State of the Backcountry 2016-2017: Antarctica and Tahoe

State of the Backcountry 2016-2017: Antarctica and Tahoe

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State of the Backcountry 2016-2017: Antarctica and Tahoe

With the penguins at watch below, Andrew Eisenstark drops into an afternoon buffet of prime Antarctic corn.

With the penguins at watch below, Andrew Eisenstark drops into an afternoon buffet of prime Antarctic corn.

Hello Skiers and Riders! December is here and that means it’s time for another season of State of the Backcountry! In the spirit of years past, this season will be more of the same, sharing real-time condition reports and stoke from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to wherever winter takes us. Remember that backcountry skiing is an inspiring pursuit, but having the proper education to safely play in the backcountry is absolutely essential. Make sure you take the time to acquire this knowledge, explore terrain with competent users who have practiced avalanche eduction for extended periods of time, and you not only get the proper gear for staying safe in avalanche terrain, you learn how to properly use it. Skiing the backcountry is a long-term pursuit. There’s always another day to ride that line, and in the meantime there’s always ways to deepen your skill set, get smarter, and practice making decisions that are good for you and your snow community.

The 2016 Ice Axe Expeditions Antarctic Ski Cruise: Ushuaia, Argentina and Antarctica

Photographer Court Leve enjoying a walled beauty outside near the Martial Glacier. Ushuaia, Argentina

Photographer Court Leve enjoying a walled beauty near the Martial Glacier. Ushuaia, Argentina

Is there a better way to kick of the ski season? I think not, nor does anyone else who has ever been on the Ice Axe Antarctic ski cruise. Yes, it’s a spendy one, but as it stands to this day, I have yet to meet anyone, regardless of whether money is abundant, or if they saved for years, who has gone on this trip and not said anything less than “trip of a lifetime!” Even the guides who have been on this expedition multiple times as well as the most far-off trips in the world rave this is the best of the best. The people, the place, and yes, the penguins are over the top. Skiing almost ends up being a bonus to the overall experience, but don’t get me wrong, turns in Antarctica are as unique as they get.

Ski tourers head out the great Antarctic spine garden.

Ski tourers head out to the great Antarctic spine garden.

Starting the trip in Ushuaia, Argentina the crew is able to collect, meet one another, and ski tour off the nearby Martial Glacier. The backcountry terrain around Ushuaia and the greater Province of Tierra del Fuego is worth a trip alone. Last year I stayed in town after the Antarctic trip to explore the area for another week. You’d think after being in as wild of a place as Antarctica you’d be ready to scoff at skiing anything or anywhere else immediately after, but that just speaks to the fun of the surrounding terrain. Logistically, a quick taxi from downtown Ushuaia brings you up the base of the small ski area that’s always shut down for the season when the Ice Axe crew is in town, and then it’s either a skin or quick walk to snowline before you can start touring. Mellow bowls, wide panels, and splitter couloirs dot the terrain for users to choose. It’s the perfect way to prepare for one of the most epic ski experiences in the world to the frozen continent.

This year the crossing of the infamous Drake Passage was pretty tame, both on the approach and return. Some people celebrated that, while others were not so impressed. After all, the cruise ship is built to withstand the worst of the worst, and the ship’s crew is among the best of the best. Oh well, we had to settle for smooth sailings, almost perfect weather, and some of the best ski conditions we’ve ever experienced. Last year we got some surprise powder. This year there was some quality cold snow and the ever-present mixed bag, but there were also some corn turns that would impress the most jaded Californian corn snob.

The skiing is like nothing else in Antarctica. But then again, so is watching sunsets like this one from the back of the boat en route to the next location.

The skiing is like nothing else in Antarctica. But then again, so is watching sunsets like this one from the back of the boat.

