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It's Going To Be A Great Winter

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First tracks in Spaulding Meadows on November 1  Betsy Fischer
Betsy Fischer
First tracks in Spaulding Meadows on November 1

It’s going to be a great winter.

I once asked an older friend of mine, the beloved Juneau skier and wilderness enthusiast Sigurd Olson, if he thought we were going to have a good winter. It was November, and we were still in the fall rain cycle. People were starting to grumble and doubt that we would have a good ski season. So I turned to my wise friend, who had skied more mountains than I could ever hope to, for wisdom and advice. He looked at me wonderingly and replied without hesitation. “Oh, I always say it’s going to be a great winter! You have to believe the snow and the skiing will be good, no matter what.”

I took his words to heart, and every year since then I start to get excited about all the skiing I’m going to do and how great the snow is going to be. This year it’s been easy, as the snow started to fall in October. I have made several trips up to Spaulding Meadows in the past few weeks and managed to get “first tracks” on my waxless touring skis as early as November 1.

Since then, the faithful have been hiking up to Eaglecrest and other high points with their cross country skis, downhill skis, telemark skis, snowboards, and sleds. Reports have varied from deep stashes of soft, fresh snow on some of the steeper runs to descriptions of being thrashed in snow so heavy it felt like tumbling through a cement mixer. Core shots (deep gouges to the ski or snowboard base), tangled fights with brush, and carefully negotiated stream crossings are the hallmarks of early season riding. But almost without exception, everyone who has ventured out into the early snow has come home smiling.

I started out with a hike to Spaulding Meadows across a layer of thin, firm snow (see my last blog on hiking from Spaulding to Montana Creek) in late October. Just a few days later, we received several more inches of snow. I knew the extra few inches would give me exactly the coverage needed to ski up in the meadows, so I didn’t waste any time. I quickly hiked up Spaulding trail, and as soon as I reached the upper meadow I was able to put on my skis and start gliding. I didn’t have much time to go very far, as I had an appointment I had to make later that day, so I traveled at random, just enjoying the feeling of skiing across the fresh snow. I made silly, pointless loops over the meadows, moving in no particular direction or pattern. Whenever I turned downhill and just let myself stand on my skis and glide, I started laughing out loud. Skiing is about the most fun thing I can think of doing, even if it’s just a short day trip to cross country ski on easy terrain.

The weather turned warm soon after and some of the snow melted. We were back to hiking and once again I returned to Spaulding, this time by way of the Lake Creek trail. I wanted to see for myself if the remaining snow in the meadows was skiable or not. I ran up the trail, which starts by the UAS housing just off the back loop road, and came out into the meadows on the Lake Creek side. As I had suspected, the snow was once again firm enough for hiking, but not too great for skiing. I contented myself with hiking a loop over to and then down the Spaulding trail (which meant I had to walk an extra 1-1/4 mile on the road back to my car!) I could see my old ski tracks in the snow up in Spaulding, now almost melted away. It was a beautiful day for a hike, but I was a little disappointed to see how much the snow had melted.

Two days later we had more snow, so Scott and I went up to Eaglecrest to check out the cross country trail in the Hilda Creek meadows by the base of the Black Bear chair. We joined the line of skiers, snowboarders, sledders, and hikers going up the maintenance road on the east side of the mountain. We were able to put on our waxless cross country skis at the bottom of the Ptarmigan chair and ski up to the meadows. Once we were up there, we tried to follow the cross country trail, but once again found ourselves making silly loops wherever we could, climbing up hills and bombing down on our skinny skis and generally goofing around. It was Scott’s first day out on skis, so he had the same grin on his face that I had up in Spaulding. After a full lifetime of skiing, we still laugh when we get out for the first day of the season. Gliding is just plain fun.

Apparently the snow on the upper mountain was very skiable and deep in places that day. We heard good reports from most of the people who went higher up. I’m ready to start carving turns on steeper terrain, but we were pretty content with our little cross country ski adventure that day. Soon we will get the climbing skins and the fat skis out and do some real alpine touring. I’m ready, but there’s no great hurry. It’s not even Thanksgiving yet, and we’ve got a long winter of skiing ahead of us. It’s going to be a good winter.

Actually, it’s going to be a great winter.

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