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High Times at Low Tide in the Sierra

I’m moving as fast as I can. My headlamp is pointed down at the well-worn trail and my feet are in constant motion, almost skipping. The air is brisk, but I can feel droplets of sweat forming around my buff. My back is warm and moist against my pack. I’m not meditating-at least I don’t think I am, but my mind is clear, completely focused on putting one foot in front of the other. Maybe I am meditating? Regardless, I’m not thinking about the historic drought in the Sierra, at all.

Duncan Sission and Tom Waclo chasing early season powder in the Eastern Sierra Nevada

Duncan Sission and Tom Waclo chasing early season powder in the Eastern Sierra Nevada

Dawn is breaking. I start to see rocks strewn about the trail along with Western Junipers and Foxtail Pines at my periphery. I love the moment when you can put your headlamp away after a true alpine start. It’s a common practice for big Spring days in the Sierra Nevada-starting the day via headlamp, but over the last few years it doesn’t matter if it’s Fall, Winter or Spring. To get to snow, the stuff we want to climb and slide down, there’s been a lot more work involved. You need to follow and monitor storms more closely, know what part of the Range got what in terms of precipitation, and to get there you’re more than likely to employ artificial light to start the day because you’re more than likely planning to put in a higher than normal degree of effort to get there.

 

Back on the trail, with the first rays of another standout day in the Eastern Sierra, stashing my headlamp is the first moment I usually check in after the morning’s mad dash. I like to think that hiking in the dark is a good excuse to knock out a few approach miles when one is only partially with it, so by the time you can see beyond your headlamp it feels as though you’re already well on your way to achieving the objective of the day. While this is true, to some degree, this also the time when reality has set in for the California backcountry skier over the past four snow starved seasons.

Armed with motivation, place based knowledge and stoke, darkness implores an uphill trajectory. But when the beautiful golden light of a morning in the Sierra shows just how thin the snowpack is, the reality that you’re walking on dirt, not skinning, and it’s January, not May is too much to ignore. But the show must go on, and there has been snow to ski the past four winters in the Range of Light, it’s just that a majority of backcountry skiers and riders have chosen to head to the coast, rock climb, mountain bike, or engage in a host of other outdoor pursuits when normally they’d be skiing. That’s the beauty in living in a state where world class everything is only a few hours drive away. The problem with that mentality is it neglects the fact that even at low tide, there are high times to be had in the Sierra.

Skinner Brennan Lagasse_photo Tom Day_Sierra Nevada Backcountry

The Good Ol’ Days

Rewind to the winter of 2010’-2011’. After close to 600” the season before, this benchmark winter dropped well over 800” in the Sierra. People were complaining left and right about shoveling too much, how their snow blower broke down- again, and how much they’re looking forward to summer.

In early June of 2011, I recall getting blasted in the face, turn after turn, with snow so explosive it could’ve been a frigid February cycle in the Wasatch. I remember feeling so saturated with powder days that I was actually skiing other lines that I knew wouldn’t be powder. There, I said it. I’m not too proud to admit it. As a ski community, Sierra Nevada snow sliders had been blessed with so many powder days I was more drawn to looking to what was filled in that’s normally not. Yes, getting to ski a line in prime conditions is an ultimate pursuit, and the real truth is powder is a scarce commodity. But to be purely honest, the buzz that’s built by tracking a storm, anticipating accumulation, and going out and skiing it just wasn’t the same by the end of this particular season.

John Taylor making the most of low tide in the Eastern Sierra

John Taylor making the most of low tide in the Eastern Sierra

I recall one line in particular, on my favorite mountain at home in Lake Tahoe, that I had never seen skiable from the top. A friend and I had been doing laps on Mt. Tallac all day. We knew the tight, exposed, billy-goat sluice would be more than difficult to navigate safely, but thanks to the abnormally large snowpack and coverage on select aspects it was doable. After the business, the line opened up offering a few thousand feet of perfect powder skiing. That about sums it up for 2010’-2011’. Powder became a secondary thought because it was such a given that season, so long as you ski toured, it seemed there was powder to ski for nine straight months. My oh my how things have changed…

The Drought Years

It’s taken a while to set in-this whole drought thing and the Sierra Nevada being at a higher risk than many other mountain ranges in the lower 48 to loose seasonal snowpack depth, but that first year after our big bang of a season in 2010’-2011’ was a major wake up call. Sierra snow sliders went from more than they could ask for to less than 100” of snow above 8000’ feet in the greater Lake Tahoe area by mid February, 2012. Thanks to some late season love the season rebounded quite a bit, but the damage was done. People were over it.

