Pat was  sent reeling, hanging onto her hat and book bag. Imagine the Weather Channel guy in a hurricane, and add snow.

None of the chair lifts that lead to the top of the mountain  were operating, and the two that serve the lower slopes were stopping a lot. And swaying a lot.

The lodge dining room was jammed. At 11 a.m. this is not a good sign. We found friendly people from Alameda to sit with, and squeezed into a corner to wait for the weather to change. It always does.

After an hour I became restless and decided I only wanted to get in a few early-season runs. How bad could it be? Really? Pat told me later that as I went out the door the P.A. system announced that the wind on top of the mountain had just been clocked at 70 miles per hour.

When I stepped out the door it was blowing pretty hard, but I was too busy messing with gloves, scarf, goggles, wool hat, parka, fanny pack, poles and skis to notice.

I managed to get down the short hill to the chair lift. The wind was blowing so hard in that area I had to use my poles to move forward, and I noticed there were no waiting lines.

The seats on the lift chairs kept folding up in the wind, creating a challenge  for the operators who kept pushing them down so people could sit.

The ride up the mountain on the lift chair was interesting. I was torn between watching the blizzard-like conditions below me on the ski run, and locking my arms around the metal  seat frame so I would be blown off by a gust. Below me the wind was driving grains of snow across the surface in wild patterns, pushing far up the slopes above us. It looked like those pictures you see on PBS of the wind blowing across the Arctic, tracing beautiful patterns, beautiful so long as you are in your living room.

I managed to get off the lift chair without embarrassing myself, and looked for a sheltered route down the slope. There was none available.

The slope in this area is not steep. I immediately discovered that when the wind clocked around into my face, it stopped me from sliding downhill. Sliding downhill is, normally, the purpose of skiing.

So I used my poles to push myself downhill a hundred feet or so at a time, then stopped to rest with my back to the wind. I was bundled up well, but quickly developed an ice cream headache from the cold wind and snow blast on my face. I wondered how long it would take to develop frostbite.

I have been in winds of about 40 knots sailing on San Francisco Bay,  technically a gale  and ranked as an "8" on the Beaufort Scale.  But it can still be fun.

Today, on the ski slopes, I am pretty sure it was something between a "strong gale" and a "storm", which would be a "9" or "10" on the same scale.

Not fun.

Back to the lodge.
Back to the car.
Back to the house in time for a late lunch and a nap.

Maybe tomorrow.

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