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Winter Is(n’t) Coming: Watching Western Ski Resorts Grapple With Historic Drought

A visit to Squaw Valley to see how recreational mountains are surviving — or not — after their fourth winter of historically low levels of snowpack.

“Whoops!” came the last-minute announcement over the speakers set up at the base of Squaw Valley. “Someone forgot their … horse head?” It was the kind of statement that probably needed to be more specific, considering the assembled crowd: Just about everyone was packing some sort of flair, whether it was a sparkly tutu, a beer helmet, or someone’s mother’s ski-onesie from the ’70s. And that was just the spectators. As the day’s actual competitors trudged up a strip of snow laid down in the otherwise-grassy hillside on their way to the starting line, you could make out a big blue mascot-style Cookie Monster here, a painted-cardboard-box-wearing robot there.

Saturday marked the 25th anniversary of Squaw Valley’s Cushing Crossing event, an annual end-of-season extravaganza in which daredevils don clever costumes, gather up some downhill momentum, then try to skim across a small body of water like water-skiers without tow ropes. A panel of judges — the town’s radio station DJ; the CEO of Bigtruck, a local custom–trucker hat brand; and a native son known as “Barry the Blader,” to name a few — assess both the style and success of each attempt. Extra points are awarded for making it all the way from one side of Lake Cushing to the other. Not everyone earns those points.

Some competitors, weighed down by their bulky and unaerodynamic getups, simply lose steam halfway across, sinking as if consumed by quicksand. Others catch an edge on their snowboard the moment they hit the water: yard sale! (You can just hear the cold water assaulting their nostrils.) On Saturday, there were even a handful of poachers — skier speak for people who sneak onto off-limits terrain — who bypassed the entry fee and the starting line altogether and just gave it an unsanctioned go.

“Let’s give this guy a hand,” one of the emcees said drily into his microphone as one such rogue, who had made it only halfway across the pond, was scooped up by a safety rowboat skippered by ski patrol. “A hand to the side of the head, that is.”

Upside-Down-GuyTom O’Neill

Ski boots attached to raised arms, a dummy helmet dangling from the seat of his pants, a man skied down the mountain and partway across Lake Cushing doing what looked like a handstand. Another dude, all dolled up like a bride, leaned too far back and ended up actually upside down, his head slicing through the water like a fin. Unruffled, as soon as he came up for air, he shook up and popped a bottle of bubbly he’d been toting the whole time. A Squaw Valley ski coach named Sarah Scott was dressed up as Miley Cyrus: white tank top, yoga wrecking ball affixed to her backside with rope. She made it all the way across, winning the women’s skier division.

And as a man pushing a stroller-on-skis wiped out right away, two little girls near me shrieked. “Is that baby real?” (It was not.) A drunk guy in the crowd had a different perspective. “Hey!” he yelled, gesturing toward the judges, Solo cup in hand. “That’s gotta be extra style points for drowning a baby, right?”

In 2011, the Cushing Crossing was postponed due to “winter-like” weather; instead of being held in late May, it was pushed to the weekend of July Fourth. (There was still so much snow at Squaw Valley that in addition to hosting a pool party on top of the mountain that Independence Day weekend, the resort still had five lifts running.) Four years later, the event took place April 4, the Saturday before Easter. Several nearby mountains had already closed up shop days or even weeks earlier. At Squaw, the majority of visible terrain was a drab, dry brown. A lift near the pond sat dormant, its quad-seaters stacked up like clothes hangers in a big, empty closet.

Over the past couple of weeks, California’s water shortage has turned into a national point of interest. Topics like desalinization and Governor Jerry Brown’s recent nod to Big Agriculture surface in polite conversation. The New York Times has put Los Angeles bureau chief Adam Nagourney on neardaily drought duty. East Coasters who rolled their eyes a few months ago and thought Here, you want snow? You can have some of ours! are now being hit up with scolding infographics about their almond milk consumption. Oh, and speaking of almonds: Those thirsty little pebbles of paleo power have gotten such a bad rap that we’re now in the midst of a bona fide backlash-to-the-backlash.

In Sierra ski towns, though, these conversations have been taking place for quite some time, ever-present in each worry about a “bad winter” or a fiery summer. (A forest fire more than an hour away this past year blew so much smoke and ash over north Lake Tahoe that the region’s Ironman triathlon was canceled.) When it comes to the groups affected by California’s drought, ski bums and mountain townies are low on the public sympathy totem pole. But they are deeply connected to the land where they live and the vagaries of its weather, and often feel the impact of even minor environmental shifts far before the rest of the country does. Small talk about snowfall begins practically in August: “Think this’ll be the year?” Superstitious locals get their cars washed before potential storms as a sort of reverse-jinxy rain dance.

Worst Sierra Snowpack SkiRich Pedroncelli/AP

Just as you can see the high-water marks of Lake Tahoe — the changes in vegetation, the faded lines on the rocks — there are reminders all over the region of just how snowy it can get, like it last did in the increasingly mythical ’10-11 season. Stakes attached to fire hydrants rise high into the air. Donner State Park has a memorial to the doomed party of travelers; the base of the statue is 22 feet high, just as the snow was back then. This year, the park’s network of cross-country ski trails never had enough snow to open. Sierra Nevada, translated, means snowy mountains — the snow-covered teeth of a saw.

Tom O’Neill has lived in the area for more than 40 years, which means this is the third “significant drought cycle,” as he called it, that he’s seen. “And probably one of the worst,” he said. A former Navy pilot turned concessions manager at the growing resort, O’Neill — his business card describes him as a “Photographer-Philosopher-Leisurist” — was there to take photographs, as he always does, at the Cushing Crossing finish line. Shortly before it kicked off, he sat on the deck of Squaw Valley’s Olympic House, wearing a hat stitched with Olympic rings. (Squaw Valley hosted the Games in 1960, and a folksy-wintry international spirit remains, like a Pacific Lake Placid.)