The next winter the stoke meter seemed to be at an all time high. The memory of such a huge winter juxtaposed with such a poor winter seemed to have Sierra Nevada snow lovers uniting over the 2012’-2013’ season bringing things back to brilliance. The season started off pretty good too. There was roughly as much snow at the end of November as there was at the middle of February the season prior. The problem?

In Lake Tahoe, we measure snow starting at Lake level, which averages around 6,225’. Our high elevation access points can allow ski tourers to start more than 2,000’ higher, which is great, but when the skiing is good down to Lake level you know it’s on! In January 2013 less than one foot of measurable snow fell at Lake level and less than two feet were recorded at elevations above 8,000’. That February, even less cumulative snow fell. You can image how fired up people were to keep skiing that Spring.

After two poor years, communities in the Sierra were starting to feel the strain brought on by a lack of natural snowfall. If you added the total snow that fell over these two years together, the amount would still be about 10 FEET less than what fell during the 2010’-2011’ season. So was it that the big one was a fluke, and that these two years just happened to be that bad? In looking at historic data to better support snowfall measurements over the past five ski seasons it’s important to understand the Sierra once recorded a 900” winter back in 1905’-1906’, a storm that dropped more than five feet in one day in 1982, and in January 1991, more than 32 feet of new snow fell.

Toby Schwindt on another sunny day, Eastern Sierra Nevada.

Toby Schwindt on another sunny day, Eastern Sierra Nevada.

Armed with this knowledge and an understanding that some seasons are good, and some are bad in ski towns, much was riding on the 2013’-14’ season to break the poor snow cycle. By the winter solstice in 2013, Lake Tahoe had roughly 60” above 8000’. At Lake level, there was barely a flake of snow in sight. From December 20th until January 11th it didn’t snow a flake. That’s more than three weeks in a row with not even the slightest bit of snow falling from the sky. By the end of April, the Tahoe area was lucky to have counted about 300” for the whole year.

To say locals and visitors alike were “over it” at the start of the 2014’-2015’ ski season is an understatement. How would three poor years in a row do if the Sierra endured yet another poor winter? The answer is scary. Squaw Valley USA claims to average about 450” of snow per season. Last season they and the rest of the Sierra got less than half that amount. In fact, last year was by far and away the worst season of snowfall recorded in the Sierra Nevada in the last 100 years. On April 1st 2015, the Tahoe Basin was at 3% of its normal mountain snowpack. On the same day in 2011, the snowpack was measured at 213%.

Four years of drought has hit skiers and riders hard, but in extreme instances like these, the pursuits of snowsliders must be put in check. What about the fact that the Sierra normally supplies 30% of the state’s water? What about the Salmon that need cold water runoff to spawn? What about all the vegetation that’s used to tapping into snowmelt during the hot Summer and dry Fall months? What about all the businesses, especially the small ones that rely on snow for survival? And what about the vibe? Yes, you read the correctly, the vibe, the undeniably funky, special, unique vibe that comes with living in a ski town? Mammoth and the communities the make up the greater Tahoe area has this quality in spades, but to be blunt, there hasn’t been an overflowing pot of stoke to share since this drought started.

What’s Changed?

A lot. It’s subjective of course, as every mountain lover loves their home range too, but when the Eastern Sierra is on it’s tough to beat. Coupled with all the great skiing in the Lake Tahoe area and the incredible Spring season that’s normally a draw for skiers and riders all over the world, the drought years have taken a toll on the mighty Sierra. If you’re an intrepid backcountry user you might have logged a few days around the Bridgeport area, near Lee Vining, and close to Mammoth Lakes over the past few years. South of Mammoth, and especially south of Bishop, those majestic peaks have seen the least amount of snow of all. The ultimate point is if you were someone that has actually skied in these parts of the Sierra over the past four years, most people would be surprised.

John Morrison skiing low tide pow, Lake Tahoe.

John Morrison skiing low tide pow, Lake Tahoe.

