Crazy year. After the biggest drought on record in California, we enter late spring with a series of storms, the last two of which are the biggest of the year to date. This weather is wackbards! It’s supposed to be high and dry in the summer/fall and stormy in the winter/spring. That’s what all of us high mountain lovers have come to expect and appreciate. The situation is out of sync, like a mountain guide trying to dance to 90’s hip hop music. It’s like mother nature just popped out another baby, and she’s terribly sleep deprived. Or perhaps old man winter fell asleep binge watching Downton Abbey back in December and has been hitting the snooze alarm with his elbow ever since. I guess we’ll just roll with it. What choice do we have? “Have a cookie… you’ll feel right as rain.”
The details are that the mountains are steadily assuming their summer form, but set back in timing by afternoon monsoonal cloud buildup accompanied by precipitation. Occasional frontal passages have been productive in the last few weeks. 2 storms that rolled through recently produced 8-18 inches of snow in the high country. This snow promptly melted off below 11,000′ but above that, on northerly aspects, the snow has lingered. This morning we are getting reports of 12 inches in the towns of June Lake and Lee Vining. Mammoth Mountain has about a foot of fresh at 9000′ at the time of this writing. Another 6″ is possible before days end. Mixed rain and snow is being reported in Chalfant (~4200′!).
What does this mean for alpine conditions and our mountain activities? First of all, Highway 120 over Tioga Pass, which just fully opened on Monday, is now closed. As are Sonora and Monitor Passes. Keep an eye on them to see when they might open again. Snow has closed access to many other Eastside mountain roads and trailheads, so pay attention to that as you make your plans. The Owens Valley bottom is soaking wet, and that hasn’t happened in a depressingly long while. Even the boulderers and sport climbers are going to be secretly glad to have a forced rest day for once. Alpine rock climbs are obviously back out of condition and high approaches are going to be brutal for a little while. The ice couloirs in the Palisades have been in good climbing conditions for fleeting spells this spring. For approaching them, snowshoes have been advisable (and I am loathe to advise them over skis in most circumstances, especially in early May). Currently, we are looking at some avalanche danger and continued rough approach conditions until we have a decent week or two of settlement and meltdown. Backcountry skiing is back in vogue if you don’t mind hiking your boards in and out some mileage. Steep, north facing lines can be worth the effort and highly enjoyable with good timing. Be savvy enough to assess the avalanche danger on your own, and err on the side of caution, as the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center is closed for the season. The amount of rain and snow tapers dramatically in the Sierra south of Big Pine. There are probably some PCT thru-hikers that jumped on the early start this season and are having to deal with some wintry conditions out there. Hopefully they are prepared for it.
May this be useful information for your upcoming trip planning. The Sierra needs every snowflake it can absorb at this point, so don’t fight it. Get out there and enjoy it!