As of early March, most resorts in Tahoe were reporting less than half their average snowpack, with most skiing being confined to groomers and most resorts seeing continued terrain closures.

But junior teams such as the Squaw Valley Freestyle Team and Sugar Bowl Academy (SBA), which rely on Tahoe for their training grounds and competitive venues, are making it work by developing creative solutions, staying positive, and finding some diamonds in the rough.

“For our ski team, it’s a bummer to not have a real winter and to have these low snow conditions, but we’ve had a great year…it’s been very successful from a training perspective,” said Bill Hudson, director of athletic programs for Sugar Bowl Ski Team and Academy, a program that includes the disciplines of racing, freeride, and Nordic skiing.

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While he points out the obvious downsides — low powder, fewer terrain options, and monotonous surface conditions — he sees a high value to a young athlete’s development when skiing on sub-par snow.

“It’s almost a positive in terms of the athlete’s long-term development of technique. You can’t cheat when you’re making a turn in hard snow, you really need to have those good angles,” said Hudson. “There is constant reinforcement on hard snow.”

Trevor Tanhoff, the head freeride coach at SBA, echoes a similar sentiment.

“The low snow year has had a major effect on the team but mostly for the good,” said Tanhoff. “It has made us all better skiers first and foremost. Firm snow and tighter corridors forces us to keep our eyes up.”

Despite the bad season all of SBA’s competitions took place, though a Super G race had to be relocated to Mammoth due to low snow, and the Nordic team had to train at the Auburn Ski Club Training Center when Royal Gorge closed.

Still Spinning, Still Flipping, Still Charging

In the freestyle realm and specifically slopestyle riding, the plethora of sunny days and spring-like conditions have kept the action high, albeit with a few hiccups.

“The jumps aren’t quite as big as they have been because of the snow, but it’s not just about hucking big, it’s more about style and rail tricks for me,” said 13-year-old Cody LaPlante, a member of SquawFree and a recently sponsored Red Bull athlete, who competes in slopestyle and halfpipe events. “It’s tough to progress to harder tricks with smaller jumps, but I can also go to Woodward.”

While no slopestyle events have been cancelled, there have been several postponements, which leads to an even busier calendar at the end of the year.

“We have to have the attitude of making the best of it,” said Reem Saffouri, whose 16-year-old son Taariq is on the SquawFree team. By the end of the year Taariq will have participated in around 10 competitions, including two trips to Park City, Utah, a trip to Mammoth, and a trip to Copper, Colo., on top of the various events around the lake.

While all the rearrangements can make it difficult for parents’ scheduling, they speak highly for how the organizers have worked hard to keep the season moving.

“They [SquawFree] have been very creative in keeping the kids interested and coming up with creative solutions,” said Jessica LaPlante, Cody’s mom.

Jimeel Ferris, the program director at SquawFree, says there are many ways to adapt to the poor snow conditions, such as having his mogul kids work only on their jumping when the moguls are too icy, and teaching them race techniques.

Bill Hudson of SBA points to the freeride kids and coaches putting out extra effort to find the sunny and soft areas of the mountain and focusing more on those isolated areas to add some variety to the firm snow.

Still Not Ideal

Despite these positive twists, the lack of snow simply creates a burden for aspiring competitive skiers, and now past the halfway point in a fourth consecutive lackluster season, it has taken its toll.

“Low snow and delayed openings for the season, these kill a competitive athlete’s chances of making it to their final goals, whether it be to make it to nationals, junior nationals, the world cup, and so on,” said Jimeel Ferris, who explains that SquawFree athletes accumulate points throughout the season, and if Tahoe events are cancelled or postponed it can impact an athlete’s chance of success.

In addition, the enrollment at SquawFree from regions outside of Tahoe, such as the Bay Area and Sacramento, has been declining because the added travel is no longer worth it for some families. It’s estimated enrollment from outside Tahoe makes up about 40 percent of the team.

The halfpipe discipline has also seen a strong decline over the years, as construction and maintenance of terrain parks require a deep base. Only Northstar has had a halfpipe in the 2014-15 season and even that has not been consistently open throughout the winter.

Nevertheless, from the perspective of a young athlete, the lack of snow is virtually a non-factor.

“It helps to ski with the team everyday. If I was skiing alone it would be different, but everyday I wake up super stoked to get out there,” said Taariq Saffouri, who spends most of his time on the hill in the terrain park. “If one person isn’t having fun, we let them choose what they want to do, and it will bring everyone up and the happiness is spread around.”

The coaches note that as the kids’ skills progress, riding regularly helps maintain a high interest level in the sport.

 “The best part of skiing is having fun, and there’s lots of that,” said Cody LaPlante.

With the stoke of the athletes seemingly unperturbed by the snow, the forward progression of these programs looks to be set in a solid foundation.

“It’s tough and it’s a challenge but ski teams are still here, and they will always be here. It’s a constant that resorts can count on that the kids will be committed,” said Hudson.

Author

  • Dave Zook

    Dave Zook has been aiming to turn interests in outdoor activities like snowboarding and surfing into a professional endeavor for quite some time. He is elated to be writing and editing for Moonshine Ink and still have time to explore the ample offerings of the Sierra.

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