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El Nino’s silver lining: Making every turn count

From Mount Baker to Alaska, warmer and wetter does not mean better

Trees coated in fresh snow overlook Juneau’s Inside Passage and Admiralty Island.
Trees coated in fresh snow overlook Juneau’s Inside Passage and Admiralty Island.
By Kayla Heidenreich CDN Contributor

JUNEAU, Alaska — I woke up on the last day of 2023, before my 6 a.m. alarm could do its only job. I prematurely silenced it and squinted at my phone to check what the weather did overnight in the mountains. My gut clenched as I read that the temperature at the top of Eaglecrest Ski Area was a blazing hot 39 degrees. I curled back into my cocoon, eyes wide open, watching the rain tap at my window, trying to muster the enthusiasm to get up and get ready for work. 

I pulled into Alaska’s second largest ski area two minutes late. I backed into Eaglecrest’s employee parking and stepped outside for my first look at the mountain. Peering through the night’s lingering darkness, I saw that what previously was our groomed beginner run had retreated to its original form — a free-flowing creek. I took a deep breath, slammed the car door and ran through the torrential downpour toward our ski patrol locker room. 

Inside, I saw my overworked, exhausted and disappointed coworkers’ faces. I offered up a weak smile in return. I threw on my rubber bibs and my patrol jacket, sunk my feet into my sopping wet snowboard boots, grabbed my rubber fishing gloves and topped off my coffee, as our patrol director read off how much snow we had lost at different elevations across the mountain. It was day two of straight rain and our snowpack, along with morale, was dwindling fast. El Nino was in full swing. 

El Nino is part of a larger climate pattern (ENSO) which comprises three different phases. El Nino, La Nina and a neutral phase. These phases irregularly change every two to seven years, and this year, we are in a strong El Nino phase. El Nino brings warmer sea surface temperatures, while La Nina brings cooler temperatures. The neutral phase lives in between. These phases impact global weather by influencing both atmospheric circulation and precipitation. 

In its most basic form, El Nino brings warmer temperatures, and for us in coastal mountain ranges in southeast Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, these warm temperatures bring lots of rain. In the past, El Nino years have varied, but oftentimes, the northern part of the state experiences below average snow levels and the southern part sees above average snowfall.

This season has been tough thus far. Eaglecrest opened two weeks late, then after opening, shut back down for a couple days. The ski area has expanded terrain, then closed the same terrain days after. I have ridden into watering holes, cut my face on exposed rocks and am constantly anxious that one warm storm could stop our lifts from spinning.

photo  Eaglecrest Ski Patroller Jean Larson-Rein assesses water gullies in early season snow pack at the ski area near Juneau, Alaska. (Photo by Kayla Heidenreich)  

I know this is a shared feeling of angst throughout the snow-loving, powder-hungry communities in the Pacific Northwest. Connecting with friends at Mount Baker has brought me good perspective. We share many storms that come off the Pacific Ocean — warm and cold. Knowing we are all in it together, rooting for one another each storm cycle, is comforting. 

Eaglecrest survived the New Year’s Eve rain event, but barely. The mountain, which just days prior had been tucked under a blanket of white, was now etched in brown and echoing sounds of raging rivers. Before clocking out, I wrung out my patrol jacket, put dryer sheets in my fishing gloves, and called it a wrap on 2023.

My birthday on New Year’s Day makes me 25 years old — old enough to have a quarter-life crisis. I have never liked “New Year’s resolutions” but I have always found that riding my snowboard to start off the New Year brings similar effects. 

I woke up early on Jan. 1. Our room, which usually stays dark until the sun rises around 9 a.m., was lit up. I shot up and looked out the window: surprise snow! I shook my partner, Brady, awake and jumped into my dirty snowboard socks lying on the floor.

All season, I had been looking at the glass half empty. I’ve let the disappointment of rainy days overtake the joy of powder days. As Brady and I threw our climbing skins onto our split boards, I let myself bubble up with happiness. Not only was there snow on the ground, but the sun was hitting my face for the first time in weeks. 

The snow sparkled as we skinned up the untracked mountain. We still needed to cross the same raging creeks and avoid the watering holes, but this time, I didn’t let it affect me. I got to ride my snowboard with my best friend in the beautiful mountains.

We arrived on top of a ridge overlooking Southeast Alaska’s Inside Passage. The sun was starting to sink behind Admiralty Island, painting the snowy mountains pink, as the moon clocked in for its night shift. I dropped first, turning deep into a pocket of fresh snow, kicking flakes up into my face, engulfing me in a cloud of sparkling white. 

These are the turns that make my heart beat. The turns that will sustain me through the next rainy day. 

I am choosing to spend the rest of the season focusing back on the basics. Enjoying the feeling of flowing down a mountain, both in the rain and in the snow. Taking the time to learn, to train and most of all, to respect the mountain in whatever form El Nino provides.

CDN outdoors columnist Kayla Heidenreich writes monthly, of late from Juneau and beyond;

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