State of the Tahoe Backcountry
Dark, snowy and slow.
I inch my way down California Hwy 89 towards my house on Tahoe’s West Shore. “I wonder how buried the A-Frame is?” is all that is spoken between Jillian Raymond and I as we collectively take in the growth of the local snowbanks littered along the road since we left town for a brief trip. We knew we were going to miss a storm, but we didn’t think it was going to hit like it did. It’s sort of a microcosm for what many residents and visitors to Lake Tahoe felt last season. After several drought years followed by an average winter in 2015-2016 it seemed many people forgot what a banger winter is like in the Sierra.
When we arrive to our driveway we found 2-3 feet of new snow. I instinctively paused. But being tired from travel, and quasi-alarmed that we couldn’t see our front door, I impulsively punched the gas thrusting our truck into the immovable sea of white. It was late enough that we both just wanted to get in the door and find our bed for some much needed rest. I jumped out of the truck and plunged up to my thighs in fresh, cold powder. The wallowing that followed was real. Normally, the task of parking and walking in the front door would take a matter of seconds to complete. This time was different. I could barely see my neighbors house. Snow was falling hard enough that the one streetlight we have was barely glowing. The trees in our front yard were blanketed so thickly it almost looked like there wasn’t a house here at all.
I took big steps to pull each foot out of the postholes I had created to get enough momentum for the next move as I navigated the peculiar depth of my driveway. When I reached the four steps that lead to our front deck, I had to kick foot placements in as if I was putting in an actual boot-pack. Once on the deck, I literally had to climb up, to eventually slide down the backside of the snow pile that had developed since we left town just a few days earlier to get to the front door. In 15 years of Tahoe living I have witnessed some amazing storms, but I never had to enter my own home as if I were attempting to access a buried backcountry hut. A shovel would have helped. Actually, verts might have been the most useful tool given the severity of the situation.
That in sum encapsulates last winter in the greater Lake Tahoe area. The precipitation was steady, homes were literally buried if proper snow removal was not actively maintained, and the state of the backcountry was consistently on fire. The numbers don’t lie. More than 700 inches of snow collected on Tahoe area mountaintops. The UC Berkeley Central Snow Laboratory located on Donner Summit recorded their 9th snowiest winter in total with more than 47 feet of snow tallied at around 7k feet. The funny thing is the Snow Lab also recorded the wettest winter at their location since 1946, meaning if all of the precipitation Tahoe received last winter was snow, we most likely would have had a 1000-inch season. But not all of that moisture fell as snow, as last year can also very easily be referred to as the winter of the Atmospheric River.
An Atmospheric River is a weather event characterized by a thin corridor of atmospheric moisture, one that sort of looks like a river in the sky that taps into a tropical pool of water vapor transporting energy from the ocean to the mountains. In the case of the Sierra Nevada, and in the case Tahoe more specifically, we commonly call this the Pineapple Express. We are used to these sort of storms, and in fact, they’re incredibly crucial to the overall makeup of the Sierra Nevada snowpack. Beyond the absolute need for mountain snow to both recharge and fuel aquifers throughout the non-winter months in the Golden State, for skiers and riders of the Sierra, these are the types of storms that set us apart from the rest. We need thick, pasty, plaster snow to cover the many rocks, downed trees, and other hazardous obstacles found up and down a majority of the mountains we wish to slide down. The maritime snowpack we play on often allows us to safely ski terrain intercontinental users wouldn’t dream of touching until late spring. The thing is, as the global climate continues to warm, and weather patters continue to shift from historical baselines, winter users in the Sierra Nevada backcountry, from Lone Pine to Tahoe, might be seeing a lot more of these warmer storms in the future.
Dr. Ben Hatchett is a Sierra Nevada based scientist who is also a well-traveled and skilled Tahoe area backcountry skier. Along with several other researchers, Dr. Hatchett authored a recently published paper concerning the rise in snow level throughout the Northern Sierra Nevada from 2008-2017. The paper argues that snow line has risen 1200 feet during this period, and goes on to predict that this trend will only continue in the years to come. Couple this information with a position that Atmospheric Rivers, and more of them, will also characterize future winter seasons for the Northern Sierra, and there you have what’s centrally found on the mind of most avid Tahoe based backcountry users these days.
As I write this in late January 2018 it’s hard to look past Hatchett et al.’s research. We’ve had a very slow start to the season. It hasn’t snowed a cumulative 10 feet yet, and we’re looking at a dry pattern that is forecasted to bring us into the middle of February at the very minimum. Ten feet might sound like a lot to many folks around the country, but as I said earlier, we’re used to much more snow in the Sierra than many other mountain locales. A blizzard warning in New England that has residents pinned in a full on winter frenzy, preparing for an onslaught of 2-3 feet of snow and heavy winds is somewhat normal for us in Tahoe. People are usually fired up for a “real Sierra storm” in these cases, wondering why it’s not a 3-4+ foot dump or more.
By January 18th, 2018 Tahoe had only collected 80 inches of total snowfall at high elevations since the first flakes fell in late September. Contrast that number with the season prior when we had almost 300 inches at the same time. That’s a big difference. And in Tahoe, when we don’t get snow to Lake level, which is roughly 6200 feet, a vast majority of our cherished terrain is unskiable. What we do have going for us is two high elevation access points that allow skinning from trailheads at elevations above 8k feet, and a couple of 7k+ foot access points as well. The latter have not been that helpful this season as we’ve had several storms with snowlines at or around 9k feet. What’s a daily Tahoe based backcountry skier to do?
The answer, like a plethora of issues presented by climate change, is to adapt. Change is inevitable. Ask any old-schooler who is in their later years of backcountry skiing and they’ll tell you about the good ol’ days when the backcountry literally never got tracked out. Ask a modern day backcountry skier in Tahoe about their most recent touring day and chances are they’ll mention the Mt. Rose backcountry ski resort. It’s a joke of sorts, but it speaks to the greater issue at hand that’s plagued most backcountry ski centers across the American West. That’s why ever since I’ve authored a State of the Backcountry report, most people have found it useful, if for anything to see that local Tahoe conditions were worthy of their time. But there have also been the people that believe sharing any information about skiing the backcountry is too much, and just as many if not more people saying the reports don’t share enough beta, expecting each report to be a real-time guidebook of sorts.
While it’s hard to keep everyone happy, and in the end the whole purpose of the column was always meant to foster community energy, there’s no denying that backcountry skiing has exploded over the past decade in the US. Improvements in technology, gear, and an increased feeling that ski resorts are artificializing the sport has driven more and more people into the backcountry. Not to mention with some time spent online, you can find just about anything about whatever ski flavor you are looking for and then some. In a season like last year in Tahoe, crowds were very visible. Whether people studied guidebooks, read my reports, or looked at the weather it was pretty obvious that Tahoe was having a crazy season of wet weather. While more people took to the backcountry to escape the madness of the ski resorts, or to seek out some of the mountain solitude they had heard about, the savvy backcountry user was still skiing alone. The truth is getting off the beaten path remains a recipe as it has for many years. Orient yourself to a not-as-popular trailhead, or take a little bit more time to ski away from the low-hanging fruit, which is found handsomely around most every corner of Lake Tahoe, and you’ll be skiing solo all day long.
This season options have not been as luxurious as they were last year. The two highest elevation location centers in the north of Tahoe (Mt. Rose), and the south (Carson Pass) have been two of the only areas offering consistent conditions for backcountry touring. The same can be said of our recent drought years where you either had to walk on dirt for several miles to reach an adequate snowline, which most people do not want to do, or you had to use high elevation drivable passes to get closer to snow. Either way without snow falling to Lake level, and research pointing to snow line starting closer to 7500 feet as opposed to 6200 feet, the change has come and it seems the only way Tahoe based skiers are going to keep the fire going is to adapt.
As alarming as Dr. Hatchett’s research sounds, and as bleak as the season’s current snow totals in Tahoe seem, it’s not too hard to remember the winter that was last year. Lifts were spinning well into July in Tahoe, and for those of us that ski year-round, summer turns were easy. We had almost 600 inches by the end of February last year, and even had a powder day on June 12th. This begs the question, would you rather maintain an average season, which for Tahoe falls in the 400-500 inch range? Or gamble with sub par winters where once in a while you get something insane like the 700-800 inch winter we experienced last year, and once in a while you get skunked?
The answer might not matter, as no one really knows what is actually going to happen in the future. All we can do is learn from the past to help us understand the present. From there, making prudent decisions based on retrieved information makes the most sense, doesn’t it? It is here where I will unapologetically say if you don’t believe in human induced climate change you are politically, religiously, or economically informed to a narrow degree. The vast majority of the world understands the climate is changing, and humans’ use of fossil fuels to grow humanity into what it is today is to blame. While that statement leads to a whole other area of inquiry, to the Tahoe based backcountry user it means you better get to know our high elevation access points well because they may end up being the future of local backcountry skiing and riding.
