Gamboling In The Silver State
How soon could I be in Nevada…?
Friend and fellow adventure photographer, Jeff Bartlett, sent a text containing this cryptic message. Jeff had been tasked with visiting Nevada to capture the essence of the Silver State’s great skiing for the region’s tourism board. When conditions allowed, he would need a skier on short notice to photograph in Nevada. On a random Thursday in late January, that lucky skier was me. Scrolling through flights, my expectations were amorphous as an atmospheric river slammed into the Sierras; I’d never seen Nevada coated in snow. Hours later, feeling rather like a high roller as I strutted down G6 with my ski boots, (the gate, not the plane) I boarded a small commuter jet bound for Nevada.
Arriving at Mt. Rose in the aftermath of a 77-inch powder storm that shut the resort down for 2 days – Photo by Jeff Bartlett
At daybreak the following morning, the bleary staff of Mt. Rose Ski Resort was attempting to uncover chairlifts blanketed in the weighty bounty of the 77-inch storm. The echo of heavy artillery reverberated between the peaks. Gazing upward, the sight of The Chutes loomed above us, perfectly untouched. Local skier and IFSA aspiring pro, Tyler Curle, offered to show us around his backyard. He giddily confessed he’d never seen the snowpack reach so high on the metal trail markers of The Chutes.
Athlete Tyler Curle playing the waiting game at Mt. Rose – Photo by Jeff Bartlett
Biding his time, Tyler exposed the nooks and crannies of Mt. Rose in perfect powder conditions. With an ear to The Chutes, we waited for the telltale ceasefire of avalanche control. Luckily, Tyler’s mom has worked at Rose for decades and frequent text updates kept us abreast of ski patrol’s progress. Those playing hooky filtered back to their cubicles and the resort emptied out. Around noon, anticipation cresting, we posted up near the thin rope line blocking access to The Chutes. Twenty minutes later: JACKPOT.
Run one of many on The Chutes of Mt. Rose – Photo by Jeff Bartlett
Hauling into the untracked steeps of The Cirque after the pummeling of such a storm is something I’ll never forget. The resort had been closed the two days previous, unable to open underneath the weighty load of such a tempest. Our timing was perfect and we spent the rest of the afternoon lapping the depths of The Cirque until close. Beginner’s luck. Our gamble to ski the storm had paid out handsomely and we made haste to double down on our next assignment: ski the Ruby Mountains by helicopter.
Killing time in Elko – Photo by Jeff Bartlett
The four-hour drive from Reno to Elko fueled our burning excitement to see the brand new Ruby360 Lodge. In business for over 40 years, Ruby Mountain Helicopter Skiing was unveiling their newly constructed lodge and we were to be the very first guests. As miles melted behind us, the burnished landscape belied the presence of the rugged snow-capped Rubies ahead. Some consider Nevada a wasteland, but there is beauty in the starkness of its rugged scenery. We crashed with our videographer, Scott Hargrove, at a motel in Elko, visions of powdered rubies dancing through our dreams.
If you’re feeling lucky there are liberal slots – Photo by Jeff Bartlett
Arriving in Lamoille, Nevada at dawn we were promptly introduced to our guide and an A-Star helicopter huddling beneath a thick gloom of grey clouds. We completed our safety checks, walked through the helicopter procedures, and toured the luxurious new lodge. Hours creeped by as we waited for the murk to lift. Nobody yet had ventured into the Rubies this season; the snowpack was an unknown and the guides had done no avalanche control work to open the season.
As the hours ticked by the realization dawned: we would not be heli skiing today. With the snowpack a mystery and the chopper grounded, our guide deemed the conditions unfit. We considered climbing the Terminal Cancer couloir, a classic descent nearby, but our videographer had forgotten a few critical items of backcountry equipment. In defeat, we hung our heads, bid farewell to the kind folks of Ruby Mountain Lodge, and returned to Reno — eighty-sixed. We’d lost this hand (and two whole days), but were ready to reveal Nevada’s next hand.
