Matt Niswonger

Regardless of conditions, fun in the snow is the best cure

Matt Niswonger, Cathy Claesson and Jeryl Gardner enjoying better times at Heavenly Ski Resort.

Matt Niswonger, Cathy Claesson and Jeryl Gardner enjoying better times at Heavenly Ski Resort.

For three years now the winters in California have gotten progressively leaner. The fun factor for skiers and boarders has dwindled down to the lower end of the scale, and many people are singing the blues about the possibility of yet another light snowpack.

The exceptional drought currently crippling California is by some metrics the worst in state history. Sierra snowpack serves as a kind of natural battery system, recharging the state’s lakes, rivers, and aquifers every spring. For outdoorsy types, the Sierra also serves as a kind of spiritual battery, recharging our sense of joy and childlike wonder with every powder run through the trees.

As a result of the drought, adventurous Californians have been walking around with a kind of post traumatic snow disorder, a jarring sense that things just aren’t quite right with our winter selves.

This time of year we’d normally be going nuts with anticipation. Instead we are checking our enthusiasm at the door, hoping against hope that the snow will dump down in copious amounts.
Will we get a huge snow year? Nobody knows. Long term, however, the prognosis is not good. In the coming decades there will be fewer and fewer snowy winters in the Sierra according to the latest climate research coming out of Stanford University.

The research, published in late September as a supplement to the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, is the most comprehensive effort in history to investigate the link between climate change and California’s ongoing drought.

The scientists were led by Noah Diffenbaugh, who used a novel combination of computer simulations and statistical techniques to show that a persistent region of high atmospheric pressure hovering over the Pacific Ocean – and diverting storms away from California the past few seasons – was much more likely to form in the presence of modern greenhouse gas concentrations.

“In using these advanced statistical techniques to combine climate observations with model simulations, we’ve been able to better understand the ongoing drought in California,” Diffenbaugh said. “This isn’t a projection of 100 years in the future. This is an event that is more extreme than any in the observed record, and our research suggests that global warming is playing a role right now.”

People love to argue about man-made climate change, and there are even a few holdouts who claim the whole thing is made up. But the preponderance of scientific evidence continues to amass. At a certain point we all have to prepare for the inconvenient scenario we are faced with: average snowfall in the Sierra will continue to dwindle in the coming decades.

Ok then, what now?

Should we reduce our commitment to  winter play in the Sierra? No way. That will only exacerbate the symptoms of post traumatic snow disorder. The only cure is to spend more time in the snow, not less. It’s all about adapting to the conditions at hand.

Dumping powder? Grab your snowboard or fat skis and do powder runs through the trees – that’s a no brainer. But if it’s lean conditions there are still plenty of ways to have fun in the snow. Don’t know how to tele-ski? Doing laps on lift accessed groomers is an excellent way to efficiently improve your tele-technique, and tele-skiing will open up new avenues for fun and fitness.

How about winter camping? Spending a night in the snow is a challenging and inspiring way to re-ignite your winter stoke in a lean snow year. Have you tried cross country skiing? The joy there is being graceful while putting some miles under your belt and getting a fantastic workout.

In other words, the secret to curing PTSD in the era of man-made climate change is to spend more time in the snow, not less. No one likes you when you are depressed. So eat less meat, ride your bike more, install solar on your roof, and by all means grab your skis and earn your beer!

— Matt Niswonger