My first experiences with skiing and with respectable snow were in Lake Tahoe. It is also the place where I had first seen whitewater, though not where I would first navigate it. It had been a few years since I’d visited and Erika had never been. We drove up the Saturday morning of MLK weekend. Camp Richardson’s Historic Hotel in South Lake Tahoe is where we stayed. Erika found a great package deal: $260 for the weekend including breakfasts, a voucher for dinner, and two lift tickets at Sierra (we traded these for beginner’s packages – gear, lessons, and a limited lift ticket).
There was no shortage of snow. It was deep, it blanketed everything. We had Saturday afternoon, all of Sunday, and Monday morning to make the best of it. We spent Sunday at Sierra learning to ski and repeatedly taking the bunny slope. I am always surprised just how quickly you can shoot down a bunny slope if you aren’t careful. Sierra was nice, but it can’t compete with Heavenly where I first tried skiing a few years back. Both make Mountain High look like a slushy skate park. As the day passed, snow began to fall harder. It took us a while to find Erika’s snow-covered Yaris in the parking lot. The ice scraper we’d picked up on a whim the night before came in very handy. We ended the night with a nice meal at an Irish Pub and a soak in the snow-coated hot tub. As steam rose from the tub, it cooled, then fell back on us as water.
Monday morning, we rented snowshoes and hiked down a trail into a wooded area. We knew a storm was on its way and would be a good idea to leave before it hit in full. It began snowing lightly as we headed back to the sport rental shop. We climbed into the car and I drove us towards the mountains. I tried to, that is. The storm was close enough that chains or snow tires were required in the mountains and checkpoints were set up. The traffic leaving Tahoe was barely moving. As we slowly traveled down the main highway towards the checkpoint, the storm grew closer. I had never driven in snow and never used chains. I had read the directions that came with our pair the day before. The time had come to apply that limited knowledge. Putting chains on a vehicle is not difficult if you know what you are doing. Crouched in slush—reaching behind tires on a low-clearance passenger vehicle as snow falls and cars slide past—while learning to attach tire chains is not so easy. It took me a few tries to discover what works and what doesn’t. I was covered in snow, my toes were wet and freezing, and my fingers cold because my gloves were too bulky for precise chain manipulation. The chains were on, it was cold, Erika’s interior was wet with melting snow, and I hoped I’d done it properly. They were about to be tested and there would be little chance to adjust them once we hit the mountain.
I come from the South, the land of swamps, rain, and humidity. Hurricanes, floods, fog—I have a lot of experience driving in such conditions. I was not prepared for the adventure that awaited us on our 6 hour drive to Sacramento (a drive that took less than 2 hours on the way to Tahoe). The sky was white. Visibility varied by dozens of feet—it was like diving except instead of receding into darkness, details faded to white. Snow fell steadily. I crouched like a hunchback as I drove because we could rarely keep the upper portion of the windshield from fogging up. Snow banks flanked us on either side, ice and snow were caked to the streets. Occasionally we would pass a car stuck in a snow bank. We crept along at 20 mile per hour, an icicle grew from the passenger side mirror. The tire chains clanged and I feared they were loosening and would fall off. Brake lights peeking through the white were my guides around the curves of the mountain. It was nerve-wracking and exciting.
The snowfall stopped, then started again, falling harder. A checkpoint was ahead. It was time to remove the chains. We were on a decline, the snow was falling harder, there was little shoulder. My chains had lasted! Taking them off would be easier than installing had been, right? Yes, it was easier to remove them… a little easier. We struggled with the locking chains on the inside of the wheel well. Snow falling, cars sliding past, ice becoming slush. Finally they were off! Yet, we still had a few miles to go downhill in snow on icy roads. Why in the hell was I required to take them off now? I drove on. Eventually, the snow was replaced by rain. Hours later we made it home. We had a great weekend and we experienced our first snowstorm. I wouldn’t trade any minute of it.