It’s official. The Northwest has declared the worst drought in more than 28 years. Governor Christine Gregoire made the ill-fated announcement on March 10. With snow pack levels at record lows ranging from 10% to 26% of average, it has been a trying season for those living in the Washington and Oregon Cascades, Northern Idaho and Western Montana . Many weather forecasters joked that Los Angeles had stolen Seattle ‘s weather. Record rains and snows have visited the Los Angeles Basin , while sunshine, warm temperatures and a stubborn high pressure took residence in the Northwest.
Another slow day begins in the Skykomish Valley . Time appears to have frozen (or melted) still. The gas station attendant watches as two cars make their way through town on the approach to Stevens Pass. No skis, no snowboards, no rack. These are just passer-bys on their way to Eastern Washington . Then, a moment of silence turns into minutes, into hours. The waiting game continues.
An unusually warm winter weather pattern has strangled the Northwest, causing many ski areas and businesses in January to close their doors and then yet again in early March. Signage blatantly stating, “Closed until more snow.” Even venerable Mt. Baker , known for its deep snow pack and world record snow fall, had to ‘pull the parachute’ more than a few times this winter.
Devastating drought and record warm temperatures have keptmost the season at bay. And when the Cascades needed the snow pack most, the Hawaiian Islands sent there warm, island breezes to the Northwest. Weather forecasters coined a new phrase for one of the three strong Pineapple Expresses ravaging the area- an aptly name ‘Tropical Punch.’ And punch it did. The knockout punch was laid out to several areas across the Cascades and Southern British Columbia in early January. Many would struggle to recover.
It’s February 6 and what would be considered a busy Saturday, roads are seeing little traffic. Stevens Pass remains closed. The weather is trying to help, but it’s not sufficient. Enough flakes had fallen from the sky overnight to create a soft blanket of white. Normally, the hordes would be here to get their fill, but not today. Not this week. And perhaps not this winter.
The 8” to 12” that accumulated overnight has rested on top of barren slopes, just enough to cover the dirt and rocks below the surface. We are staring at a mirage in the Desert. Could there really be enough snow at higher elevations to offer a glimpse of winter?
We strap on our skins and ascend the switchbacks along Skyline Ridge to the North of Stevens Pass. Starting off on the road with 5” of snow beneath us, we slowly make our way towards a hopeful winter climate. With a meager snow pack, the Cascade Mountains of Washington and Oregon have been left wondering if winter would ever appear. As the season has progressed, 2005 rapidly draws comparisons to 1977, which has widely been regarded as the worst year in Northwestern skiing.
A snow depth of close to four feet greets us at the top of Skyline, enough to ski a few short turns down the first 500 vertical feet of Moonlight Bowl before it melts into large piles of dirt. Returning to the front side, a severe shortage of snow on the South facing aspects left us with only one descent choice to the parking lot: the main utility road. Dicing down about 800 vertical feet, it resembled more or less of a luge course. It was apparent that winter remains on hold until next season.
In a letter posted on the Stevens Pass website, General Manager John Gifford stated, “ We have never seen a ‘winter’ quite like this one.” Last Wednesday, Stevens Pass made the decision to suspend operations indefinitely until next season. “We will put this unprecedented season behind us and look ahead with all the enthusiasm that comes with renewed hope and excitement of a great season to come.”
The Summit-at-Snoqualmie reiterates the challenges faced by Northwest skiers this season, “ The weather has been, to say the least, aggravating. It seems the last two months have included daily forecasts that either say ‘models have not been consistent’ or ‘mostly sunny with record or near record warmth.’”
Mt. Baker continues to defy the odds, chugging along with three chairlifts operating on a 25” to 35” base. This could be the first year in the history of the Legendary Banked Slalom that the event has faced such conditions. Already rescheduled from its usual January date to a seemingly ‘safer’ April 1-3, it is now once again in jeopardy of being cancelled. Rumors from the mountain have indicated that if snow is needed to be hauled in via helicopter, that the mountain operations staff will do whatever it takes to ensure the success of this year’s event.
On the flip side, The Summit-at-Snoqualmie and Crystal Mountain are keeping up hope of reopening in either March or April if “significant snow fall” occurs. The Summit recently sent out an email to pass holders indicting their resolve, despite the challenging weather. Forecasters are pointing toward a mid-march return to winter, with potential snow fall for the Cascades. Although we’ve just about run out of our snow dances for 2005, I think we’re just saving our best ones for last.