There’s nothing like May in the mountains. The morning air is crisp, but by afternoon the growing intensity of a late spring sun can have you going from ski boots to flip-flops with ease. While the vast majority of ski resorts have closed, and many skiers and riders have put their skis and boards away for the season, May can bring some of the most enjoyable conditions of the season. Just look at California this past week- face shots in Tahoe, five-star corn on the Eastside, and it’s been dumping on Mt. Shasta.
Picking up from the last State of the Backcountry report, the PNH Alaska season wrapped up in style, Tahoe continued to offer great skiing at the higher elevations, and it was time to head off to Iceland. This was the first trip for Ice Axe Expeditions to this Arctic island nation and it won’t be the last!
As with any Ice Axe trip this too was the trip of a lifetime. I commonly find myself describing most of the trips they offer this way, but it’s absolutely true. Whether it’s Antarctica, Svalbard, Greenland or Iceland, there’s a definitive feeling one gets before, during, and after these trips that’s hard to put in words. Like the incredible cast of individuals I’ve met while working as a guide for Ice Axe over the years, the 2016 Iceland trip was more of the same. With an international cast collecting in the seaside town of Isafjordur, we boarded the Arktica sailboat with Captain Siggi and set sail to explore the NW corner of the country known as the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve.
Iceland is a special country, and the Hornstrandir is unique in and of itself. It’s a landscape that is accessible by boat and plane, but only non-motorized ski touring is allowed. As a unit our days were spent touring from one fjord to another, starting by boat each morning with a zodiac drop off at shore. From there we would ski what looked good, eventually dropping into an adjacent fjord where Siggi would be waiting to pick us up.
The terrain was accessible for most any ski tourer -from steep couloirs to mellow bowls, and the snow quality was other-worldly. Perfect corn fired for hours on end with no real expiration until the sun dipped below the mountains. Coming from California I respectfully don’t think many other places are on par with corn skiing in the Golden State. That said, I have never been anywhere where corn, and I mean real, high quality, just barely soft on the top of a frozen base kind of corn, is available for multiple hours of each day. You could be skiing a ripe carpet as early as 10 a.m., and still have the same quality at 6 p.m. The sun never really set on our trip, but I will say as soon as direct solar rays left a given slope a refreeze would start immediately. Good thing there was plenty of good food, stellar people and fun to be had on the boat.
As with any ski trip the snow and terrain are crucial, but the people are what make it memorable. Our crew of ski pirates were as jovial as they come, and Siggi made sure we enjoyed every second of our time on his boat. Ice Axe Expeditions will be offering Arctic expeditions to Iceland, Norway, Greenland and Russia next season in addition to the upcoming Antarctica trip this November. Please be in touch if you have interest in any of these mind-blowing trips.
June is a week away and there’s plenty of skiing and riding left in the high reaches of the Tahoe backcountry. The higher elevations have seen about 500” of snow this season (above 8k on the Crest), which is a bit above average, but after four tough years you can still feel the stoke rippling throughout our community.
Most of the access for ski touring at lake level has been gone for quite some time, but the passes and several ski areas are holding, and will keep holding well into June. The weather has been tricky so far this May with a moody mix of transitional snow, classic corn, and even a few powder days. This past weekend more than a few people laid into a face shot or two, and with the reset buffing out wherever snow continues to be stuck to local mountains you better believe the turns have been more than good. Carson Pass is arguably the best bang for your buck right now, especially touring towards the Round Top side. Desolation Wilderness is getting burnt lower down, but again up high there are still plenty of prime panels if you’re keen to go for a nice long walk. Spots around Donner Pass such as Sugar Bowl are also faring reasonably well right now, especially after this most recent storm. It’s going fast, but as the biking and climbing conditions get better by the day, a lap or two on snow remains in play for those looking for a few more turns before the onslaught of summer.
As much as I appreciate ski traveling and my work guiding away from home, every late spring my mind is glued to any workable windows for skiing in the Eastern Sierra. This season has been a good one, with classic lines coming into play as early as November, and terrain from the far north to the far south seeing tracks all season long. May has been relatively stormy on the Eastside, but with access via high elevation passes and snow continuing to fall as I write this, there’s going to be some fun turns to be had in the Range of Light for a couple of weeks.
A recurring theme of this season in the Sierra has been the farther south one goes, the less snow that becomes available. However, up high coverage has been solid, and currently remains good even as far down as the Southern Sierra. On a recent tour beyond the Sierra Crest, towards the West Slope and into King’s Canyon National Park it was interesting to see just how much snow was sticking above 11k. Expect to walk on dirt from most every trailhead, but again, as soon as you get above 10k and 11k the landscape transforms. Not every line you might want to ski has enough snow, but it’s guaranteed that there’s something worthy out there if you go with an open mind.
Of course the passes are in great shape right now, providing the best on snow access with a host of diverse ski touring opportunities, although Sonora Pass is temporarily closed (as of 5/24) due to weather. Tioga and Ebbett’s Pass just reopened. Coverage off Tioga is good on both sides of the road, and with the addition of Saddlebag Road’s recent opening there are plenty of turns to be had in this mega classic area that will last well into June.
All of this talk of making the most of the end of the season in Tahoe while the Eastern Sierra keeps delivering and I haven’t even touched on Lassen and Shasta yet. Reports from those northern reaches speak to reasonably fat conditions with a recent reset and more snow in the forecast for the week.
Although this is the last full State of the Backcountry report for the season, I’m looking forward to keeping the turns going through summer and fall, getting up to Lassen and Shasta in the coming weeks, as well as making the most of what’s left here in Tahoe and down south on the Eastside. Thanks for enjoying this ongoing effort with Unofficial Networks, every year I’m full of gratitude to keep sharing the stoke with a sense of support and inspiration to our greater snow sliding community. Stay fired up wherever you choose to spend a little time on the mountain in the coming weeks/months, in the now the time is right to keep those snowy dreams alive for a few more sessions!
Unofficial Networks State of the Backcountry Reports from the 2015-2016 ski season:
Tahoe and Nevada (JAN)