State of the Tahoe Backountry 2011: XI

State of the Tahoe Backountry 2011: XI

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State of the Tahoe Backountry 2011: XI

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This cover shot is of my buddy Jeremy airing into the “The Cross” on Mt. Tallac via the “Elevator Shaft” entrance. The sun may have reeked some havoc on all our new snow this past week, but in reality there’s some amazing local skiing to be done right now and we’re looking at a pretty phenomenal spring season in the Sierra thanks to this historic snowpack.

Since the last Unofficial State of the Backcountry I-80 was closed for over a week; it snowed over 200 inches on the upper mountain of Squaw; and California Governor Jerry Brown has announced an official end to the state’s almost three year drought. Since the water content in California’s snowpack is at 165% of average you’d think just about everything in the Sierra is as fat as can be. Truthfully, as my ski partner Jeff and I found earlier this week, that may be the case in Tahoe, but the Southern Sierra isn’t in quite as caked a state as you might think.

Coming back from an all-time backcountry ski mountaineering trip to Cordova, Alaska (much more to come from that journey soon) and hearing about, then seeing, and finally, skiing, all the new snow in Tahoe right before the sun came out last Sunday, we figured a trip to an Eastside 14’er was in order. Rallying down to Mt. Williamson, Jeff and I trudged our way through some serious bushwhacking before we gained a prominent snowline. Negotiating a new route on the mountain for both of us we got slightly off route and realized at around 12-13k feet that things weren’t as deep as we hoped. Making the best out of the situation we dropped into a descent of over 6k feet and were treated to smooth powder, porn, a little corn, and then immediate slop.

The roller balls were unlike anything I’ve ever seen as the lower elevation snowpack was just pure saturated water. This photo shows scale of Jeff jumping up on a huge one that ripped during our descent (he even made a turn on it).

However, the mountains out of Bishop looked as though they were a bit more filled in and the snow level definitely changed for the better as we continued to cruise north through the Mammoth area. The coverage looks much prominent in these parts and I hope to have a more intimate report on backcountry skiing in this region sometime soon. Tahoe, on the other hand, has been dealing with a different issue.

Coverage in many parts of the Basin is in fact phenomenal. However, the warm temps have made for a lot of snow settlement and really interesting ski conditions. Since we’ve lacked a proper freeze to help solidify a still largely unconsolidated snowpack, the quality of skiing is very dependent on what aspect you choose to ski and when you choose to ski it.  Great turns were had on the east shore this week, but the major test was skiing multiple different aspects on Mt.Tallac with its unbeatable diversity of local backcountry terrain. This shot is of Jeremy skiing Grade-A corn at about 9:30 a.m. en route to one of our primary objectives for the day.

The “Center Chute” on Mt. Tallac is a line that comes into play only in fat years like this one. But before I can even share anything on this line I’m forced to make mention of the advisory I first wrote in my initial State of the Backcountry article many posts ago that speaks to knowing what you’re getting into before skiing anything in the backcountry, choosing your descents wisely with regard to your personal ability and knowledge, and holding no one responsible but yourself for whatever choices you do end up making while skiing in the backcountry.      

That said I’ve been eyeing this line for a long time since the bottom half is “commonly” skied after skiers and riders exit the “Hanging Snowfield” off Tallac’s Front Mountain Chutes. The top looks like a beautiful walled descent, but rarely, if ever sees enough snow to warrant a thought about skiing it. Getting to it is an adventure in and of itself and really, even with all this new snow, it’s a line purely reserved for billy-goat pursuits. You know how Squallywood has a few lines that have multiple stars reserved for billy-goaters with perhaps one star for non billy-goaters? This is one of those lines-a 4/4 for those who are and 1 or even 0 for those who aren’t. Walking on rocks, small airs with exposure and tight technical turns characterize the top half of this descent before it eases off and opens up towards the bottom.

The line is shown here dead center. The Off Chamber Chute and Hanging Snowfield Line sandwich “Center-Chute” on the lookers left and right.

Here’s my POV of Jeremy as he gets into the goods,

and a nice shot of him right before it opens up.

After the adrenalin subsided from “Center Chute” Jeremy and I headed up for lap two on the seldom skied West Couloir. Another rarely skied line, maybe it has something to do with the ice bulge still extremely prominent ¾ of the way into the coulior(after 700+ inches this season!)? It’s easily passable with a quick rappel, but without a rope that makes things a little more difficult.

The ice is not the coolest thing to find once you’ve already committed to the descent, but luckily there are three ways to exit the coulior proper. The second exit also had ice in the exit (!?!), but the third way out was “clean” and manageable. Definitely another line worth scoping many times over before descending-it’s not that it’s the steepest line out there but there’s some technical knowledge necessary to exit it properly without getting into an unnecessary epic.

Our last lap of the day came in “The Cross” where we skied some beautiful powder in the top half before some creamy corn in the alternate chutes off to the riders’ right, which allows the snow slider to link up three walled lines in one continuous run. A fabulous day out in our great backyard, but the lower half of the mountain was pure slop by the time we were traversing back out to the car.

That’s kind of what we’ve got going right now in Tahoe-some great skiing to be had with some truly variable conditions depending on where you choose to leave tracks. In the past week I’ve found ice and pure manky unsupported snow on west facing aspects, smooth powder and porn on N-NE shots, perfect corn on SE lines, and sticky deep slop on true south. With this small disturbance brushing us by this Saturday afternoon look for things to hopefully settle out as of Monday. Sunday night we should get a real freeze and hopefully that will help us even-out. The spring skiing should be great next week and while everyone should be on the lookout for variable conditions depending, remember with ample snow and warming comes massive wet snow instability issues. I noticed MANY LARGE cornice failures from the top of Mt. Tallac looking into Desolation. I’ll also share this one shot of Cracked Crag Jr. and the massive debris and crown leftover from what looks to be a pretty large recent slide.

And yes, 89 is currently buried under a ten foot high, 60 foot wide slide that ripped earlier this past week. Be careful out there, watch the weather and avalanche report as things change these next few days, and get ready for what should be about as good as a spring as any snow slider could ask for in the Sierra. It’s already been an all-time winter so we might as well add an all-time spring into the mix in arguably the best place on earth for spring skiing.

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