State of the Backcountry 2016-2017: Tahoe and the Eastern Sierra

Master of the snow barrel Jeremy Jones gets pitted in the Tahoe backcountry while photographer Ming Poon gets the shot.

State of the Backcountry 2016-2017: Tahoe and the Eastern Sierra

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State of the Backcountry 2016-2017: Tahoe and the Eastern Sierra

 

Enjoying that high elevation fluff in the Tahoe backcountry. Skier: Sarah Halas

Enjoying the high elevation fluff in the Tahoe backcountry. Skier: Sarah Halas

It’s the first day of winter and snow has been steadily falling across the American West for weeks. In the Sierra, the northern portion of the range just weathered its wettest fall in 30 years. You’d think that would translate to all-time conditions in the Tahoe area, but the multiple atmospheric river events came in far too warm to cover the range top-to-bottom. The precipitation has been good for the water starved state of California, and even though storms have had high snow lines negating most of our lake level terrain to come into play, the high elevation touring has been more than worthy and our season is off to a decent start.

Toby Schwindt and Aaron Abraham ski touring off Carson Pass.

Toby Schwindt and Aaron Abraham ski touring off Carson Pass.

Tahoe

Since my last report we’ve seen barely a few inches at lake level, and anywhere from 1-4’ feet at the high elevations of our forecast area. Of particular note was a recent unfortunate avalanche incident that claimed the life of a skier who was hiking and skiing in a closed portion of the Mt. Rose ski area. My deepest condolences to friends and family members grieving from their loss. Skiing in steep terrain, with intense high elevation precipitation and winds, the storm slab failed on a deep persistent weak layer (PWL) of facets located at the base of the snowpack. Because of intense rains below 8-8500’ feet, this faceted layer is located more so above 8500’ feet predominantly on N and NE aspects.

Above 8500' feet is where to go to find the goods in Tahoe right now. Skier: Jillian Raymond

Above 8500′ feet is where to go to find the goods in Tahoe right now. Skier: Jillian Raymond

Overtime reports indicate that this PWL has become much more difficult to trigger. Wind slabs from recent storms had been an issue, but have also largely subsided in recent days. After our most recent storm avalanche activity did take place, again in the Mt. Rose area after intense wind loading and skier weight was added to a slope in steep, complex terrain. The overall take home for now is that largely avalanche danger is low, but there remains pockets of instability scattered throughout our forecast area. I can attest to skiing in the southern portion of Tahoe off Carson Pass recently where slope tests indicated good stability, and the skiing in protected areas was phenomenal. However, a party that skied on a more exposed, steeper slope near my crew released an unstable pocket that could’ve been very harmful if a person was standing or skiing in the wrong spot. Stay aware, stay informed, and make good decisions out there. We’re still skiing a relatively light snowpack for our area (we’re at 60% of average for the snow year right now), and although there’s some fun terrain to enjoy right now recent winds, gradient spikes in temperature, and general weather funk has left some lingering instabilities out there.  

The best thing about the big winds the precede major Tahoe storms is the surf. Surfer: Scott Gaffney

The best thing about big winds that precede major Tahoe storms is the surf. Surfer: Scott Gaffney

Terrain wise we’re still largely working with our high elevation access points. Thanks to this most recent storm our southern portion of the forecast area received a nice blanket to compete with the deeper snowpack found in the north. Carson Pass is finally starting to look like itself and is skiing well where the winds did not strip or ravage snow quality. You still want to use the help of the pass and start your tours above 8k feet, but at least there’s a base to work with in the area. To the north the most dependable touring remains in the Mt. Rose area. I swear the greater zone up there has seen more skier traffic in the past few weeks than most small ski areas get in a year, but it’s a good thing you can always find a fresh panel if you’re willing to walk a little bit farther beyond the easily accessible, low-hanging fruit.

Master of the snow barrel Jeremy Jones gets pitted in the Tahoe backcountry while photographer Ming Poon gets the shot.

Master of the snow barrel,  Jeremy Jones gets pitted in the Tahoe backcountry while photographer Ming Poon gets the shot.

Eastern Sierra

It’s always good to get down south from Tahoe and go for a tour on the Eastside. The season has been even slower to get going in the Central and Southern Sierra, that is until the most recent storm that came in and actually helped out these more southern portions of the range more than the north. While Tahoe and the Northern Sierra are hovering in the low 60’s as far as average snow for this time of year goes, reports in the present give the Southern Sierra as much as 81% of average. Mammoth got crushed with multiple feet from this most recent storm event, but as it goes, the winds came with it and sent a lot of that snow where none of us would like to see it.

Slowly, but surely, Eastern Sierra terrain is starting to fill in. Here's a shot of the East Face of Mt. Gibbs and the edge of the classic terrain off the Dana Plateau.

Slowly, but surely, Eastern Sierra terrain is starting to fill in and turn rideable. This is a shot of the East Face of Mt. Gibbs and the edge of the classic terrain off the Dana Plateau.

On a recent mission in the Mammoth area backcountry my partner and I experienced a host of diverse snow conditions, from full on prime steep skiing, squishy powder, to hard  slabs, ice, and even some wind slabs with nothing but facets to the ground at around 11500’ feet. Some tourers have had fun in the Virginia Lakes region, but the overall story is more snow is needed here just like some lower elevation snow is needed north in Tahoe. Before you head out it’s good practice to check out the ESAC site for the latest in snow and avalanche activity.  

Keith Davis gets walled in a skinny couloir near Mammoth Lakes, CA.

Keith Davis gets walled in a skinny couloir near Mammoth Lakes, CA.

The good news on all fronts is there’s snow, touring is happening, and while nothing is phat in the now, there’s a good looking forecast on tap that will hopefully play out for the upcoming holiday week. The storms don’t seem to track too far south right now, but each day confidence has grown that Tahoe will get a good cold dump out of a system set to arrive this Friday, and more storms are lined up into New Year’s Eve. Of course I’m hesitant to mention this activity since it seems we’ve had more hype than snow on the ground so far this season, which is why never count it until you’re skiing it. But when you’re in the backcountry making the most of whatever’s there is always worth the effort. Hopefully these upcoming storms deliver, instabilities break down, and we greet 2017 in style. Happy Solstice and cheers to the real start of winter in the Sierra!

Unofficial Networks State of the Backcountry Reports from the 2016-2017 ski season:

Antarctica and Tahoe (NOV)

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