Happy New Year and Holy Storms! Since the last State of the Backcountry report conditions have changed dramatically across the American West. Specifically for Tahoe and the Eastern Sierra, the New Year has brought a wave of storm activity that some are claiming has the potential to be “historic” (See Photo 2). In my opinion, what’s currently happening in the Sierra Nevada feels more like how is used too with a formula that reads something like all time-storm of plaster, followed by 12″-18″ of light, dry snow, with a bluebird window thrown in for good measure as the snowpack settles. But nostalgia aside, the weather has been real in the Sierra for the past week+, and there’s no doubt the backcountry skiing has been as good as it’s been in years.
Of course with crazy storms that carry big winds, and massive amounts of precipitation instability issues are bound to be found. Before we go there, let’s take a quick look at what’s gone down since the Winter Solstice. A safe call would be 9′ feet of new snow above 8k feet in the Tahoe area, but above 8500′-9k feet as much as 8 feet has fallen this week alone. It’s been one storm after another, and the forecast calls for more snow well into next week.
There are two major issues at hand right now. One is a persistent deep slab instability issue, and the other is a major atmospheric river with extremely high snow levels that’s currently impacting the region. After a week of sublime powder skiing, it’s a bit sad to write this report as rain splatters loudly on my metal A-Frame roof, but by Sunday snow levels are forecasted to drop, and Tahoe could see 10’+ feet of new snow by next Wednesday above 9k feet. The Eastern Sierra will hopefully fare better with its higher elevation terrain, but the Sierra Nevada as a whole will see rain as high as 9500′ feet before the colder air arrives on Sunday.
Over the past several days the precipitation forecasts have been entertaining, alarming, and downright silly. My favorite is the one above that shows a peak of more than 28″ inches of liquid falling in the Lassen area. The previous storm model had peaks situated in the Sierra in the low to mid 20’s as far as water goes. Regardless, whatever way you look at it, there’s an incredible amount of precipitation set to cover the Golden State.
In terms of snow, in Tahoe, we’ve had gorgeous storm days all week with deep powder skiing before our latest storm brought as much wind as precipitation. As the week progressed we went from colder, fluffier snow, to wind pressed, rocket-fast powder across the greater forecast area. Stability has jumped all over the place with some skiers and riders pushing it a bit on steeper terrain, but most backcountry users sticking to lower angled slopes due the ongoing hazards present in our snowpack.
Wind slabs combined with top-heavy, upside-down snowpack characteristics frame backcountry ski conditions in the upper portions of our snowpack for now. As the warmer systems come in this weekend rain will further facilitate an unstable snowpack in the short term, but there’s a glimmer of hope with this rain. We’ve had a deep slab problem for more than three weeks now in Tahoe thanks to a rain crust from December 15 that has accompanying facets lingering deep in our snowpack. With multiple feet of new snow on top of this weak layer, and more liquid weight being added to the snowpack at a rapid pace the results could be catastrophic if that layer were to fail. On the flip side, water reaching this layer and breaking it down would facilitate a more uniform snowpack.
It’s been a great season so far in the Sierra. More backcountry terrain is opening up to spread users out, and in Tahoe people are about as fired up as they could be feasting on powder day after powder day to welcome 2017. We have a ton of weather on tap, and tricky avalanche conditions to contend with moving forward. I shared the above video for two reasons. One, the SAC deserves our support as much as possible. They do such great work, please consider supporting them in whatever way you can. Two, that is one scary PST (and crown photo) that people should see to be aware of what exists in some areas of our snowpack (and yes Andy is the man and the falling column is pretty funny too).
Hopefully the rain percolates through the snowpack, largely consolidating these weak crystals, and rids us of this scary layer. And hopefully the cold air arrives early on Sunday so we get a nice blanket of fresh on top of a more locked-up, uniform snowpack. Regardless, as a great band once said, “you know it’s gonna get stranger, so let’s get on with the show.” Be safe, be conservative, storms are on their way and it’s never a bad call to wait to ride something questionable for another day. We’re so lucky home feels like home again, enjoy it, and have fun out there!
Unofficial Networks State of the Backcountry Reports from the 2016-2017 ski season:
Antarctica and Tahoe (NOV)
“State of the Backcountry” shares stoke through: