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  • John Giuffo

Rain Day Loonacy

A love letter, of sorts, to skiing in the rain.

Even an inexpensive disposable poncho can help the bold make the most of a rain day. Photo: John Giuffo

The alarm rings and I grab my phone to check if the forecast has changed since last night. Nope, still 100 percent chance of rain at 9am, 11am, 2pm. I turn over and snooze for another half hour, because there’s no reason to rush for first chair – or first cabin in this case, as I’m headed to Loon to do gondy laps during a freezing rain Nor’easter.

Wake with the second alarm, then skip the shower (there’ll be enough of that soon enough). Pack a second pair of snow pants, an extra mid-layer, and an extra shell; I’ll need them. Curse myself for not putting them through a Nikwax cycle to rejuvenate the waterproofing. Dig out my bees-waxed Kinco gloves – they’ll be my primary gloves today, but I’ll need my regular gloves as a dry backup. I grab two face buffs – they’ll act mostly as water catchers until they get saturated and begin funneling rivulets of ice water down my spine. Make sure all of my electronics (camera, batteries, extra power source) are in Ziploc bags. Pack an extra baggie for my wallet, keys, and a few other dry essentials.

There’s a lot of extra preparation required for Northeast rain days, but I’m pumped: I know the snow will be soft, the lifts will be empty, and I’ll have fun despite the weather.

Skiing in the rain isn’t for everyone, and for those brave enough to get after it during a downpour, there are different ways to navigate the difficulties of a super-wet day. No matter how fresh your DWR, how much you’ve paid for those Gore-Tex pants, or how well you think you’ve prepared, unless you’re wearing lobsterman gear, you will get wet – there’s no avoiding it. There’s a zen achievement level to unlock when making a resolution to face down a winter rain storm. We must adapt our expectations and comfort levels. There won’t be any glade skiing, I won’t get in 20 laps, I probably won’t make it to last chair, and it’s going to suck at times – and I’m okay with that. As Bruce Lee said, “Be water, my friend.”

Gondolas make rain days much more manageable. Photo: John Giuffo

Most ski gear has some sort of DWR, or durable water repellent, built into its layers, but water-resistant membranes are just that – resistant. They aren’t waterproof, and two hours of 37-degree rain will permeate almost anything. Even those disposable plastic ponchos purchased at the base aren’t foolproof, though they are a solid option that will at least keep torsos and crotches dry. For a while, anyway. And we can’t forget the utility of a good old Hefty bag.

The drive from my hotel to Loon’s Octagon base is less than 15 minutes but I leave myself a half hour, take it slow and throw my Jeep into 4-wheel-drive mode – the roads are still partially covered with compacted slush and ice even though it’s been raining all night, and I’m losing traction occasionally even though I have winter tires. The walk from the parking lot is treacherous, despite a ton of sand spread everywhere, and I slip for what will be the first of four times before the day is done. This is on the borderline between dedicated and crazy, I tell myself.

But by the time I’ve booted up and climbed aboard the gondola, I’m itching to get out into the rain. I join three guys who drove up from Massachusetts and the conversation turns to the growing pains surrounding the state’s new recreational cannabis dispensaries, and the inevitable changes coming to the rest of the Northeast. My kind of guys. The gondy is running slow today but nobody minds; it’s a quality over quantity kind of day.

I step out from the top station and I’m immediately deluged. The cold water hits me like an October swim. This is it, I tell myself. This is what I came here for. Rain skiing requires both physical and mental preparation, and I psyche myself up for roller coaster of challenges ahead.

These people get it. A little preparation and a little plastic sheeting go a long way. Photo: John Giuffo

Flying Fox and Picked Rock, two of Loon’s popular frontside blues, are fast and grippy. The snow is so good it seduces me to let loose and rip, and I make wide, arcing turns. The South Peak is closed because of the rain, but that’s fine as my plan was to stick to gondola runs. Normally I’m indifferent in my chair preferences – I like fast detachable bubble six packs, slow two-seaters, gondolas, trams – they’re all good. But nothing beats a nice, enclosed lift on a rain day.

I’m enjoying myself so much, I ditch the gondola-only plan and head over to Flume, beneath the North Peak quad, and I strap in for the carwash ride back up. By the time I reach the top, my legs and lap are soaked through, I feel an irresistible urge to pee and lament the fact that I’m not actually swimming in October, when at least I’d have the option to pull off a stealth wade-pee. Still, I’m having fun, so I just hold it and take a couple more laps before I head into the lodge for relief, some chili, and a Sip of Sunshine at the Paul Bunyan Room.

There’s a fire blazing off to the side of the lounge, and people take turns sitting in front of it for a bit after they come in from the rain. I let my gear dry over by the baseboards, and take my time. I get the chili in a bread bowl, because it’s a bread bowl kind of day. Rain day lunches are great for responding to emails, returning phone calls, and meeting other rain day ski junkies. I talk to one local family who get up on the hill every chance they get, and their 10-year-old daughter boasts that it was her 30th day skiing so far this season. School was closed because of the ice storm, but that didn’t stop these parents and their badass kid from getting their laps in. I congratulate them for crushing it at ski parenting.

We all have our reasons, we January rain-skiing and -riding maniacs. Some of us have booked ski trips months in advance, and we’ll be damned if a little rain is going to get in the way of our good time. Some are daily ripper locals who are going to get out there and get their laps no matter what. Others, like me, might just be passing through on a ski road trip and are looking to make the best out of a bad situation.

Looking upslope from a rain-streaked window in the Paul Bunyan room. Photo: John Giuffo

No one actually wants to ski in the rain, and we’d all prefer if the rain just stayed the hell away until April like in other ski regions, but that’s not where we live. It’s not who we are. And no matter what anyone says about skiing in the rain, ripping down groomer snow in the rain is fun as hell. A little bit of spring corn in January isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Yes, it wreaks havoc on snowpacks, and yes, if they come too frequently they can lead to a sort of regional depression, where a million East Coast skiers cry out on social media in collective pain and desperation, but midwinter rain happens. Every year. So we might as well face up to it and try to enjoy it.

At least, that’s what I tell myself after my almost-two-hour-long lunch as I’m pulling on my helmet and gloves, in my second pair of snow pants. I get back on the gondola, rip a couple more laps, then head over to the Kancamagus chair. I’m well and thoroughly soaked again, but I hardly notice it – I’m having too much fun. Loon’s mountain ops team does a bang-up job of keeping their signature groomers in great shape, and the well-churned groomer snow remains fast and slarvy all day. There’s a minimum of the type of stiction that can happen in oversaturated natural snow, and it’s the main appeal of a day spent on the snow beneath a giant shower head.

The White Mountains peek out from between rain cloud layers. Photo: John Giuffo

If you can get past the saturated gloves, the always-slightly-obscured goggles, the sometimes-tricky snow conditions (rocketing from a groomer onto a trail covered in wet natural snow can result in a radical change of speed), it’s a fun day out on the hill, and it’s the sort of character-building experience that gives us credibility as do-it-all Ice Coast skiers and riders. And there’s an overwhelming feeling of self-satisfaction that comes with spending a day in the rain skiing – a sense that we’re just a little bit hardier, a little sturdier, than the rest. And it’s a feeling that stuck with me until I walked back out to my car and wiped out – twice – on my way across the icy parking lot. The only bruise was to my ego, but hey, we’re skiing in the rain here – it’s not gonna be all rainbows and puppy farts.

© 2018 by ICE COAST MAGAZINE.

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