State of the Tahoe Backcountry
There’s something special about that first late summer night, the one when you realize that fall is right around the corner. In mountain towns across the American West, Labor Day seems to coincide with this particular feeling. Imagine those series of nights when you haven’t thought about making a fire for months, or turning the heat on, but you’re really, really close to going for it. Labor Day is also the unofficial kick off to local’s summer, at least in the greater Lake Tahoe area. It’s a brief period when tourists and visitors largely leave Tahoe City for their year-round residences. Town is undeniably quiet, the trails are empty minus the people you know, and the lake is as warm as it gets all year. It almost feels like the authentic mountain summer experience you’ve been waiting for has finally arrived. And then it snows.
Not everyone gets pulled in as hard as that first cold night in September, when the first few flakes that fall in a given season might drop. But I do. It completely owns me, a crisp reminder that as much as I enjoy other outdoor mountain activities, it’s all just a fun way to pass time until it snows again.
When it finally does snow those first few inches of the season, it’s hard to resist heading out to experience it. If you’re a fiend then you know where to go-that closed ski hill that has trails almost completely rock free and covered in soft, long grass, or some other spot that’s low angle, maybe covered in something easy to carve into with your rock skis like decomposed granite. In Tahoe, we’re lucky enough to have our tallest peak provide such a service. Not everyone wants to partake as the entry fee is relatively high when taking the mileage into consideration, but nonetheless it’s a great place to scratch the itch, and last season it was the only place that offered us anything reasonably fresh to slide on until November.
Freel Peak, September 24th
The 2017-2018 snow season started slow in the Sierra Nevada. Tahoe was especially dry until much later in the season, but no one knew that when it started snowing around the Autumn Equinox. For a couple of days we had light snowfall, summer was fading, and on the morning of September 24th the skies broke crystal clear. Most of Tahoe looked like early fall. Except the snow cone shaped top of Freel Peak. Up there, it was winter.
Standing at 10,886 feet, Freel is the tallest mountain in the Lake Tahoe Basin. In the greater scheme of things that’s not a very stout number. The highest peak in the Sierra is more than 3600 feet higher after all. But in the early and late season the extra 500-1000 vertical feet can go a long way. It can make or break a ski session, especially as climate change continues to alter what we have historically known as reliable alpine ski environments.
I’m not sure how many people caught this early season window, and truth be told we were lucky to be skiing about a foot of new snow at about 10,000 feet, but my partners for the day-a good friend and my dog Olas, couldn’t have cared less. A leisurely dry walk up a south facing slope brought us to the view that never gets old, Lake Tahoe glimmering as the jewel of the Sierra, with a field of white, cakey snow directly below.
Powder turns in Tahoe this early in the season are rare. October powder turns are more common, but of course the real question is whether the snow sticks or not. I’ve often heard people ask, “So when does ski season officially start?” For the backcountry skier I’d say it’s when you’re skiing on the first new snow of a given season. Of course that’s an arbitrary answer. But I have found it common as an every-month skier- since October, 2003- to ride old snow into September, and then October tends to bring in something fresh. It doesn’t always stick, or work like that, but this September storm delivered. Enough of a tease to get me and the rest of the Tahoe snow junkies fully fired up for the season…but then it didn’t snow again for another month.
A Slow Fall
The October 20th storm was a reminder of what was to come, even though it really only brought a few inches to the mountains. Skiing daily remained a ways off, but November did finally kick things into gear. We received about five feet at the higher elevations throughout the course of the month. It was just enough to spackle some of our high elevation access points on the North and South Shores of Tahoe. November allowed the real transition to happen, when the bike and climbing gear can be put away for the season, and ski gear is ready to go at all times.
Truth be told, we have had some solid starts to the season in October and November’s past, but December is the real deal. Thankfully, we usually see a decent flow of storms that time of year, but what happens when you can barely log a foot of new snow over the 31 days during the time period that transitions the fall into winter? Needless to say, after a banner season the year before (well over 700 inches cumulatively) thoughts of another Californian drought year was on the minds of many last December. And it was not isolated to Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada. Across the country winter was not taking hold in the way most mountains towns are accustomed. I vividly recall a session off Carson Pass with a solid crew-a few of which are Rocky Mountain residents and contributors to Ascent, who were beyond stoked to have anything to ski at all when they visited Tahoe in mid-December. Myself and my other local friends were basically making lemonade on the daily, still skiing of course, but largely not looking too hard for great skiing because it wasn’t really there. But the reality is always in the eye of the beholder. Is there really such a thing as bad skiing?