Words and photos can not do this trip justice. The overall experience sets it apart from the rest, from Argentinian adventures, to life on a massive boat with a bunch of skiers, to skiing with penguins.  It’s a trip of a lifetime and plans are already in place for the November 2017 expedition. If you’re inspired to try and make this trip happen at some point be in touch. Details about the next Antarctic mission, April’s trip to Greenland, and all the other Ice Axe trips can be found here

Tahoe

Keith Davis made the most of this dawn patrol outing near the the Mt. Rose area.

Keith Davis makes the most of a dawn patrol outing near the Mt. Rose area.

Would you believe me if I told you that Tahoe has the most snow we’ve seen since 2010 right now?  By the end of November the Central Sierra Snow Lab shared that more than five feet had fallen so far this season, with 50+ inches coming in November alone.

We had a few good storms in mid-to-late October that offered several days of worthy ski touring conditions to kick of the true preseason. The snow had a thicker start and colder ending, which is what it takes for skiing to really happen in the Sierra. Plaster is crucial to cover all the steep, rocky terrain that makes the Rang of Light a premier mountain zone for snow sliders across the world. We all love cold smoke snow, but without a base it can be tricky to access safe, good skiing. As October moved into November colder air has brought snow to Lake level-always a welcome sight, but in the high country and overall more coverage, preferably of the thick variety is necessary to really get things going.

Toby Schwindt enjoying a banger start to the season with a casual day trip from Tahoe to Mt. Shasta

Toby Schwindt enjoying a banger start to the season in Mt. Shasta with a casual day trip from Tahoe.

The North side of Lake Tahoe has fared a bit better than the southern half of our forecast area so far this season in terms of snowfall. Our higher elevation access spots are still the best bets for where to currently tour-the Donner Pass area as well as the greater Mt. Rose area. Some other spots have started to come into play recently, but in all reality rock boards remain a good call wherever you choose to go right now, and major caution is advised if you do go out touring as low tide conditions are in full effect. Carson Pass has seen some tracks, but could still use a bit more especially as it’s commonly one of the locales around Tahoe that’s skiable earliest, and latest during any given season.

Snowpack wise it’s a matter of a shallow pack, combined with the most evil E winds that recently ravaged what snow was sticking to local peaks. Once you get away from the thin, but much more usable sections of the greater Tahoe area along the far Northern Sierra Crest and Mt. Rose zones to the east, the snowpack gets even thinner. Obstacles such as lightly buried rocks, tree limbs, and thin creek crossing exist all over the places we want to ski. Good turns could be found on sheltered N and E aspects until the recent wind event. There’s still some good snow out there, you just have to find it in those very protected nooks where the evil E didn’t blow it to Sacramento, and since the weather got a bit warmer on Sunday and Monday high elevation sheltered N-NW is really best. The good news is that we’ve had some snow to slide on for a few weeks now-so that’s always a reason to celebrate, but there’s also a hopeful change coming to our near-term forecast.

The high elevation snow north of Tahoe has been the best bet for ski touring so far this season. Here, Jeff Dostie enjoys another lap of the goods off Castle Peak.

The high elevation snow north of Tahoe has been the best bet for ski touring so far this season. Here, Jeff Dostie enjoys another lap of the goods off Castle Peak.

The past few days have been very dry and a bit warmer for Tahoe. The predominantly cold air took much moisture out of the snowpack helping many spots ski better as a result, but no precipitation, big E winds, and an overall thin snowpack has pumped the brakes on an otherwise solid start to the season. It looks like a series of systems are coming our way later this week and into the weekend. The forecast models point to  a big plume of moisture to drop in by Thursday night, the problem being that snow levels will be high. A couple of feet of base would be great up high, but we could use that down low as well. We’ll see what actually falls, but more precipitation is welcome.  Don’t forget to check out daily avalanche reports from SAC, and if you haven’t already, consider joining the Tahoe Backcountry Alliance. Here’s to hoping the storm delivers, and as always, for  a safe, fun season of backcountry skiing! 

State of the Backcountry” shares stoke through FacebookInstagram and on its homepage.

Click this link and be in touch if you’re interested in skiing Japan, Alaska, Greenland, and/or the Himalaya this season. 

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