Happy Groundhog Day backcountry skiers and snowboarders!
We have always considered Feb 2nd to be the best holiday of the year. It foretells us about the weather outlook and the extent of our winter backcountry season. For those who don’t follow the groundhog, it is a rodent, common to alpine terrain, closely related to, and sharing the same genus of, the Marmot. The groundhog comes out of his hole in the ground on Feb 2nd. Its reaction to the weather and all the human excitement, tell us in no uncertain terms about the weather we can expect leading up to the arrival of spring. This year… we can’t wait to find out if it will be over before it even begins.
The Sierra winter has been off to a dry and dismal start. Such a contrast to last year where winter and snowpack topped the record charts. Climate change is bringing its forecasted extremes to the planet. To hear us skiers and snowboarders whining about a dry season seems quite lame when there are still millions of people trying to get their electricity turned on in Puerto Rico. While we cursed the storm that unexpectedly spun itself away south of the High Sierra in mid-January, our coastal neighbors in So Cal were enduring mudslides in the aftermath of the largest wildfire in modern California history. So mountain lovers, let’s all relax. It is going to be ok. We still have our memories of last season, fresh in our minds and hearts. And, hey, there actually have been a few good turns in 2018 to date. More on that in a moment.
Now that we have things in perspective, let’s talk about the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad winter of 2107-18 so far. It has been bad enough that we haven’t had inspiration to write a backcountry snow report until February. Sorry, but just couldn’t muster one up until now. The harsh reality is that the Central-Southern Sierra Snowpack is at 25-30% of average to date, on a par with the winter of 2014-15, the driest, drought-iest, brown-est season on record. This time though we can’t really say we have had a very good winter for ice skating either. Just enough snow to cover the alpine lakes and too warm in the valleys. It’s been really warm. It’s 70 degrees F in Bishop as I write this. Average high temps in Bishop in January were 56 degrees and only one day that month did the high temp drop below 50 degrees. That means prime Owens River Gorge rock climbing season, but often too hot to climb in the sun. It also means that what little snow we have received from a handful of small storms has disappeared into the desert ether. At this time, there is nothing to get excited about to change things in the 14-day model forecasts.
On the bright side, in between periods of tired, thin, and weathered backcountry snow surfaces, we have enjoyed some wonderful fleeting spells of cold powder, warm powder, wind buff, and even winter corn, with generally somewhat stable avalanche conditions. The snow depth is currently 38″ at 9000′ on Mammoth Mountain and the skiable snowline is somewhere around 8800′ max and it is ‘adventurous’ at that altitude. Further south we are looking at a robust 15″ at 9600′ at South Lake with a ‘ski the minefield’ mentality anywhere below 10,000′. Even worse south of Bishop, don’t bother going there unless you enjoy ‘ski backpacking’ to couloirs.
This all means that the lack of storms has resulted in a perfect storm of having a high likelihood of encountering others in the backcountry. Many of these folks are still riding high on the stoke of last season and when it is on, the easy access backcountry has had a bit more of a frenetic vibe than most of us are accustomed to here in the Eastern Sierra. Realize that there are limited places to go right now with adequate coverage, good and untracked snow conditions, and easy access. Plan and prepare mentally to share the backcountry. Respect each other’s experiences and safety. Be kind to the mountains. Use this drought year to tune up your avalanche rescue and decision making skills and continue your lifelong educational journey toward becoming a more savvy backcountry rider. Visit the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center website where you will find a 7 day/week full-fledged avalanche advisory written by an outstanding team of forecasters for the main part of this season. Mammoth and north is the best bet for coverage and conditions and there still is some great snow out there if you know when and where to find it. Like truffle-sniffing pigs, that’s what we do here at SMG. Hire one of our AMGA/IFMGA certified ski guides today! Be safe, have fun, and hope to see you out there in the backcountry soon.
This report will be updated when and if something more fun and interesting to talk about emerges. ~ Howie