As the New Year began the storm train remained idle. Historically, January is another tricky month for the Sierra. You can often find people sharing stories of “January corn days” as high pressure settles, and a dominant ridge deflects any systems into the range. Or you can find old records boasting of the 22 feet of snow that fell in 1895. Last season it was the latter half of the month that kept hope alive, as a few storms did make its way into our area. Nothing big along the lines of what we really needed, but a foot here and foot there was at least something. We still saw more new snow in the month of November than in January, but not nearly enough of the white stuff to really get the backcountry going.
At this point, we seemed to be eking our way through the season, and the American West followed suit with the snow faucet predominately off until February minus a few spots such as Montana. It was a week until March and the vibe around town was aligned with the present state of winter. The season was far from over, but to date it had been far from good. I was still skiing most everyday, finding something out there as you do when you have to put on the backcountry sleuth hat, but the options were slim, and the snowpack was not growing.
In the Sierra we have a strong belief in “Miracle March.” You can pretty much attach an adjective to any month and come up with Fabulous February, Amazing April and so on, but if it has been a slow winter, and March fails to produce, the hot California sun is even harder to combat come April no matter how much it snows. Therefore, the Miracle March mantra is arguably as important as any. Luckily, at the very end of February, we got hit with a blower storm of 18+ inches up high, and well over a foot at lake level. People were fired up and made the absolute most of it, as if this were it, and it might not snow again for the rest of the season.
That 18-incher was the biggest storm of the season when it dropped. One of the biggest differences in being a Tahoe based backcountry skier as opposed to areas East of us is you are heavily reliant on more than 18 inch storms. The Sierra is well known for multi-foot dumps, the kind of storms that on the East Coast would likely shut down municipalities for days on end. When’s the last time it snowed three+ plus feet on back-to-back days in Summit County, CO? It’s one of the reasons I moved to Tahoe, and I’m far from the only one. There’s really nothing like going to bed with an incoming storm heading your way, and waking up to two, three, even four feet of new snow just like that. But we hadn’t even got a two-footer at this point, so getting the angst out was due for every local, weekend-warrior, and visitor alike with this late February gift.
Thankfully, the storm was not a one-and-done phenomenon. Two days after it dissipated another system came in, scattering a few inches across our greater area. And then Wham, back-to-back three-foot storms with another foot at the end! We got almost seven feet from March 2nd-4th and just like that we had a ski season. March didn’t let up either. It was truly a Miracle March of historic proportions, not the snowiest, but literally the wettest ever recorded in the Northern Sierra. All told 16 feet of snow fell in March alone. Tahoe went from 32% of average before that late February storm, to 77% of normal by months end. It literally kept snowing all month long, and as a result the backcountry finally opened up for every user in the area. It was a time to celebrate, but with the yang of March, the yin of land management issues for the Tahoe backcountry community crept in with a wave that remains today.
It’s not so much an access issue as it is the decision of the US Forest Service to enact the first ever winter travel plan in the Tahoe National Forest. Other National Forests in the Tahoe area, and across the country face a similar reality. It would have been much easier had the Forest Service taken the rules they applied to off-highway-vehicles in the non snow months and applied them similarly to the winter season when they established those rules in the past, but that never happened. Conversations between the human powered and motorized community have not been as well-received as many of us had hoped We need to shift the conversation towards the quality of terrain both users wish to enjoy, as much of the acreage in question isn’t necessarily snow friendly in the winter months. Ensuring access to the experiences each side cares about in a landscape that is getting smaller for everyone needs to play a more central role in dialogue. What we have now is a plan that will in fact set the course for the next few decades once it is adopted, but ultimately the unfortunate us versus themsaga of human powered and motorized winter recreation groups butting heads has ensued.
Personally, I stand solidly with the human powered community. On an individual level, nothing compares to time spent in the backcountry, gaining and losing vertical by the power of your own two feet. Being in the mountains in this way, uninterrupted is an unparalleled experience. I’m not a fan of the noise pollution, air pollution, and inevitable drips of oil and gas sleds produce that eventually finds their way into local waterways either. But I also understand that is my own perspective, and respect that snowmobiling is how many people experience recreation on public lands in the winter. I completely believe these users should be able to continue to recreate as taking away that right is not something I wish to support. The crux is the alternatives the US Forest have proposed are largely focused around altering access to snowmobilers, and parties from both sides have constituents unwilling to budge. On the human powered side there is a strong desire to work with snowmobilers to make sure they still have access to recreate knowing the Forest Service will likely be redrawing boundary lines no matter what, and others from the motorized community unwilling to support any change in the current status quo. Put that together and there you have the biggest ongoing current issue affecting the Tahoe backcountry community today (besides climate change).
