Peter Shelton

First Snow, October 26

Posted in Life in Central Oregon, Ski teaching, Weather & Climate by pshelton on October 30, 2015

At last, weather.

It’s a relief after being lulled, seduced, strung out on perfect clear days, day after day, in Bend. Can’t even remember the last time it rained. This morning I lay still in bed and listened to the fine patter on the roof, the sweet gurgle of water dripping somewhere.

Twenty miles up the road Mount Bachelor’s live web cams showed a coating, thin to be sure, but a rather complete blanket of white, down almost to the parking lot. White roofs on lift shacks. White hors d’oeuvres on hemlock branches. White giving shape, finally, to the dark, volcanic folds above treeline. It’s still early. The season has really just begun. And temperatures remain warmer than one might like for solid base building. But, hey. It’s a start.

And it’s a tiny bulwark against the El Niño roar. Have you ever heard more guessing, more selling, more talking heads bloviating about a weather phenomenon? “The Godzilla of El Niños! What will it mean for you?!”

Mostly, up here in the Pacific Northwest, if you believe the hype, it means more warm winter temps and a slightly better than average chance for below normal snowfall. This is the line from NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the closest thing we have to “official” word. NOAA’s forecasters are careful to add (they are scientists, so they are quick to qualify) that their long-range guesstimate is only slightly better than palm reading. Their data sets for El Niño/La Niña oscillations go back only a couple of decades. And so many other factors combine to create weather at a particular place at a particular time. Everything they do know – and they do know that surface temperatures in the equatorial eastern Pacific are warmer than average – goes into a super computer somewhere, which spits out a statistical model of what is most likely to follow. Several super computers, I gather. There is the North American model, the European model, and so on. Combine all the ones and zeroes, you get monster-movie metaphors on The Weather Channel.

Another forecaster I follow, a fellow named Joel Gratz at OpenSnow.com, interprets the same models but with an eye specifically to skiing and mountain ranges East and West. He sees a snowy winter ahead for the southern Sierra, for New Mexico and southern Colorado, and more snow, on top of the last two cold winters, for New England. His forecast for Mount Bachelor is semi-grim. Although even a below-average season could deliver a deeper snowpack than what we got last year, which was roughly half the snow one would expect. And last year, remember, was not an El Niño pattern but a so-called No Niño, midway between the warm boy child and the cool girl child.

So, I keep telling myself: Nobody knows. Anything could happen. Averages are just that, a middle line between fluctuations. Weather is just too darned unpredictable.

What is predictable with first snow is the reawakening of my skiing daydreams. I spend way too much time forecasting Opening Day. There’s not a lot of terrain likely to be open come Thanksgiving. But the point of these fantasies, and of the day itself, is not to soar. It is enough to find your feet.

One of the highest compliments you can pay a skier is to say, “You’re really on your feet.” This is a season-long goal, a life-long goal, one half of the daily koan: “stand on your feet; go down the hill.” Sounds so obvious, but these nuggets contain everything – almost everything – there is to know about the sport.

To find your feet is to become aware of your middle, your center of mass (it’s somewhere between your hips and your belly button), and placing that center where it will do the most good.

Plant it squarely between your two feet. (I like the solid feel of that verb, to plant.) This is what my brother, Tom, an actor and voice coach, says when he is teaching someone to sing. “In order for the voice to open up, the feet must be firmly planted on the floor.”

This is the side-to-side component. The other centering you must do, the fore/aft component, requires you to stand right atop the sweet spot of the ski. Stand on the whole foot, not the ball, not the heel, the whole foot front to back.

You can’t see this proper alignment. You have to feel it. I feel it as weight pressing through the bottoms of my feet, as if I were standing on the moving deck of a ship. Maintain this ever shifting, positive pressure and your skis will do whatever you want them to do.

You’ve found your feet. From here everything else follows: head high, eyes sweeping the territory to come; hips and knees like shock absorbers; wind on your cheeks; bones aligned against the merry-go-round forces in a turn – all the things that together produce the feeling of flight.

Three tricks for finding your feet. Ski without poles (now your hands can’t compensate for, can’t detract from your foot sense). Ski with your boots unbuckled (back in the leather-boot days you had to ski with your feet). Skate. Skating across flats and gentle downhills provides instant feedback on your stance; you can’t do it if your middle is not balanced over your feet.

All of this presumes that November will follow October, that December will follow November – that winter will be winter again. Climate change is happening. Averages will continue to warm. But I keep telling myself that it isn’t going to happen all at once. It isn’t going to arrive in one, giant “The Day After Tomorrow” catastrophe. (Although that surprisingly fun apocalypse movie foresees a frigid consequence of warming. If you haven’t seen it, do.)

We will have cold, snowy winters in the Northwest again. There will be “average” winters. And, as much as we’ve all been trained to strive for excellence and to shun average-ness, I am ready – more than ready – for an average, ecstatic winter.

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