Howdy backcountry skiers and snowboarders!
Wow, what a run we are having. Snow conditions have been incredible for almost 4 weeks now. Aside from immediately after the mega wind event that destroyed the snowpack and many trees in the Eastern Sierra just before X-mas, the powder has been light, fluffy, and cold, from boot top to waist deep. Avalanche conditions have been mostly manageable this season to date, other than a couple cycles of disconcerting direct action avalanche activity.
This “Godzilla El Niño” season is supposedly just getting started, but we have to question whether it will live up to the hype. Even in average years in the last couple of decades the weather gods have kicked things off with at least one classic Sierra 6-10 footer with snow accumulating in the Owens Valley between November and mid-January. The biggest we have seen so far are 1-3 foot dumps on the Sierra Crest. While being able to ski in places like the Sherwins and Deadman Summit is a welcome improvement over last season, our backcountry snowpack is still pretty lean overall. For comparison, records from Mammoth Mountain (9000′) show that in the then record drought year of 2012-13 the end of January still logged 34″ of snowfall. This season has 20″ so far near the middle of January.
Though it is true that it is too soon to be really complaining, and we should be grateful for the excellent snow surfaces we have been enjoying, and that we should be patient because there is still plenty of time, we should also recognize that the state of the Eastern Sierra backcountry is tenuous. The snow coverage is very limited geographically and to mid-upper elevations. South of Mammoth, the skiable snowline is beginning to climb up mountainsides to above 9000′ in many places. The solar aspects are still unrideable in most Eastside locations. Use is concentrated due to more psyched backcountry users and limited available terrain. If we get a typical June-uary thaw or big north wind event, the options will become even more limited. Recent upper level winds have already adversely affected the higher and more exposed alpine locations.
The good news is that small amounts of precipitation keeps showering the range and freshening up the surface and the forecast for the next week continues to show the same. The next chance for a big series of storms appears from the long range models to be around the 3rd week of January. Let’s hope that pans out. By mid-February we start to lose probability that snow will cover the high desert and allow for the big Sierra descents and tours of a nearly forgotten era.
It is great to see so many people getting out and enjoying the amazing snow conditions in the last few weeks. The stoke is high after 4 years of deprivation. Check your decision making, terrain assessment, and group management skills as the coming weeks may lead to some spooky snowpack conditions. The best way to stay on top of that is to visit the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center and read the reports regularly.
Here are a few highlights showing conditions since our last report. Enjoy!