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Always in Ski-son

Drought, doubters and dodging rocks no match for the passion of patch skiers
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By the time late April rolls around, Mother Nature has usually forced the majority of Lake Tahoe ski resorts to shut down their chairlifts for the season, sending throngs of would-be skiers and snowboarders in search of alternative outdoor activities until the snows grace the Sierra Nevada the following winter.

But even when the snow stops falling in Tahoe, it still clings to shady nooks at higher elevations — and for a small but dedicated group of skiers and riders who refuse to take no-snow for an answer, the excitement is only heating up.

Anti-Climatic

Anyone who truly loves a sport will go to great lengths to fuel their passion. Surfers will brave hypothermic waters and paddle out into remote Arctic breaks, kayakers will navigate irrigation ditches when the surrounding rivers run dry, and skiers — particularly a growing number of die-hards who associate with the turns-all-year patch skiing movement — will spend entire summer afternoons hiking up dangerous mountain terrain in search of the Sierra’s last lingering snow patches.

“Seasons happen, but with some motivation, they don’t have to get in the way of skiing,” said Matt Bansak, a 28-year-old patch skier who lives in Tahoe City.

“After I moved out to Tahoe in 2011 and skied every month that summer, the concept of keeping that streak alive was appealing to me. Some months I have less motivation, but I go anyways and always get rewarded with an adventure.”

Bansak has strung together 59 consecutive months with at least one day of skiing in each, making this October his five-year anniversary — but not without challenges. The drought has made Bansak and other Tahoe patch skiers work harder than ever before just to find skiable snow.

“The patch skiing this summer has been extremely limited after last winter’s drought,” Bansak said. “Patches tend to form in the same spots, and this year only one of the patches that are normally skiable lasted until September - and that particular patch was also quite user-unfriendly.”

A Need for Ski

Patch skiing no doubt falls on the crazier side of the summer/fall sports spectrum, but the turns-all-year crowd is nonetheless gaining momentum in Lake Tahoe. Originally from Illinois, 55-year-old Stev Fargan has become one of the keystone figures in the Tahoe patch skiing community since moving to the area more than two decades ago.

“As long as there is still snow and there are skiers who want to keep experiencing the joy of skiing year-round, patch skiing will gradually grow,” said Fargan, creator of patchskiing.com and proud owner of a 143-month ski streak. “Patch skiing is an acquired taste, like drinking an IPA. Not everyone is into it, but those that are really love it.”

Come September and October (the hardest months to find skiable snow patches in Tahoe), turns-all-year enthusiasts like Bansak and Fargan often take bets about how many hikers will stop them on the trail to say things like, “You’re not really going to ski up there, are you?”

“Some people say it’s dedication, some people say it’s crazy, and some people are convinced that there isn’t actually any snow and get really confused,” Bansak said. “But, hey, if you’re going for a hike anyway, why not strap some skis to your back and make an adventure out of it?”

Indeed, why not? In addition to the allure of adventure, exercise, and year-round skiing, the sport also offers participants one of the purest joys of all: connecting with nature.

“I think it is important to get up to the high, far back places where the snow keeps — where the land is preserved and ancient,” said 46-year-old Glenshire resident and patch skier Grant Barta. “Sometimes the skiing is really good, but mostly it is the place visited that makes the experience so great.”

Keeping It Cool

There are, of course, several reasons why patch skiing hasn’t become a more mainstream sport in Tahoe — even to the avid downhill skier crowd who rack up 100-plus day seasons in the winter.

Instead of driving to a ski resort parking lot and hopping on a chairlift, patch skiers must earn every turn they later enjoy by hiking up to 10 miles across rugged terrain to find snow. Sometimes the patches they ski are no bigger than a driveway, allowing for just a few quick turns.

“I think a lot of people underestimate how dangerous patch skiing can be. Oftentimes, accessing patches is extremely difficult. They’re usually at high elevations in precarious places, like under large cliffs in shady places at the top of scree slopes,” Bansak said. “When they’re in spots like these, it also means the patch can be steep and terminate with a non-forgiving vertical drop into rocks. Throw ice and scattered embedded rocks into the equation, and a lot of patches are no-fall zones.”

Not only does accessing and skiing snow patches require a high level of commitment and skill, the white at the end of the tunnel is usually not exactly the type of snow the typical skier or snowboarder would go out of their way to ride.

“Ideally, you may experience smooth corn snow,” Fargan said. “But there may also be less than ideal snow conditions, including anything from ice to mank to firm shark fins or man-eating sun cups.”

But to patch skiers like Fargan who haven’t missed a month of skiing in over a decade, aspects of the sport like the long hikes (the recent drought has certainly made them longer), heavy packs, and questionable snow are all part of the adventure.

“One of the coolest aspects of patch skiing is that the snow quantity, quality, and placement differ from year to year,” Fargan said. “Thus, you can return to some of the same spots for years on end and never ski the same exact patch twice.”

To connect with the patch skiing community, visit patchskiing.com.

 
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October 12, 2017