A few people can feel it and it’s driving them mad

The slow process that turns the Northwest fall into winter is at its worst during the last week or two before the ski lifts begin turning in the Cascade Mountains and at Hurricane Ridge in the Olympics.

Thankfully, the gods last week laid about seven inches of low density snow onto  the Muir Snowfield under cold and mostly windless conditions. That little taste of winter gave a chance to make some early season turns for those skiers that can’t quite wait for the ski lifts.

Most of last weekend’s skiers roaming the southern flank of Mt. Rainier were not typical year-rounders that troll the mountains throughout the summer and fall looking to make turns on anything resembling skiable snow. They were first-snow-of-the-year skiers and they were greeted with fresh snow on a proper base.

By midday Saturday, about 40 skiers and snowboarders were somewhere in the process of hiking the 5,000 feet up to Camp Muir or skiing back down the 3,000 vertical feet of early-season snow in a rotating mix of fog and autumn sun – the lower 2,000 feet still hold only enough snow for the most desperate to ski through.

Last week’s snow drew skiers out to the Mt. Baker area as well and skiers there, unable to wait for the lower elevations to get enough snow and the lifts begin to spin, took to the mountains on foot. One report had a skier finding a patch or two near Hurricane Ridge.

In 2009 and 2010 Crystal opened by this week and the archives are full of stories of mid-November Cascade ski area openings. Most current weather models have the freezing levels too high for the precipitation that falls in the next few days to contribute to the meager snowfall on the ground. Yet, one National Weather Service forecast discussion, gives diehards some hope by asserting that snow will fall in the mountains Saturday through Tuesday.

While the more motivated skiers in the region have started hiking volcanoes to gain access to skiable snow, various ski patrols spent this week practicing chairlift evacuations and going through the various rescue scenarios that the ski season brings.

Monday, Crystal Mountain reported snowmakers were helping La Nina out at the top of Green Valley, which now has  “two feet of bullet proof base,” according to patroller Kim Kirchner. An additional 16 inches of snow would open the mountain, she said.

Stevens Pass began their 24-hour snow forecast Tuesday, claiming this weekend would have only a chance of the “significant snowfall” required to open the mountain.

Though news stories for weeks have called for a repeat of La Nina that brought heavy early and late season snows to the 2010-2011 ski year and kept some ski lifts turning well into the summer, University of Washington Atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass recently noted there were only hints of the cooling pattern associated with epic snow years in the Pacific Northwest. Mass, a weather guru to the regions skiers, wrote on his weather blog that hints of La Nina were present and that the last few “calm days” amounted to the annual “calm before the storm.”

“The last week of November on average brings the stormiest, wettest, meanest weather to the region,” Mass wrote in his Monday update.

Crystal Mountain, The Summit at Snoqualmie and Stevens Pass are all revving up their winter hype machines as ski flicks from the main production houses such as Teton Gravity Research and Warren Miller stoke crowds of mainstream lift riders. Miller’s 2011 offering “Like There is no Tomorrow” played at Bremerton’s Admiral Theatre last weekend.

Parties all over Pugetopolis stoking the fires of the ski season to come. The best shot for local skiers is the Hurricane Ridge Winter Sports Education Foundation Winterfest to be held in Port Angeles November 19 at the Vern Burton Community Center.

For most skier and snowboarders the hype will continue to build until the first snow day of the year comes and the lifts begin to turn.

Greg Skinner is the editor of the Bremerton Patriot and one of the snow addicted masses waiting for winter to begin in full force.


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