We may not have the several feet of snow we all wish we had right now, but even with the thin conditions daily skiing is happening in Tahoe, and there's enough going on in our snowpack to warrant the first State of the Backcountry for the 2011-2012 ski season. State of the Tahoe Backcountry 2011-2012: Preseason Edition | Unofficial Networks

State of the Tahoe Backcountry 2011-2012: Preseason Edition

State of the Tahoe Backcountry 2011-2012: Preseason Edition


State of the Tahoe Backcountry 2011-2012: Preseason Edition


We may not have the several feet of snow we all wish we had right now, but even with the thin conditions daily skiing is happening in Tahoe, and there’s enough going on in our snowpack to warrant the first State of the Backcountry for the 2011-2012 ski season.

I was trying to hold off on the first Unofficial backcountry report for the season until we got a major dump, hoping that at some point during this November we’d have at least some taste of the Snowvember conditions we relished in last season. Remember that? I do. I bet you do too. Shots like this one were going down all over the place well before the official first day of winter last year.

But with every new season a new adventure is born, and truth be told the real reason to kick of this years State of the Backcountry series is because there’s some very real issues to be aware of as Tahoe’s backcountry ski season unofficially gets underway.

But before we get into that portion of things let me at least say that there is snow on the ground, and depending on where you choose to earn your turns, from north to south, the greater Tahoe area has something to offer backcountry skiers and riders at present. Last week I was able to score some great powder turns and some nice couloir skiing in the Carson Pass area, which lies at the southern end of our local Tahoe backcountry zone. A full report was published and speaks to the fun that was had, as well as the prevailing thin conditions.

Tom Waclo Skiing the Hidden Couloir, Round Top, Carson Pass 11/15/11

Since then a disturbance impacted our area and left several inches of new snow. More snow fell to the north of the forecast area than the south, and backcountry skiers and riders have been treated to several worthy days of shredding as a result. Turns were had in several locales including but not limited to Sugar Bowl, Castle Peak, the Mt. Rose area, Tahoe Donner, Squaw, and Alpine Meadows. The photos that accompany this report, besides the shot from last year and last week off Carson Pass, were taken at Alpine Meadows. Several shots are courtesy of skiing with the Alpenglow Sports crew.

I’d have to say that even though Sugar Bowl seems to have a bit more coverage, and overall conditions remain thin, Alpine is still holding some great powder turns.  The laps I was fortunate to share with the Alpenglow crew were super fun. A few sharks were snagged, but we mostly experienced soft powder turns, enjoyed a beautiful sunrise,

and even laid a few tracks in a fun chute that was deeper than anything else experienced on the mountain.

*Special Note-if you choose to tour up at Alpine before they open for the season there’s lots of work being done to get the mountain ready for opening. You can expect workers on snowmobile’s, snow guns blasting, and large machines operating at all hours, and all over the place. Keep a watchful eye, be courteous, and give the AM employees respect. Throw’em a waive. It’s amazing that we’re able to ski the mountain before operations commence and they deserve as much good energy from us as we get from being able to ski while they work. 

With last week’s fun to the south and this week giving us a bit more options on where to go get a few early season powder turns our low snowpack doesn’t seem all that disappointing seeing as it is still November and all. That said here’s why the meat of this preseason report is being published now:

People like to backcountry ski and will foreseeably plan to ski tour this holiday weekend. 

Ultimately, it’s unofficially ski season. There’s enough snow and cold temperatures to (probably) allow us to ski from here on out (with added storms of course!), even though our very own Unofficial Weather Guy (backed up by several other reports) is calling for a very dry period from now until late December-early January.

The biggest reason for a preseason State of the Tahoe Backountry is there was noticeable instabilities existent on our second lap at Alpine Meadows on 11/21/11. Lap one, three, and four were fine due to the chosen route. However, the instabilities noticed on lap two coupled with recent observations made by our very own Sierra Avalanche Center (SAC) points to a necessary caution that is advised for current backcountry travel in the Tahoe area.

Here’s a great short video of an extended column test (ECT) performed by the guys over at SAC. The “Hourglass” is a very common backcountry hit by many in the North Shore Tahoe backcountry community, but as the video shows, and I’ll soon support with evidence from skiing at Alpine, there is a weak layer in play for Tahoe backcountry enthusiasts. The clean fracture the tester is able to get without much of an effort is simply scary.

If you are a local or common visitor to the Tahoe area and backcountry ski/snowboard there is no excuse for not checking this link  everyday. Even if you’re not out touring that day or won’t be for several days/weeks it’s helpful to keep an eye on what is currently happening in the snowpack. Reading these reports will not take that much time out of your day and will help you gain a stronger understanding of not only what’s currently happening with our snowpack, but how conditions have changed and are changing. Currently our advisory speaks to moderate danger on E-NE-N-NW aspects with considerable pockets of danger on N-NE aspects 32 degrees and steeper, above and below treeline, above 8k feet. Here’s what the Alpenglow boys and I found on this exact slope/aspect Monday.

After our first lap were regrouped for lap two and started skinning up a N slope. As we got closer to the top the snowpack got increasingly thinner and I dug this hasty handpit.

In both of these shots understand that I was able to easily bush the new snow away off the top of a reasonably hard slab that you can see as it protrudes out over the brown area in the photos. The brown area is ground, and above it, below the crust is nothing more than sugar. Not the type of conditions you want to start the season out with.

As we crested the top of our run and switched over it was very clear the wind had been transporting snow onto the slope we were about to ski. Even though we had a glorious sunrise the wind was blowing steady and at the top of the mountain visibility was consistently milky.

With caution Jeff stepped out onto the observed bulge of windloaded snow and broke off this very clean slab.

Notice how clean the break is and the obvious slab on top of the crust layer. It’s the exact situation we are anticipating in our greater area right now as the new snow from the weekend consolidates and forms a thicker, more cohesive slab to lie on top of the weak crust layer. This will be a very easy point of release for skiers and riders to trigger in our backcountry. 

It can always get worse, so please be cautious as you dust off your touring setup for the 2011-2012 season and get ready for another amazing year of backcountry snow sliding in Tahoe and the Eastern Sierra. We’re staring things off in a bit of a different mode than the last few years, but we have the knowledge to share with our community so safe decisions are the only ones we’re making to maximize our collective fun factor. The reality is there’s snow on the ground, we have an invaluable resource in SAC, and with proper risk management we should all be hootin’ and hollerin’ at each other enjoying another season skiing the best mountain range on the lower 48. Just take it slow as we move into the season, enjoy each step up and turn down, and keep an eye out for each other. Be strong in your decision making and have fun! I hope to see you out there!



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