“You know, we had one year in the early, mid-’70s we closed for two weeks,” he said. “Because there was no snowmaking, and they ran out of snow. And they just said, we have to wait until we get some snow.”

“It totally varies,” agreed Eric Brandt, a former head of marketing for the mountain and one of the emcees of the Cushing Crossing event. “That’s the thing about Pacific storms. I’ve seen it like this before. It’s definitely disheartening to have it this way four or five years in a row, but it’s done that in the past — the ’70s had some wacky periods, the ’80s had some wacky periods, the early ’90s.”

This current period, though, has been wacky on a historical level. Cumulative snowpack in the Sierras — which usually provides California with a good third of its water — was roughly 25 percent of its long-term average last season, tied for the lowest levels since regular measurements began in 1950. And this season, the fourth dud in a row, has somehow been the worst of them all. Snowpack as of early April hovered in the single digits percentage-wise compared to that average, a new record. Most frightening are the indications that this is all part of a broader “mega-drought,” one that would not only reshape Sierra snowfall but the rhythms of life far outside the state’s borders. California’s population has nearly doubled since those droughts in the ’70s, making more people reliant on precipitation, but that’s only part of it. California’s increasingly arid Central Valley is not only the United States’s biggest producer of food, it’s also one of the largest agricultural economies in the world.

Amid all of this uncertainty and throughout all of these constraints, Squaw continues to do what it can to squeeze in skier visits. Some snowfall early this week, with a little bit more on the horizon, led the resort to announce it would now remain open through April 19. In late March, a new perk was added to the season pass package: a “Worry-Free Guarantee” that allows a few hundred dollars’ worth of the purchase price to roll over to the following season (giving the mountain some sweet, sweet repeat business) if a skier or snowboarder didn’t hit the slopes at least five times. “This sort of deal has never been done in the ski industry before,” said Michael Radlick, a spokesman for Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows resort. In addition, non-alpine events have drawn more focus, from the offseason Wanderlust yoga festival to the recent inaugural WinterWonderGrass music festival. Tickets to take in the concert and sample from a robust beer menu cost nearly as much as a lift ticket would.

The world of ski resorts is filled with spurious claims: Highest vertical! Most skiable acres in the lower 48 states! North America’s most advanced snowmaking! No lift lines! World’s fluffiest snow! While spring pond skims like Cushing Crossing are held all over the place, Squaw Valley considers its event to be the granddaddy, the O.G. It’s hard to definitively prove this, but event old-timers say that while other resorts have been known to dig holes in the snow, line them with tarps, and fill them with water for the crazies to catapult into, Cushing Crossing was the first actual pond crossing at a resort.

“Our first prize was, like, a $50 bar tab,” recalled O’Neill, who has attended every event since the inception. (These days, prizes include a season ski pass and two round-trip tickets on Alaska Airlines.) O’Neill, who used to run concessions on one part of the mountain, remembers a fellow food and beverage vendor, Jean Hagan, pestering the head of ski patrol, Jim Mott, with her idea for this sort of event. (She figured it would drive some liquor sales near the end of the season.) She was repeatedly told no, but Mott eventually parted ways with Squaw Valley and she turned to mountain manager Hans Burkhart with her request. “Why not?” Burkhart replied. “Just don’t kill anyone.”

Early installments were mostly populated by ski patrollers. There have been changes over the years. At one point, participants had a choice on how to enter the water: They could go for the pond skim, or they could launch off a small kicker ramp and try to score points with aerials. (A few trips to the emergency room ultimately led to the abandonment of the latter.) The rise of fat powder skis led to a greater frequency of successful crossings.

“The organization and execution has transitioned, and rightly so,” Brandt said, “from a grassroots, seat-of-the-pants, raw, party-hearty, Animal House energy to what it is today.”

O’Neill said that one year the women’s U.S. ski team was practicing at the mountain and Truckee, California, native Julia Mancuso, surely much to the horror of her coaches, rounded up a crew to give it a whirl. With participants like the late, universally beloved Shane McConkey and the creative brother duo of Robb and Scott Gaffney, there have been some legendary runs over the years. (A dummy full of bloodlike ketchup was once involved.) Other memorable props have included a live guitar and an operating hibachi grill; jockstraps and thongs are frequently employed as visual gags. One woman, O’Neill said, fashioned a bikini out of Squaw Valley stickers. When she hit the water, “the stickers were no more.”

“The other group you get is, Eric and I are bankers from the city,” O’Neill said, beginning to change his voice to sound like a Bay Area VC guy. “We can kill it. And those guys, they make it two feet — or they wind up in the backseat and they just blow up.”

On Saturday, there weren’t a lot of those types around; the season had been too much of a letdown to attract out-of-towners. The scene at the outdoor after-party at Le Chamois — better known as the Chammy — was mostly locals, everyone chatting about the little bit of blessed snow in the forecast. A guy who had skied down with a green kayak around his waist like an inner tube (and then, upon crashing, coolly paddled the kayak toward shore like nothing was out of the ordinary) showed up, and I told him I’d enjoyed his act.

“Maybe next year,” he said, dropping the kayak on the dry, sunny lawn and heading toward a cold pitcher of beer. He was referring to his own performance in the event, but his words echoed a much larger refrain. Maybe next year it will snow again, is what everyone constantly says to one another, more out of habit than hope. Maybe next year.