Skaters each year hope to experience the thrill of ice underneath a full moon. Last winter, the Tahoe area had great conditions for two separate full moons.
Winter 2011-12 had the best outdoor ice skating conditions the Sierra Nevada has had in at least a decade. South Lake Tahoe resident Gary Cross said he skated nearly "every day for two months. It was the best game in town."
The formula for a great skate is pretty simple: A long cold snap and not much snow.
"You don't want those intermittent warm periods," said Jan Null, a meteorologist with Golden Gate Weather Services. "Ice forms during the nighttime hours. In the daytime you don't want to get very far above freezing. You want nice layers to form rather than a significant melt in between so then you get fractured ice and all sorts of stuff like that. You want an extended cold period. That's probably the biggest thing."
The lack of snow kept open Tioga Pass, the eastern entrance to Yosemite National Park, in the early winter, and Cross had an epic, full moon experience on Tioga Lake 28 days after skating under the full moon at Baron Lake.
"Watching the sunset, I said it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, then the moon rose over the lake," Cross said.
Christmas Valley's John Hirschfield was raised in San Francisco and learned to skate as an adult after his boss, Dr. Terrence Orr, rented the South Lake Tahoe Ice Arena for a night for his employees.
"Most of us had never played before," said Hirschfield, who soon after joined the city recreation hockey league. "I immediately went out and bought gear and took some lessons."
He ventured outdoors to skate three years ago during the one week when conditions were good. He went a couple of times two years ago, and then came 2011-12.
"We just went nuts with it," he said.
"What was unusual about last year is we didn't have wind," said Chris Proctor, who grew up in Indiana and began playing hockey at age 35. "I have never seen outdoor ice that smooth. Usually there are ripples and uneven surfaces and frozen debris." Proctor was skeptical when Hirschfield suggested they take their hockey nets, barbecue grill and families to skate at Grass Lake off of Luther Pass. The conditions were perfect and again the day was a winter highlight.
"It got to the point where we didn't even want it to snow," said Hirschfield, who also skis, snowboards and last year took advantage of the conditions to do some human curling.
"I sent my daughter and her friend (in a chair) the whole length of Lilly Lake," he said. "The kids loved it. ... They don't like going to the rink that much because they've gotten so spoiled outside."
Outdoor skaters need to take safety precautions. Backcountry ice skating is not advised by the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.
"I know that people do it," spokeswoman Lisa Herron told the Tahoe Daily Tribune last winter. "We don't recommend it because it's very dangerous."
Cross said ice should be at least 2 1/2 inches thick before it can safely hold a person. He carries an ice pick around his neck and carries a kayak throw bag with a 50-foot rope.
"Just like backcountry skiing, you are in charge of your own rescue," Cross said. "You definitely want to have rescue equipment. ... You want to go in the morning before 10 a.m. Something that is safe at 6 in the morning is not safe at 2 in the afternoon."
Cross listed some of the lakes he skated last year: Kirkwood, Baron, Caples, Tioga, Silver, Immigrant, Roundtop, Woods, Fourth of July, Eagle and Lilly.
Bill Martin, chief meteorologist at Oakland's KTVU-TV, said he skated at a lake near Squaw Valley last New Year's Eve when the conditions were as good as they were about a decade earlier when he skated at Donner Lake. Both winters were La Nina seasons.
"Typically (La Nina) means more of your storms will be derived from the high latitudes, Canada," Martin said. "So it's a higher, colder air mass, especially early in the year. When you have that kind of pattern it sets you up for ridiculously cold nights. There's very little moisture in the air."
Martin said to expect a more typical weather pattern this winter.
"You get more wet storms with midlatitude air mass - they are coming off the water," he said. "The strength of that El Nino is yet to be seen but this year it's (setting up) to not be an incredibly great pond skating season."
Regardless, outdoor skaters shouldn't be shut out this winter.
"If you are willing to travel, there's always somewhere where the wind blows just right and keeps the snow off of it," Hirschfield said.
"Two winters ago when we had that huge winter, Cascade Lake wasn't holding snow and there were hockey games out there until the end of February. So it's almost always there. Sometimes you have to work for it."