Eastern Sierra Backcountry Snow Report – January 29th, 2016

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

Howdy Skiers and Snowboarders, Just a quick update because we are getting lots of questions about recent backcountry conditions. Storms have been frequent and relatively small lately, but every bit counts. snowsurveyAt this point the snow surveys are saying we are at just below average (93% of average to date) snowpack for the date in Sierra south of near the northern Yosemite border. The problem with this estimate is that it does not factor in that there is very little snow south of Mammoth Lakes below 9000 feet and below 7500 feet there is virtually nothing. So El Niño looks to be shaping up to become an El None Yo for the southern part of the range. Here at the end of January, we are not holding our breath that we will be able to ski down into the depths of the deepest valley in North America, the Owens Valley. Before we abandon all hopes for that though, we still have another month or so to bring the Eastern Sierra snowpack up to average for all elevations. Any average year historically tends to gives us epic 6000-7000′ high mountain decents into the desert through the month of March. As for quality and distribution of skiing and riding, the backcountry populus is starting to finally venture more frequently outside of the Upper San Joaquin drainage/Owens River headwaters near Mammoth-June, and Virginia Lakes, without having to treat it like a late spring sage bash. Places like upper McGee Creek, Convict Lake, Lee Vining Canyon, and the Sawtooths have adequate snow cover at this moment with variable to decent conditions and lots of reef poking out. The best snow has been cold powder at middle elevations, where wind has had limited effects and the sun has not been working on it during the past few days of warming, and also at upper elevations in sheltered terrain features where wind has been lightly filling in gullies and the widespread 1-foot avalanche crowns from the last storm. As I write this, mountain conditions are changing rapidly. It has been raining this morning up to at least 9000,’ with dense snow above that. Hard to say how much snow we will lose down low from the rain before the freezing levels drop later tonight or tomorrow morn. p168iIn any case the meteorologists do expect this to be a decent 2 part storm series through Monday, producing the biggest snowfall totals (~3+ feet up high) that we have seen since around X-mas. We could use a dense heavy snowfall up high and down low to build the base back up at those elevations. January has been very dangerous in the US from an avalanche perspective. Things will likely get dangerous here soon. Be sure to check out the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center snowpack summaries to help you know what you may be getting yourself into.

Check out some photos from the last couple of weeks to let you know the state of things before this next storm does its thing…

Conditions today at the Dana Plateau. Skier: Sean Haverstock Posted by Sierra Mountain Guides on Thursday, January 28, 2016


  1. Hi Howie, Jim King here. Just finished the Kearsarge Pass snow survey, and Piute Pass earlier in the week. 93 % of average snowpack for the date is a little ambitious for the central Sierra. We are seeing closer to 60% to 75% or less (50% of April 1st avg.) for the Feb 1 measurements. Look at the Dept of Water Resources snowpack website, latest snow measurements for an honest picture. The Kern Plateau is no better. It seems like a lot of snow, because almost everywhere is finally skiable, but the last 4 years have messed with our perspective. Yesterday, friday, the east side of Kearsarge Pass was pretty tough skiing, due to high winds and warming temps. Just above Onion Valley there were some good rollers and wet slides on east facing slopes. We will be going into Bishop Pass area on Monday.
    We ran into a fellow named Jay from Montana about 1/2 mile above Onion Valley who was doing the PCT solo this winter, no caches. He had been skiing from Kennedy Meadows for the last two weeks, coming out for a re-supply. We gave him a ride to Bishop.

    1. Author

      Thanks for that info Jim. That 93% report to date (52% of Apr 1 avg) is actually what they designate the Southern Sierra in their report – which is apparently an average from around the northern Yosemite border and south throughout the range. I have no doubts that we are actually much lower than that anywhere south of the San Joaquin drainage and we appreciate your first hand, and more accurately detailed, account from the Kings and Kern. It seems to me that the average might be even less, similar to some of the other recent drought years where most of the snow is really above 9-10,000 feet. This current storm rained up to 10,000 feet in Mammoth so It seems like we may have lost significant snow at lower elevations. Let’s hope it’s not an El None Yo year after all!

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