Eastern Sierra Backcountry Snow Report – December 1, 2016

In Conditions Reports, Eastern Sierra Backcountry Snow Report, From the Range of Light & Fast by Howie Schwartz2 Comments

Hello backcountry enthusiasts!

Rock-tober becomes Snow-vember, and suddenly here we are, at the start of another backcountry season in the Eastern Sierra. We hope you all enjoyed that other part of the year where the remaining snow is generally unfit for sliding around on, assuming you have stayed here in the Northern hemisphere. Perhaps without the lure of backcountry snowsport, you were able to finally get some work done around the house, spend time with the family, and focus on your job performance. Well friends, that’s all over. You may now return to your regularly scheduled program of deferring your responsibilities to make your snowy Sierra mountain dreams a reality.

But before you send those boards in for a buff and grind, here is what you will likely find out there and why. We had two decent storm events in October that gave us a round of backcountry fun, but only for the most intrepid (or least self-restrained?) of jonesers. One of those is our own guide Mark Shelp who braved the Bloodiest of couloirs on Halloween Day and brought us back this report of some pretty decent skiing, notwithstanding the price of admission to get to it.

Through November, there have been isolated reports of ski-ability in the Mammoth Lakes area. Warm and windy November weather, and even a bit of rain, took a lot of the base away, leaving only crusty snow above ~9500′ on well-shaded aspects. Late November gave us another good 1-2 foot dump in the high mountains. It flurried intermittently in the Owens Valley in the town of Bishop but didn’t stick, though the Buttermilk Country got a good coating. North winds followed stripping and pressing the powder on the mountain sides holding the earlier base coverage.

What we have now is 20-70cm of skiable snowpack with variable surface conditions. South of Mammoth the snowpack is dramatically shallower, and pretty much unrideable. Thought there are a handful of possible places from Mammoth north where backcountry tours can be accomplished, we can currently only recommend limited backcountry touring high in the Mammoth Lakes Basin, San Joaquin Ridge, and possibly Virginia lakes where the snow is a bit deeper relative to the height of the ground cover and October snow has lingered to cover up more of the rocks and vegetables on the ground. Even in these places, you can expect to find marginal, early season conditions. Grab some rock boards and know how to use (and repair) them. Check your speed and don’t be afraid to bust out survival techniques like the falling leaf sideslip, the snowplow (aka ‘pizza’), and even the bootpack, to navigate the many hazards lurking under the snow. These are no conditions for the novice and realize that, due to Newton’s first law of motion, all kinds of chaos and consequence can ensue when boards stop much faster than the rider upon them.

All that said, one may find a late autumn cornucopia of decent skiing from shallow facet pow, to smooth windbuff, to disintegrating edge-able crust. Pretty good really, if you find the right line, but not a whole lot of it out there yet. Though avalanche danger is limited due to lack of sufficient snow cover, the consequences of an avalanche in shallow conditions can be damaging. Don’t get injured before the season even starts. Look out for shallow windslabs in exposed places where a small slide could take you for an unsavory ride. The Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center is gearing up to start their advisories very soon and the annual fundraiser event is this Saturday! Come out and support a fun and amazing event. We’ll be there as usual to help teach some avalanche awareness clinics during the day and help with the evening party.

The current 10-day forecast for the Mammoth area is generally for cool temps, breezy winds and possible light snow showers. We are just waiting for the one big breakthrough of the westerlies to put us in the storm track, hopefully before the Xmas holiday. Tamarack has begun grooming the road, and plans to open this weekend so that will make access to the Lakes Basin more reasonable.

So either get out there, carefully, and with beater gear or wait until the next storm which should be the true start to what we all hope will be another great season. Our AIARE avalanche courses are filling so get on it if you need some avalanche training. The most important piece of backcountry gear is your brain. It is free and costs no added weight to carry, but it is important to know how to use it so it doesn’t try to kill you. If you are thinking of hiring a ski guide on a busy weekend this winter or spring contact us soon as the most popular dates are filling fast. If you are interested in multiday ski touring or ski mountaineering programs later in the season, then reserve some dates now. All of these make outstanding holiday gifts!

Looking forward to seeing you in the Eastern Sierra backcountry this season! We will be updating this report weekly, or sooner as conditions may warrant.




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