SLO to ski: My storm-chasing adventure to ski the deep powder at China Peak

It seems to me that there are certain ingrained traits in people — whether it stems from genetics or upbringing — that just never go away.

One of mine, lying dormant since I arrived on the Central Coast last spring, has been reanimated big time over the past month or so — like a drought-parched oak rejuvenated by a long-awaited rain.

See, this too has to do with the pipeline of weather taking aim at California this winter — and the corresponding mountain snow.

Storms have drawn me to the mountains ever since I was a kid , and when I saw the epic proportions of snow forecast to hit the Sierra last weekend, there was nothing that was going to keep me away. I had to ski, to feel once again the rush of adrenaline that comes from being in high places with the cold on my face.

But unlike where I’m from, the Pacific Northwest, it’s not as easy as just jumping in your car when you get the whim and then making turns on the slopes a few hours later. This would take some creativity and planning.

And even though skiing may not be top of mind for most SLO County folks — it being at least a four-hour drive to the closest ski resorts — it’s not completely off the radar — this being such an active community when it comes to outdoor sports.

And yeah, it’s as easy as just renting a cabin or a room for the weekend in the mountains. But that’s more for the vacation set. In the spirit of the minimalist nature of the ski-bum mentality I grew up with — which I think surfers can also relate to — I wanted to make this trip all about the adventure.

As such, I decided to truly do it right. That meant car camping.

So I threw all my gear into my SUV on Sunday afternoon and pointed it east. After a stopover in Fresno for a bite to eat, I was climbing the Sierra foothills by evening headed toward Shaver Lake and then China Peak ski resort.

I’d been to Shaver Lake in the late summer, so I knew the landscape is stunning. But in the winter especially, the sudden change in elevation is striking. I hit snow it seemed just 30 minutes outside of Clovis.

As I motored through the quaint little village of Shaver Lake, it felt like I was the only car actually headed up the hill, considering the veritable blizzard I was driving through. That suspicion was confirmed by the response from a convenience store clerk as I asked for a snow parking permit: “You want it for tonight!?”

Not to belabor the point, but I’m an Oregonian. We’re used to this stuff.

Moving on, for your information, you can park overnight at snow parks, and I was headed for Tamarack Sno-Park, about halfway between Shaver and China Peak. Driving through the heavy flurries and through the canyon-like banks of snow on either side of the road, I’ll admit, was a bit dicey. So if you follow my lead, have all the proper gear, meaning a 4-by-4, traction tires or chains, shovel and appropriate survival gear.

I reached my destination unscathed and hunkered down for the night, embracing the solitude of complete darkness and the energy of the storm swirling outside my car. Another pro tip: come prepared with plenty of warm clothes, sleeping bags, blankets, etc., if you’re planning on ski bumming it.

My car was literally buried in the morning, but after a bit of digging out, it was a quick 15-minute drive to the resort.

And let me tell you, a bit of a restless, uncomfortable sleep (yes, I might be getting a little old for this) and a cold night was more than worth it for what awaited for me in the morning.

Two feet of snow had fallen overnight, and it was snowing still. The powder was, as they say, epic. Runs were getting refills all morning, and I fell right back into my roots, charging the double-blacks on The Face until lunch.

After a quick break for a sandwich, I was pleased to see the hard-working resort staff had dug out chair No. 1 to the summit, opening up a plethora of tree runs that reminded me of the vast backcountry on Mt. Hood. By the afternoon, chair No. 2, or the Peak lift, was going. And one quick run down the previously untouched terrain, and my legs were shot.

China Peak owner Tim Cohee later told me this week that this is the most snow they’ve had at the resort since the year he took over, 2010-11, when more than 50 feet were recorded. They’re at 23 feet so far, he said.

He did say, that while it may be great for powder junkies like me, it does come at somewhat a price with access oftentimes restricted, the expense associated with storm damage, and digging out from all the accumulation.

“If it slows down and we get more moderate snow on a somewhat regular basis, it could be a great year, as the last time we had a spring season was 2010-11,” he said. “We will clearly have a big April in 2017.”

To be sure, it’s a trip that’ll eat up the better part of a weekend, and that four-hour drive back to SLO after a strenuous day skiing wasn’t the most fun. But for all you snow junkies out there — and I know you are — the SLO-to-ski adventure is more than worth it.

Although I might just splurge for the room next time.


Where: 59265 Highway 168; about 90 minutes from Fresno, about 4 hours from San Luis Obispo

Contact: Resort phone (559) 233-2500; snow phone (559) 233-3330

Website: www.skichinapeak.com