Harsh weather conditions derail my hopes at skiing competition

February 6, 2024 — by Richard Fan
Photo by Richard Fan
The blizzard on Jan. 6 caused numerous participants, including me, to lose visibility.
Despite the losses I’ve suffered at competitions due to blizzard conditions, I’ve still found the snow to be a blessing to the barren mountains of Tahoe.

Frigid cold wind blasted in my face as I stood above the start gate, desperately trying to warm my arms and legs to drive out the numbing cold. Snowflakes stuck to my goggle lenses, further worsening the already terrible visibility. I could not see anything below me. One after another, athletes started down the competition venue without sight of the terrain and judges below. 

Freeride is a style of skiing in which athletes make their way down an either black or double black diamond trail. Through showing off good skiing technique while hitting difficult terrain on the way down, such as cliffs or chutes, the skier gains points. Runs are scored by a panel of judges, and the ranking is determined based on these points. Upon compiling international rankings, top athletes participate in the Freeride World Series. 

During my most recent Freeride skiing competition at Sugar Bowl Ski Resort in Lake Tahoe on Jan. 6, a heavy wind storm, accompanied by 50-mph winds, dumped 17 inches of snow on the course and threatened to shut the ski resort and the contest down. 

The weather was surprising, considering that there had been a beautiful sunrise earlier that morning. The pleasant rays of sunshine peeking over Donner Summit contrasted with the raging storm that was forecasted for later that day. 

My family and I hopped on the road leading up to the Donner Summit, the sky still peaceful and clear as I pulled into the Sugar Bowl Ski Resort. As I made my way through a rushed inspection of the venue, I noticed the administrators tried to run as many athletes down the course as possible before the forecasted storm arrived. 

They weren’t successful. A little before noon, gray clouds filled the sky and began dumping snow over the mountain, heavily reducing visibility. The three judges were stationed at points along the venue to maximize the total area of the venue that they could cover. However, every single time the wind picked up, the entire venue would be blanketed in snow so thick that skiers couldn’t even see their own skis below them. 

Tentatively, more athletes completed their run down the venue until the storm forced the resort operators to shut down the lifts. Judges announced that the skiers who missed their runs would compete the next day. 

As skiing is a sport that heavily depends on the weather to run events, contest conditions can change drastically based on snow conditions. 

A run in terrible weather has two main drawbacks. First, it’s impossible to see landings, which makes jumps significantly harder to execute and more dangerous. Second, the misery of skiing in blizzard conditions — cold snow dripping down over my helmet rim and gusts of wind biting through my jacket — is a dreary experience. 

Unfortunately, I was one of the many athletes who wasn’t able to perform as well as they hoped due to the storm. During every jump I got air-time with, I came very close to falling due to the difficulty of landing without visibility. As I came into the last jump of my run, I ended up getting stuck in a huge snowdrift that had been piled up by the wind and ended up falling. In the end, I placed at around 45th out of 60 skiers.  

This is not the first time Mother Nature has hurt my chances: I’ve had numerous competitions in which my runs and overall placement were messed up due to storms. These losses are a reminder that numerous external factors can affect your results, but your self worth is determined by how much you improve compared to yourself, rather than the results that you achieve. 

Still, maybe there’s a silver lining in the storm. As skiers, we are always desperately needing more snow, so while storms delay operations and make the experience miserable at times, they’re overall welcome. 

The 17 inches of snow that day almost doubled the base layer that we had at the time, which promised tons of lifts being opened. At least I can rest easy at 45th place knowing that in the competitions to come, I won’t be doing cliffs and landing in the dirt.

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