State of the Backcountry 2011: I

State of the Backcountry 2011: I


State of the Backcountry 2011: I


Happy New Year and welcome to 2011. As we greet the another year Tahoe has seen about four new feet of fresh since Christmas and around 300 inches since the season started. That’s almost as much as some ski resorts see all winter, and there’s still more than four months of quality snow sliding to look forward too. Some areas of the Sierra Nevada are at 200% of their average water content for January. Amazing.

Most backcountry skiing options are the Tahoe Basin are plastered with snow and have either seen or are ready to see some tracks. Although a few choice lines are still relatively bony (Halls of the Gods for example) a lot of worthy terrain is fully in, and it looks like we’re in for our longest period of stable weather since early November. Definitely time to follow or break a skin track this week with larger backcountry objectives in the north and south of California also at extremely high snow levels for this time of year.

Mt. Tallac offered my most recent evaluation of local conditions around the Lake. A host of skiers and riders had left their mark on various parts of the mountain, but the greater canvass of our massive local gem is still largely fresh. Taking in the views from the top the Crystal Range in Desolation is looking seriously caked and Pyramid Peak is looking prime for a 4k+ foot descent if anyone is looking to tick that classic of their list.

Thankfully the east winds didn’t blow quite as hard as forecasted on Monday. However, some snow was being transported on ridges and exposed areas, and the upper portion of Tallac had a lot of wind affected powder to slice through before the snow loosened up around mid-mountain. The quality was still very high as evidenced from the host of Truckee locals that shredded the North Bowl (9 of them at once!), and a few others who got in one of my favorite local couloirs in all of Tahoe.

“BabyCham”, as it’s known to many, is the cover shot of George Hurchalla’s local guide book that covers a good grip of backcountry terrain in the Northern Sierra. While the line itself is only 500-700 vertical feet the couloir is a tightly walled swath of snow that’s one of the more aesthetic lines in our area.  

After dropping the initial pitch that also serves as the easier entrance into “the Cross” it’s a short traverse to the top of the couloir. Here’s when the games begin because you can’t see your exit, and this is one of the few technical lines like this in our area the starts off reasonable (low 40 degrees), but gets steeper and tighter as you descend. The crux is a tight choke that sometimes is free of snow, harbors a funky snaggle toothed rock, and steepens to about 50 degrees. As of the first week in January the top of the couloir is pretty filled in, the rocks in the gut were almost fully covered, and the ski length strip of snow through the crux was totally manageable. It’s always fun to rip into the hero apron of glorious powder that awaits you upon exiting, and from here you can either put on the brakes to skin up for another lap, or drain it 2700 or so feet back to the car. Definitely some wind slabs to deal with in the couloir, but overall the snow was soft and pretty great for some really fun, steep turns.

While the evil east wind is supposed to hang around this week hopefully the speeds stay low as forecasted, and don’t strip too much snow off our nicely covered peaks. Continued settlement of the snowpack is expected as we move into this week as the sun comes out and no precipitation is expected. Look for temperatures to remain cold at night, with negative values for the next few days before we spike up to the teens as a low with highs in the thirties by the weekend. There should be some great cold snow in sheltered locations for the next several days with bluebird skies. The snow should stay good for a while with these conditions, and even more snow fell south of Highway 88 for anyone looking to head towards Luther, Ebbett’s, or the Carson Pass areas.

 And remember, just because we live in the Sierra and we’re heading into a “more stable” period in a “more stable” overall snowpack doesn’t mean backcountry hazards are about to disappear. There’s always risk management when backcountry skiing, hazards are permanently present, and it’s your observations and proper decision making that will allow the best evaluation to take place to ensure the greatest experience possible for you and your partners.

With skiable snow down to Carson Valley, Donner Summit buried, and the Eastside holding as much snow as it sometimes gets by spring the options are wide, plentiful, and looking pretty all-time as we roll into 2011. Let us choose wisely, take advantage of the above average snowfall that’s covered our greater playground over the past few months, and slay a few good ones while the conditions are prime.  Hope to see you out there!

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