Ski touring off Mt. Rose pass with Lake Tahoe on the horizon – Photo by Jeff Bartlett
With temperatures remaining frigid, the return to Reno provided quick access to Mt. Rose Pass and unlimited backcountry laps overlooking Lake Tahoe. For two days, we sampled Nevada’s finest cold smoke off the pass and along the lower reaches of the east-facing terrain beneath the ski resort’s Winters Creek Lodge. Hesitant to quit the bountiful powder harvest, we reluctantly hedged our bets, turning our sights east to Route 50.
With deep snow conditions it’s most efficient to hail a ride and stack laps – Photo by Jeff Bartlett
Ample backcountry terrain is accessible via Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe in the Carson Mountain Range – Photo by Jeff Bartlett
On the road again, “America’s Loneliest Road” to be exact — Route 50 – Photo by Jeff Bartlett
Dubbed the “Loneliest Road in America” by Life Magazine in 1986, Route 50 crosses countless desert basins and towering, snow-capped ranges. The lowlands of sage brush and salt scrub garishly contrast with the blue hues of the jagged peaks above and an impossibly expansive sky. The incomprehensible landscape is dotted with ghost towns, skeletal peaks, a spectrum of earth tones and the everlasting ribbon of pavement; the undulating asphalt dulls the grasp on distance and time.
Nevada’s enigmatic singing sand dune – Photo by Jeff Bartlett
We stopped off at Sand Mountain, an unlikely 600-foot singing sand dune of glimmering granite grains and the skeletal remains of Nevada’s once mighty glaciers. The lack of information available for current backcountry conditions prevented us from tapping out and we pressed onward down Route 50, oblivious to the fact that our objective to ski the Toiyabe Range was an ill-informed wager. As dusk fell, we realized the Suburban was low on gas and in the nick of time we glided into Austin, Nevada, Population: 192.
To our dismay, the entire town of Austin was in the midst of a power outage. The attendant at the one gas station in town informed us we were out of luck before promptly closing shop. With 64 miles to backtrack and 70 miles to the next town, we were stuck. We checked into a motel that would only accept cash by candlelight. Hungry and looking for food, we walked up the highway dumbstruck by the starlight of the spectral feeling of the powerless town.
Only one of the few establishments in town was accepting visitors. Illuminated by flickering candlelight, the 19th century saloon transported us back to an era before electric power. The irascible barkeep growled that there was no food and we realized we’d be drinking our dinner in Austin, Nevada. He barked unkindly at his wife to fetch another bottle of whiskey and we traded glances with the only other patrons in the bar, a group of hunters swathed in camo, in town for the chukar hunt.
The barkeep, a Serbian immigrant, railed endlessly about “Barak Hussain Obama”, made jokes about Bill Clinton’s fidelity, and espoused the greatness of the Trump Pence ticket. Jeff, a Canadian, kept shooting me incredulous glances. In the eerie light of flickering candles, stranded in Austin, powerless, and hungry the ‘Loneliest Road in America’ had taken a sinister turn. Wanting to capture the ridiculousness of the moment, Jeff asked me to step behind the bar for a photo where the drunk barkeep promptly attempted to plant a kiss on my face. We left, the sparkling stars in the inky blackness and our empty bellies distracting us from the uneasy sensation of being stranded in such a desolate place.
Soaking the disappointment away – Photo by Jeff Bartlett
Morning dawned crisp and with the power restored we fueled up with great efficiency and left Austin in haste. Despite the gnaw in our bellies, we returned to the ribbon of pavement to search for food elsewhere. As the miles stacked, it became apparent that the razor thin snowpack in the Toiyabes would not support backcountry travel. Spenser hot springs soothed our spirits and we mused about the road trip’s unlikely odds.
The mechanism of storm chasing itself is gambling. Like a game of roulette with infinite outcomes, Mother Nature’s bounty can never be replicated more than once. If there’s ever a question to spin or pass, go forth and spin. Our memorable trip was punctuated by the incredible highs of skiing the Carson range after a historic snowfall, the lows of botched helicopter skiing, and plans gone awry on America’s loneliest highway. Unlike in gambling, a travel inconvenience or failed itinerary is simply an adventure incorrectly classified, rather than a loss. Although if you apply a gambler’s logic, a losing streak must end in a WIN. I’m looking at you Ruby Mountain Helicopter Skiing…
Someday I’ll return to Nevada and test my luck yet again; in the meantime, I’ll practice my poker face.
What happens in Nevada…