Cheers to El Niño

For Halloween last fall, I had a really scary costume idea: El Niño 👻. 

What form would the costume actually take? A snowflake covered in mud? A pair of rock skis? The tombstone for Snoqualmie Pass? A red waist belt, signifying the warmer waters in the equatorial Pacific? I could get as literal or metaphorical as I wanted, but all would strike fear in the hearts of PNW winter enthusiasts.

Jokes aside, the fear leading into El Niño was real. Seasoned skiers recalled the disaster winter of 2014-2015. Media outlets stoked the flames. Wyatt and I tried to calm people’s nerves with some relatively modest data about the local effects of El Niño, but one did not have to search far to find articles about its nefarious affects, the worst of which are felt not in our mountains but throughout the developing world. It really felt like El Niño was the grim reaper.

My costume last Halloween.

As November turned into December, and December turned into January, the fear was… mostly justified. El Niño reared its ugly head with high freezing levels, warm storms, and a sad snowpack. We kept waiting for that big storm to catch us up, but it never came. Eventually, we fell too far behind that catching up was no longer an option. The worst snowpack in a decade seemed like a near certainty.

Without the prospect of a normal winter, I adjusted my mindset. As I have learned in the past, regardless of La Niña or El Niño, it is best to begin with rock bottom expectations. I started my season with skis and boots on my back, prioritizing adventure over turns. Skis were once again just tools for exploration, not some poor substitute for identity and self-worth. This was, after all, the reason I got into skiing. It was never about the days skied, face shots, or rad lines. It was about adventuring and experiencing the mountains in their wintery coat.

When it’s so bad, it’s actually good.

As I gave up on any expectations, something unexpected started to happen – I started having fantastic ski days. Not just good ski days, but all-time, soul-filling days. I went up Sahale Arm just seeking some nice views, and ended up skiing two feet of powder in the heart of the North Cascades. I ventured deep into the Teanaway just hoping for a skiable snowpack, and ended up surfing wonderful boot top powder above an infinite fog layer. The turns were fleeting, but the moments were seared into mind. 8 hours of effort for a moment of perfection. The shorter the moment of bliss, the more meaningful it felt. That was El Niño in a nutshell for me.

Can a moment redeem an entire season?

When things went wrong, they were not lows, but rather the absurd. Early in the season, we tried to do a nordic ski up a road, only to find ourselves pizza-ing between tire ruts. During one of the two weeks of actual winter, I got overzealous and attempted to ski Humpback. Ultimately, I ended up down-skinning between giant boulders with absolutely no base to speak of. It layered the absurd (skiing, in general) with another layer of absurdity. Typically, I would have felt frustrated by these “misses”. But when there’s little to miss out on, you can take all the swings you want without FOMO (fear of missing out).

Most of the time, the highs were few and far between. Weeks went by in January and February without a single backcountry ski day. I went running, tiptoed over rocks in my skate skis (turns out you can nordic ski with almost no snow), and watched K-Dramas. And I felt completely at peace. In a way, it was relieving to realize that, even without something that had become such a big part of my life, I felt just as happy. It may be hard to believe, but more skiing does not necessarily mean greater happiness. Honestly, sometimes it was nice to have an excuse to just sit around at home on a Saturday and go out with friends at night. Since when did I need an excuse to take a weekend off? Skiing is such a hard sport by itself, and it for many people it comes with complicated emotional baggage. For some, El Niño could feel like a painful withdrawal. But I think for many, it felt like a liberation.

Big ski media may try to make you feel that if you didn’t ski epic powder or chase the best conditions across the globe, your season was a failure. El Niño reminded me that that is a bunch of bullshit (and also exacerbating the problems of El Niño to begin with). There’s something admirable in every skier who stuck it out in the PNW during this tough season, riding the highs and lows.

El Niño made the decision for me.

By March and April, El Niño was fading, along with any hope of a decent snowpack. With low elevations already melting out, I found myself gunning for traditional North Cascade “corn” tours in wintery powder conditions. Before this season, I could not fathom skiing wonderful powder on the Forbidden Tour. The real shock came when we scored boot top powder on every single descent of the Watson-Hagan-Blum Traverse, a route I had always thought could only be done in late May or June. Low snow does not have to mean low fun. It just necessitates an imaginative mind, a sense of adventure, and a healthy dose of cautious optimism. “Happiness = Reality – Expectations”. And every time, expectations were shattered. Was I just getting lucky, or were the mountains rewarding me for the unrelenting faith I had in them? Maybe I gave on winter, but I never gave up on ski season.

Do you still believe in ski season?

By any normal measurement, it was a bad winter. My intention is not to make others feel bad if they truly had a rough season. It was a weird year. I skied fewer days than any season this decade. I visited Moraine Lake more times than Source Lake. I did a lot of hiking with skis on my back. I would have loved to ski more easy powder. But through it all, I had a special ski season. I’m not sure I would call it my “best” season, but it was the one that has brought me the deepest sense of joy and gratitude.

I know there will be worse winters, and winters like this one will become commonplace. I’m unsure if my kids or grandkids will get to experience the mountains in the same way that I treasure. In a way, El Niño was a preview of the future. Sometimes I would get these thoughts, where I would look around at the wreckage of El Niño – the glaciers will melt, the rivers will suffer, and it really is sad. But then I would take a deep breath and remind myself: El Niño is happening to the world, but it doesn’t have to happen to us. Joy, adventure, friendship, and beauty – all of these things are possible even if we aren’t sliding around with sticks attached to our feet.

Normalize roller skiing.

So I’d like to raise a glass to El Niño. For reminding me why I learned to ski in the first place. For freeing me from expectations of myself and the ski season. For highlighting what is important in life. For revealing skiing for what it really is: a silly, absurd, and inherently meaningless activity.

Cheers to El Niño.

To greater heights, to unforgettable sights.

The only way is up.

Note: if you want a more scientific recap of our El Niño winter, Wyatt and I made a video about it.

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