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Winter, a fickle beast at nearly 6,000 feet

A winter of bizarre weather comes to an end.

The lead character in the story of any ski season is weather. Some seasons are remembered for deep powder. Others for lack of snow. Looking back on this winter on the cusp of spring, the best word to describe it is bizarre.

Take last Friday, for example. Skiing, snowboarding and thunderstorms was the bizarre juxtaposition at Mount Spokane. Those who chose to participate were treated to a spectacle of thunder, lightning and rain.

Mountain management keeps a close eye on such things and guests were cleared from the chairlifts and sent indoors before the storm hit. But some lifties and maintenance crew could not abandon their posts. Several lift towers on chair No. 4 were hit by lightning. Employees reported hearing energy crackle through the tow rope. One felt a charge when she picked up the phone.

From best to the worst, Mother Nature has thrown a little bit of everything at us. Most people take a look at the forecast and decide whether to risk her wrath. Those who keep the hill running don’t have that option.

I’m a member of the Mount Spokane Ski Patrol. During my shifts this season I’ve seen the full spectrum of winter weather – sometimes all in the same day.

At Mount Spokane, the snow is soft and the turns are good more often than not. However, this has been a schizophrenic season. I arrived on duty one recent Saturday evening to be greeted by a blizzard that filled in tracks as I cycled through runs. Coming back out after dinner, the temperature had risen abruptly, turning snow to driving rain that persisted through the night. Another shift began with snow, only to morph into horizontal hail that felt like a face full of buckshot. Near the end of that night, a lightning warning crackled over the radio.

The most dramatic fluctuation in conditions occurred on successive Saturdays as March roared in like a lion. Ambient temperature was about five below zero the night of March 1. The wind was sustained at about 30 miles an hour – a chill factor of 33 below. We were swaddled in masks and layers. If you held your poles riding the lift they would draw away any heat remaining in your hands through the gloves.

A week later the temperature was nearly 50 degrees warmer. Strong wind accompanied soaking rain. We were waterproofed, but the snow was not. Turning on skis was like stirring the oil into a new jar of natural peanut butter.

As patrollers, we endure the freakish weather because it’s our duty. We have to be there because no matter how bad it gets, people will always show up to ski and ride. I tip my hat to them.

The weather has settled down now. I’m looking forward to carving arcs in classic spring corn under blue skies and sunshine. The parting shot of a powder storm won’t be unexpected.