The photos that support this piece were all shot last winter in the Tahoe backcountry. Looks pretty good, doesn’t it? Feast or famine, as doom-and-gloom as parts of this piece might sound, it’s really not crafted to hit you that way. It’s more of the stance I take with other sustainability related work I’m engaged in, and to my backcountry sisters and brothers, it’s really not about how bad the bad is, but more about how to keep the goods going. The truth is last season just about everything you could possibly ski in Tahoe came into play at some point; lines that only get ridden once every 5-10 years got hit. The East Shore, the one of the four shores of Lake Tahoe that sees the lightest backcountry traffic, was offering memorable descents for weeks on end. Tahoe was a true backcountry paradise last year, one that like all world class ski centers relies on abundant snowfall to blur that line between fiction and reality. I don’t think we are done with those types of seasons. It just seems smart for those that want to keep enjoying the daily ritual of walking up a mountain, and skiing back down, to take all the information out there in, and be ready to adapt to the inevitable change the greater backcountry community is facing in the decades to come.
Back to January 2018, and a few days before February sees our community experiencing the best conditions of the season. The West Shore is slowly but surely filling in, although for the tolerance of most, thin cover conditions remain. We haven’t had any plaster storms since November. The snow that has come since then has been dry and light. Fun to ski, but not without a base. Ultimately, we’re lucky to have places like Tamarack Peak and Round Top to ski tour. With such objectives rising to 10k feet skiing above what’s been the magic number this winter of 9k feet is available daily. It’s a far cry from last winter when so many ski days were spent touring on slopes 20 degree and less due to the constant avalanche danger, or the 150 inches that fell over two weeks in January 2017. But the Atmospheric Rivers have not been hitting California, the Sierra, or the rest of the American West this season, which means the skiers who are able to adapt are the ones still laughing, breaking trail, and skiing each day.
As I look at the 80+ days of skiing I’ve had so far in 2017-2018 most of those days have been in our high elevation locales. At this point information of where to ski in Tahoe is more than easily accessible from guidebooks, to online forums, and the ever incredibly popular tool of Instagram. For me, I continue to share snow and terrain knowledge on social media in a way I believe that supports our community. If someone asks me a question about where I was, or how a particular zone is looking I’m happy to share what I know. It’s the spirit of knowing the state of the Tahoe backcountry after all, and supporting the rest of your community to enjoy safe, memorable days in the mountains. But a constant report that speaks to skiing in the same places over and over again, that hopes for better weather, and bigger storms is played out.
We’re at a crossroads, collectively, as the activity that many of use cherish so centrally in our lives is rapidly changing during our very lifetime. It’s happening across the world, certainly in the American West, and in Tahoe it’s as pronounced as anywhere. Whether it’s warm Atmospheric Rivers or massive 5-10 foot snowstorms, the ones that sold me on developing a sense of place in the Sierra years ago, precipitation must be welcomed on all fronts. The water is needed well beyond the pursuits of the backcountry user. But as backcountry skiers and riders we are uniquely positioned to observe the change and fluctuation of yearly climactic patterns. We observe snow most everyday, from the fall, winter, spring, and even into the summer. Who else can really speak to the feeling of a drought year as opposed to a Snowpocalypse season on a particular peak like the person who visits said peak 20, 30, even 50 or more times during an average winter season?
As we move into the heart of the winter the next two months will be crucial for the American West to recharge from a slow start to the winter. In Tahoe, the truth is even during the drought years there was snow to ski, and the state of the Tahoe backcountry will continue to ebb and flow as it has long before a column was written to discuss it’s ins and outs. I might not have a full inch of snow on my deck right now in late January 2018, but the last few days have been beautiful powder days up high. And regardless of that, the memories of last winter, and other big winters will never be erased no matter how much more or little it snows for the rest of the season in Tahoe. As long as we can adapt, remain grateful for what we have, and recognize the bigger issues and questions related to the changes taking place in Tahoe and mountains communities across the world it won’t matter if the season is one marked by a depressing drought, or saturated by Atmospheric Rivers. We’ll be better equipped to take the lessons we learn on the skin track each day and share them for the greater good, whether that’s in collaboration with groups like Winter Wildlands, Community Snow Observations, or just in your own personal circles. Ultimately, we’ll be ready to work with our communities as well as with, not against Mother Nature. Because in the end it’s just skiing, and as long as there’s a little bit of snow out there it’s worth climbing, it’s worth checking out, and it’s definitely worth skiing.