State of the Eastern Sierra Backcountry – May 18, 2017

In Conditions Reports, Eastern Sierra Backcountry Snow Report, From the Range of Light & Fast by Howie Schwartz5 Comments

Intrepid backcountry ski & snowboard adventurers!

Another spring is in full swing, and that means it’s time to issue our (11th annual!) State of the Backcountry Report for the Eastern Sierra. Every spring, as the snowpack starts to shrink faster than it grows we like to help folks out with some up to date info to ride out the spring ski planning with. This report comes a bit later than usual, as we anticipate the spring skiing to be good into July this season. It is very possible that people will be skiing this year’s snow into October, but we are not planning to update this BC Snow Report beyond Memorial Day, at which time we will transition as u

sual to our Alpine Conditions Report. And what an alpine climbing season it bodes to be!

Snowpack

First let’s talk about snowpack. Early May we saw our snow surveyor friends Jay Jensen and Jim King headed from Onion Valley with 7 snow tubes. I hope they brought enough… Usually, after April 1, the snowpack is considered to be at around maximum and they stop the field measuring, but this year we received considerable snowfall in the month of April, up above 10-11,000′ at least. The early May survey revealed that the Eastern Sierra above the Owens Valley is still averaging 151% of the April 1 average for snowpack water content. That is after two strong heat waves that flushed nearly 20 inches of water from the pack. The Owens River is flowing in a lot of unusual places right now as LA Dept of Water and Power is busy preparing for the peak of the runoff yet to come. The valley here is lush and green though, and we are skiing to the desert flowers. Superb!

West of the crest is sort of unbelievable, in an otherworldly sort of way. Please do yourselves a favor and experience it in the coming month. It is like a return to the Pleistocene over there. Exceptional time to do a trans-Sierra tour or Sierra Crest tour, or to just get deep for a few-several days into Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. High Yosemite is also looking so fat right now which is stark in contrast to the summer photos we have been taking and seeing of the dying glaciers there. We have been sticking our 260cm probes in all over the place and failing to hit bottom. Many snow pillows are measuring off the charts. Should be a fun summer roaming the High Sierra.

Access

If you have been following the season, and our reports, then you probably understand that the atmospheric river storms that gave us record snowpack up high, also produced considerable rain below 9000′ this year at times. This means that at lower elevations it looks a lot like a typical year in mid-May. Eastside roads are opening and access to deep and amazing snow in the high country is excellent. Here is a rundown of the paved road trailhead access conditions as we understand them at this time:

  • Cottonwood Lakes – closed with road work needed
  • Whitney Portal Road – open to the Portal
  • Onion Valley Road – open to the summer trailhead, skinning from the car
  • Glacier Lodge Road – open to summer trailhead, still decent spring coverage
  • South Lake Road – open to within 200 yards of dam. Road repairs needed above that. Crevasses and seracs add alpine ambience in getting to the lake (due to SC Edison’s earlier release of water).
  • Sabrina & North Lake – open to summer trailheads
  • Pine Creek – open to summer trailhead
  • Rock Creek – open to pack station
  • McGee Creek – open to summer trailhead. 2+ miles to snow up the drainage.
  • Convict Lake – open. Snow access in Convict Canyon.
  • Lake Mary Road – open to winter closure.
  • June Lake Loop – open. Snow generally well above valley floor.
  • Hwy 120 West – open to winter lower gate closure. Reports of 40+ foot snowbanks on the road. No estimate on opening of lower gate, July 4th estimate for opening at Tioga Pass entrance station to Yosemite NP.
  • Lundy Lake Road – open. Still decent snow coverage in the canyon.
  • Virginia Lakes – open to houses
  • Twin Lakes – open to summer trailhead

Eastern Sierra dirt roads are in various states of disrepair and damage. For example, the Buttermilk Road is terrible, even for 4WD high clearance, and it is getting worse with increasing runoff. Anywhere that the January rains flowed on the road, there is now a sizable canyon that can pose a problem. The Inyo National Forest is doing everything they can to assess and repair access roads. (*** see comments below for more on what you can do as a citizen mountain recreationist to help with this). An OHV might be a good tool for a while in some places, if you are into that sort of thing. Crossing some streams could be increasingly dicey in any vehicle for the next month or so. Put your snowmobile away, you are done with it. You never really needed it in the first place around here, did you?

A 6200′ Eastside trailhead on May 6th.

Conditions

Thanks largely to the aforementioned snowpack and access, the spring conditions are outstanding. That said, they are not generally for the uninitiated. Hopefully you have your skinning legs under you at this point in the season and that you have some mountaineering chops as well. the best time to travel on sunny slopes is in the early morning when the slopes can be icy firm. Firm snow skinning takes an apprenticeship, especially if you are still trying to use your quiver of 1 backcountry ski that has 110+mm underfoot or a splitboard designed for the epic pow days of mid-winter. Now is the season for some ski crampons, boot crampons, ice axe, and maybe consider some hard splitboard boots to really get around in the mountains. Sliding on snow happens so fast, prepare yourself by understanding how to prevent a slip on steep, firm snow and know how to best react in the event of a slip. One of our guides recently watched a mountaineer careen down 1600 feet after following an existing bootpack up into his discomfort zone. A climber died falling on the North Face of Mount Whitney recently as well. Riding the steep and exiting lines of the Sierra Nevada involves climbing real mountains in real conditions right now, with heavy planks attached to your backpack. You may experience “no fall” riding conditions at times, in certain places, so be heads up.

That all said, with careful timing, conditions can be very friendly for climbing and descent. A “spring diurnal” mindset means sometimes you have to get up absurdly early and get off some slopes relatively early as well to optimize conditions. After a spell of several sunny days and warm nights the snow does not completely refreeze solid at night. This means the window may be short for optimal riding. Wet snow avalanches will be common with rapid/intense warming, especially after fresh snow like we just received and be sure to check the latest ESAC advisory which are still being issued at time of this writing, but not for much longer. We got enough snow recently that the steepest north faces will ski wintry for a couple days before they start the transition back to spring snow. This new snow also smoothed out the snow surfaces on all aspects and will prolong the amazing spring corn season.

So enjoy it out there y’all and hope to see you around in the mountains. We will update as conditions change significantly, but feel free to send us a note if you have any questions. For more current photos and info as we ski in between reports, be sure to like us on Facebook and follow us on Instagram.  We are here for ski guiding for the next couple months and of course the rock and alpine climbing is going to be extra special this season. We would love to be of service to you in your upcoming adventures!

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  1. Author

    *** Access & Community:
    As an update here we want to expand on how you can help the US Forest Service with the surveying and repairing of damaged access roads. First, understand that the Inyo NF has limited resources they can dedicate to this task. According to a representative of the forest, they have 2 equipment operators and one engineer on the entire forest, containing nearly 2 million acres of land, 1.1 million acres of which is non-wilderness. They do not have field staff resources to dedicate strictly to surveying roads. This means we, the users of the forest, who venture onto these roads are invaluable to our public land managers. The Inyo NF has asked that we continue to report damage and other access issues along roads and trails to a local ranger station or on their website: https://www.fs.usda.gov/contactus/inyo/about-forest/contactus. They appreciate the information and they understand the issue for us as backcountry travelers. It is important to realize that some dirt roads on the forest may not be “owned” or managed by the forest. First-world problem, for sure, but at least it is pretty easy to be a part of the remedy. As the Inyo works to prioritize its limited resources, it helps to ensure they have as much information as possible and that we remind them of the interest we have in the state of access in many places on the forest where FS roads are integral to what we enjoy.

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