I’d be lying if I said I haven’t had poor encounters with snowmobiles in Tahoe over my years of backcountry skiing. Seeing sled tracks poaching into wilderness is one example, skiing in an area where both human and motorized recreation happen together is another, watching sledders cut slopes and high mark in zones that could slide and put ski tourers below them at risk. But I’d also be lying if I left out that I commonly burn some form of fuel on my own or another partner’s vehicle everyday to go skiing in Tahoe. It may only be a few minutes of time, but that’s the reality of access in our area. I also fly on planes, and have used helicopters, boats, trains, and just about anything else you can imagine to access skiing at one point or another. A trip I guide in April each year is almost completely reliant on snowmobile access too. At what point is either side holier than thou?
For the time being, I have hope that both sides can and will ultimately come together to hash out what is best for the community moving forward. I know that can sound fluffy in a sense, but I sincerely believe there’s a way forward that will work for all. The image of trailheads ready to support ski tourers, as well as proper staging areas for sled access is not unattainable. Putting myself in the shoes of the sled community, I understand they feel like they’re being attacked because access is proposed to be taken away. However, largely, the human powered community is not coming at this from the perspective of taking. What we are looking for is a balance that alleviates and minimizes conflict. Just as federal and state regulations have increasingly altered where over-snow vehicles can and cannot go, I also have seen backcountry ski runs lost to commercial development, pollution, crowding (because of newer and better over-snow vehicle technology) and, increasingly, climate change over the past several ears. Fighting for ecological integrity has become increasingly hard on public lands, in the greater US, and across the world as well. What we need is more users to speak their mind, and offer their insight. I’m holding onto the more everyday users in the community can steer the process the better, and that there is a chance if we can make this happen in Tahoe, it will provide a positive example for other national forests to follow.
If it weren’t for Miracle March there would have barely been a winter in Tahoe last season, and all we’d be talking about is the search for peace between ski tourers and sledders. After the complete thumping that barely let up throughout the month, April was dry to say the least. A little less than a foot of new snow fell during the first half of the month, and a little more than a foot fell through the second half of the month. The snow that did fall was of high quality. It was in fact, full face shot worthy, snow that we are lucky to see in the early parts of the season in the Sierra. But the momentum brought by March was basically stopped dead in its tracks after the 25th. It’s barely worth mentioning that May was almost completely absent of precipitation, but it drives home the point that the whole Tahoe season was saved by only a few very snowy weeks.
The realization that much of the winter was bundled into such a short period of time paints a grim picture. The truth is we can do a lot with a little in Sierra, and 400+ cumulative inches at the higher elevations means good corn skiing through May, and likely into June. Within a five-hour drive we also have Mt. Shasta to our north, and hundreds of miles of the Eastern Sierra to ski to our south. Both were firing at times in May and early June, so if you ask Tahoe based skiers about last winter, you’ll likely catch more smiles than you will frowns. We’re a forgetful bunch after all, since the glass is always better half full.
Freel Peak, June 1st:
My ski season tends to trickle down each year around June. I enjoy summer turns, and keeping the feeling alive with a few ski days into the early fall, but June seems to be the month when daily skiing is simply not happening. The cycle of busting out the bike and climbing gear becomes apparent. My last good local day of the season happened to be at Freel last season. A lot happens over the course of a ski season. Sometimes we lose ourselves to things like work and relationships but losing oneself to the moment is one of the reasons I think many of us are so hooked to sliding around on two sticks attached to our feet.
Hiking up Freel on the first day of June with two good friends, I found myself reminiscing of the first day of the season, right here on Freel. Olas was in his element, a great ski dog he was, especially when his sister Nieve was still around. Those two dogs skied some incredible lines in their life. That day on Freel in September was not the last ski day for Olas, but he didn’t make it too much longer. And while we skied early season powder together on that day, this June day the corn was so good, it was the stuff that almost makes you forget about how good a powder day is. That this thing we do, that we devote much of our life too, is nothing more than a series of many actions put into motion to arrive at a one run down a snowy mountain slope that in reality is only seconds of one’s life. But the more we do it, the more we know it’s much more than recreation. It’s a way of life.
Before you know it you’ll be sitting on a porch as August turns to September, feeling that cold air seep its way into our lives once again. Hopefully we won’t need to wait until March this season for winter to take hold in Tahoe, but either way, remember to make the most of whatever falls from the sky. After all, everyday spent in the backcountry is a day well spent.