Going to bed with clear skies or a little taste of flurries in the air, and waking up to bottomless pow-it’s one of the many great attributes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This Leap Year Wednesday was certainly one of those special days in Tahoe with reports of the best day of the year at Squaw, blizzard surf conditions on the North Shore (it wasn’t as cold as it looks),
and phenomenal backcountry ski conditions on the West Shore. The riding did come with a little extra spice though as the recent precipitation in the area, while beyond well received and sorely needed, must also be enjoyed with caution.
Going back several days our snowpack has been harboring a persistent weak layer on NW-N-NE aspects.On Monday a very cold system came into our area and dropped more precipitation than what was initially expected. The snow was exceptionally light causing a reported great deal of dust-on-crust conditions with quality skiing being found on low-angled slopes. After a break for most of Tuesday the current storm arrived and proceeded to bury the Tahoe area with anywhere from 18-36+ inches. A lot of the diversity in precipitation amounts is due to the huge winds that have accompanied this system loading and transporting a great deal of snow. All throughout Wednesday winds continued to blow and snow continued to fall.
By Wednesday morning the winds had really done a number on ski terrain above treeline. Wind affected snow was seen all over Jakes, but was especially prominent above the bench heading towards the top of the peak. Below treeline hasty pit observations showed a clean shear of new snow failing on the most recently developed weak layer,
while further tests illuminated the persistent crust layer found deeper in the snowpack. Jules found similar results with the added dimension of this persistent weak layer showcasing airy facets underneath the crust meaning the potential is very real for large avalanches to occur if the weight of this new snow breaks down into it .
Furthermore, when traveling above the bench on Jakes towards the upper portion of the mountain, while going from mellower to steeper more open terrain I stopped to proceed singularly across a questionable slope. One and a half steps in and the whumpf was loud enough to make my heart skip a beat. To my immediate right shot this crack,
while this one shot above me about 12 feet or so.
Another crack shot below me. All that said, from a risk management perspective there was a reason I wanted to attempt to cross the slope solo and knew it looked questionable and would probably show signs of instability. Once the instabilities were noticed we retraced a few steps, switched over, dropped down 30-40 feet safely, and the rest of our ski day was completely sublime as shown here by Jillian.
In reality the day was all about terrain selection and risk management. On the lower half of Jakes we observed decent bonding and got nothing to move. These observations were reinforced by other skiers and riders who were also shredding the mountain. If anything, away from the more dangerous slopes, the snow may have been a little much for the dogs who for surely could’ve used a snorkel,
but for me felt like I hadn’t skipped a beat from all the overhead face shots recently harvested in the world of Ja’Pow.
Jules was equally as stoked to have shredded KT all morning and made it to Jakes for a late afternoon backcountry lap to cap off a truly memorable day.
Overall, there’s instability in the interface between the new snow from this current storm and the lighter snow that fell on Monday, the persistent weak layer underneath Monday’s new light density snow that’s buried deeper in the snowpack, and on heavily wind loaded areas. All that said there is awesome backcountry skiing to be had, you just have to be very cautious, choose your terrain wisely, and enjoy the resulting bliss.
Looking ahead, for Thursday we should have more new snow from overnight snowfall and the possibility for a few more inches throughout the day. Temps will stay cold, but are forecasted to rise close to 50 degrees by the weekend. We’ve all been waiting for this thing called winter to show up for a while. Just remember it’s paramount to be safe first, then make sure you get some while the gettin’s good because right now is unquestionably the best conditions of the season!