Thank God for the “average” snow year of 2015-2016 in the Tahoe basin! I always say the final depth of snow isn’t the best barometer of whether a year is “good” or not. In the Sierra it can literally snow one hundred inches in a week, which depending on the year, can be one third of our seasonal snowfall, in just one week. This is not to say that I’m anti huge-ass storm, just the opposite in fact! The beauty in 15-16 was the frequency of the storms. We had two blue non-consecutive weeks in January. Other than that it snowed at least once every week in the Tahoe basin from November through March (source On the Snow.com). As of closing Squaw Valley was reporting 495” inches of cumulative fallen snow at 8,000 feet, 45” over their average. That I can live with!
So what happens when close to sixteen thousand powder starved locals get served cold Sierra Nevada pow for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (not to mention the frenzied Bay Area ski crowd)? They shred of course! Large conga lines formed on the skin track in Tahoe’s most sought after backcountry ski spots. Parking was overrun, and most importantly people had a friggin’ blast! For once in my life I could put up with a slightly crowded backcountry experience because we were finally back where we should be, touring with our friends in the beautiful Tahoe Sierra we call home. The great beacon that had called us here years earlier had turned on her guiding light once more.
You see, the downside of these low snow years was backcountry skiers could only find decent snow in a handful of places, typically those with higher elevation. From 2012 through 2015 I found myself touring the same spots over and over again. On the up side those spots are pretty damn good, but sometimes a guy just wants some variety, you know? This past winter opened the door to spots that hadn’t been in in years, and as a result the skiers could spread out. I found my zones where I knew I could escape the hordes and ski in solitude with my friends. Tahoe became as magical to me as anywhere, and once again I became damn proud to call myself a local.
I managed to check nearly everything off my tick list, and all of it in fantastic powder conditions. Five am wake up times became the norm on my days off. Powder was the headline for December and January. We dealt with our fair share of snow instability as did much of the west. Basal facets became an issue, as did a scary buried surface hoar layer, and reactive windslab. These ingredients lead to a touchy snowpack with some really close calls and one fatality.
Snow in the Sierra leads to one of the greatest treats of all for the Tahoe backcountry skier: spring in the Eastern Sierra. The “east side” dwarfs the Tahoe Sierra in both elevation and scale. The topography off highway 395 is abrupt. On a decent snow year couloirs spill off the Sierra batholith into the valleys bellow and snowfields sit untouched above nine thousand feet with no way to access them besides your own two feet and lungs.
The Eastern Sierra corn is a thing of legend. Of course powder can be skied on the east side too, though these are big mountains and particular caution should be taken in winter snow. Like many big mountain ranges the snow is often interesting. Wind board, breakable crust, and alpine ice all develop depending on aspect. The wind here is legendary. On one trip I came across snow that was a bit too interesting for my liking, which prompted us on day two to scrap our burly couloir plans and seek out mellow corn runs in a popular destination just off 395. Free tip: when on a backcountry ski trip to the Eastern Sierra all plans should be highly flexible.
After an adrenaline filled spring my need to get after it finally waned in May. I had gone hard, as hard as I can. I pushed my newly gained skills as a ski mountaineer, my tolerance for exposure, my fitness level, and my stoke to the red zone, and was finally ready to acquiesce and for mountain bike season to come.
Some odd whether patterns and some previously arranged plans interfered with any volcano skiing I had penciled in, finally I succumbed and relaxed into summer. By late August a particular deckside barbecue saw most of my backcountry ski partners in one place and the conversation inevitably turned to our greatest love: snow, and I was lost dreaming again.
What a difference a year makes! Tracking the snowfall is a tough job that many of us take very seriously. Tracking this seasons “average snowfall” lead to the best season of skiing I’ve ever had. Consistent snow patterns a can-do attitude and some great ski partners guided me to maxing out the fun meter. So wherever you live have pride in your hometown, your home ski area, and certainly your home skin track. Get out as much as you possibly can, life will go on either way and we can either be spectators or participators in it. This coming winter I plan on participating again!