In Tahoe, the idea of skiing to lake level has become a joke. The fact is the high times being found at low tide in the Sierra has a literal interpretation at play because in order to ski anything worthy high elevation access has become a must, whether you’re in Tahoe or on the Eastside. Skiing below 7500’ was next to impossible last season in Tahoe, and while that rules out much of the classic local terrain, like what’s happened to the south across the Eastern Sierra, to get to the goods the only way has been to be more on it with weather systems, strike when the iron is hot, and do whatever one can to stay fired up.

 

Instead of dreaming about the 4000’+ descents available when Tahoe is really on, or the monstrous descents in the Eastern Sierra that average more than 7000’ a run, the concentration has been to use every high elevation access point-from Tioga Pass to Donner Pass, and make something happen. The truth is, the past four years have been abysmal, but as you can see from a few of the photos offered in this piece, the dedication to making the most of whatever falls from the sky has never been more prominent for Sierra skiers and riders than now.

The author at low tide. Lake Tahoe. Photo Jillian Raymond.

The author at low tide. Lake Tahoe. Photo Jillian Raymond.

Godzilla and the Hype Train

The moral of the story? Never waste a powder day. But for real, it’s been a search the past four seasons, using the highest elevation access points across the Sierra, but not necessarily being guaranteed anything but a pretty walk in the mountains. If you’re of the super minority viewpoint that since the Industrial Revolution, the resulting emissions that have come as a result to progress are negligible, I urge you to either better educate yourself or at the bare minimum acknowledge that the only people of that mindset are informed by a very narrow, ideologically suffocating perspective. Yes, the climate of the earth has fluctuated greatly across its history, and yes, since the mid 1800’s humans have exacerbated the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In fact, with less precipitation and higher recorded temperatures over the past few years, and the historically low snow year in the Sierra from this past season, researchers are now claiming the Range’s snowpack is at a 500 year low. Not only that, but the message from the Nature Climate Change Journal is this is something that is likely to continue in years to come.

Climate change may in fact be the end game for more than just skiing in the Sierra, but in the present, whether it snows 200” like last season, or 800” like in 2010’-2011’, as long as it snows, there’s something to ski. There have been powder days in the Sierra the past four seasons and good ones at that. The numbers don’t lie that it’s been far from the all-you-can-ski powder buffet many locals know the Sierra for, but of all the lessons and issues that have surfaced during the past four drought years it’s become clearer than ever that if you’re motivated enough there’s somewhere in Sierra that will get you inspired. You might have to walk for it, you might have to search for it, but it’s funny how as soon as you click in how all the B.S. disappears and not matter what it took to get there, you’re moments away from dropping in.

If climatologists and the media hype train have their way the Sierra and a host of other locales are in for a “Godzilla” El Nino event this winter. Translation (as if you haven’t heard the hype yet) this is going to be the year to erase all the memories of so many tough seasons. I never count it until I’m skiing it, but overall we’re talking about skiing here and as a member of the backcountry community hopefully you understand how miniscule our pursuit is when weighed against the reality of a dwindling snowpack for the rest of life in California. Should you stop skiing? No way! If anything, my hope is that people work with what’s been given and make the most of it. I’ve skied so many different peaks because of the drought over the past four years, and gone after different lines, seeking out countless new vantages as a result of being forced to work with less.

Lake Tahoe backcountry

Lake Tahoe backcountry

I go back to the moment when I stash my headlamp after a pre-dawn start, and as much ground as I’ve covered in the dark that morning, it’s clear snowline and the objective at hand is still pretty far away.

“You really think it’s worth it?” my partner asks.

 I respond, “We’re hiking in one of the most beautiful mountain ranges in the world, and in a few more miles we’re going to be walled in a perfect splitter couloir, engulfed by golden granite and soft north facing powder. Is there anywhere else you’d rather be?”

We each crack a smile and keep truckin’ on, but as much as we collectively understand the gift of spending a little time on the mountain, we’re both thinking about how rad it will be when the Sierra gets invaded by Godzilla.

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Brennan Lagasse

Brennan Lagasse

What's on your backcountry radar for this winter?

I'm looking forward to getting back to my guide work in Alaska this March, Greenland in April, and hopefully working in a new spot this May. But I'm really hoping winter comes back for good in the Sierra!

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