Cold. Dry. Light. Fast. Perfect. These are a few words that most accurately describe what Tahoe area backcountry skiers and riders have been experiencing for the past few weeks. It started before the Christmas holiday, ramped up through the New Year celebrations, and since 2013 every single day has been a powder day. Legs are sore, backs are stiff, but anyone who’s had a taste of the Tahoe backcountry recently is also boasting a grin from ear-to-ear.
A vast majority of backcountry objectives have seen tracks in the past few weeks as almost 100 inches of new snow has fallen in our greater area since the winter solstice. During this time cold temps have been keeping the snow in a refrigerated like state. High quality fluff has been found from the Sierra Buttes in the north down to the Carson Spur in the south. Even Tahoe’s monster runs down to the Carson Valley floor have seen a fair amount of action. In fact, it’s been so good, go-to backcountry shots like Jake’s and Maggie’s on the West Shore have probably seen more traffic in the past few weeks than they saw all of last season. It’s really been that good.
Since snow levels were low during our most recent storms and the cold temperatures have kept the snow so good a great deal of lesser skied options have also been seeing a fair amount of traffic. Getting off the beaten path has been essential to ensure you and your crew aren’t touching any other tracks, and thankfully when we have conditions like we currently have you can get a little creative in terms of where you want to ski. The East Shore and Carson Range hold some great ski descents that don’t commonly hold enough quality snow for long periods of time. But in the past few weeks the “Bear Scratch”, random shots in between Mt. Rose and Spooner Summit, and the big runs found between Monument Peak and Job’s have held what I would consider some of the best skiing in the greater Tahoe area. The latter are certainly the longest runs in our greater zone, and with dry snow literally down to the valley floor that means 4-5k+ foot runs of consistent powder have been on tap.
Other local favorites have also been filling in on Mt. Tallac, Angora, and on a host of other desired terrain. Steeps have been skiing well, but if anything they’ve retained a more chalky, biteable skiability, while the apron leading out of lines like “Halls” and “The Cross” have been the stuff we dream about all summer long. Thankfully those conditions have largely been in play for a few weeks now, even on terrain like the “Emerald Chute” and “Eagle Chute”, which often hold good snow for less periods of time due to their aspect.
As we approach mid month the typical Juneuary Tahoe corn cycle is the furthest thing from most peoples minds, although we are forecasted to warm up a bit in the next several days. The snow should still be more than good on protected north facing aspects, and if the evil E winds don’t strip all of our goodness away this week we’re looking at a solid snowpack with plenty of room to grow in the later half of the month.
Avalanche conditions have remained relatively stable in the past several days. The refresh we received last week has done wonders to our local conditions helping facilitate the near perfect skiing backcountry users have been tapping into as a result. However, be aware that strong NE-E winds have already transported snow as of Monday the 14th. Slabs have developed on most S aspects as well as on W and NW aspects. The evil E winds are forecasted to stick around through this week so as always stay up to date on current conditions through the SAC daily reports and be cautious about where you plan to ski.
By now I’m guessing a majority of folks have seen the now infamous Echo Peak avalanche video and response previously shared by the Sierra Avalanche Center (SAC) and Unofficial. If anything, these links are nothing short of teachable moments. As much fun as it is to backcountry ski in Tahoe there is no excuse for heading out without the proper education, gear and the knowledge to use avalanche safety equipment as well as make safe, informed decisions. Hopefully these links further prove the point that people commonly make mistakes and the community as a whole can and should learn from them. Thankfully no lives were lost in this incredibly ridiculous incident.
A final note of interest since the last State of the Backcountry report is Squaw Valley has finally opened their first backcountry access gate. Tim Konrad offered a great report on the opening of the KT gate, and before you go claiming that this is just a marketing scam, there’s no real terrain to access, etc. I think it’s prudent to meditate on the possibilities that may come from this action. In October of 2011 I wrote a piece essentially asking the question will Squaw ever open their boundaries? It’s most certainly true that the KT gate doesn’t offer all that much in terms of access to terrain while it simultaneously gives Squaw the ability to market that they offer a “backcountry” experience, all of us who are connected to Squaw in one way or another know KSL has brought change to the Valley since they took control of Squaw and that change will undoubtedly continue. I’d like to offer that many of these changes have the potential to both positively and negatively impact the feel of the mountain as well as the vibrant community that calls it home. That said, with such inevitable change I do hold hope that some of it can in fact be positive.
For example, what if there was a gate allowing access into Shirley Canyon and off the backside of Granite Chief Peak? Of course there are a host of safety issues that come with opening such terrain to the public, but if Squaw can learn for other successful examples in our backyard-Kirkwood, Alpine, Sugar Bowl, and around the country then perhaps we will have an accentuated Squaw experience where the lifts are also a means to give us a bump out to deeper backcountry terrain that’s otherwise very difficult to reach. If the greater Tahoe backcountry community-meaning local daily users and those who visit the area frequently- make our voices heard in a supportive fashion perhaps we can help shape that future. We all know KSL will at some point leave Squaw as that’s what their business model is built on, so if we are to inherit the change that has already come forth that’s also paving a reality of the future why not try and influence it to our liking with a long-term perspective? For now only time will tell what happens on the ground, but I do believe this first gate could be a very positive step forward. In the meantime, the good ole Tahoe backcountry has been going off and I hope skiers and riders can continue to grow their education to ski strongly and safely in times of such amazing snow conditions. It’s really been all-time out there and collectively I don’t think we could ask for anything more to kick off 2013 in style.
“State of the Tahoe Backcountry” is sponsored by Alpenglow Sports. Established in 1979, Alpenglow Sports is Tahoe City’s original mountain shop. Specializing in backcountry and Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, trail running, backpacking, hiking, camping, and the mountain lifestyle apparel, Alpenglow is always psyched to offer premier user-based customer service.
You can check into more regular “State of the Backcountry” conditions reports through its Facebook page linked here.
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Previous “State of the Tahoe Backcountry” Reports from the 2012-2013 season: