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If last ski year in the Sierra was a “season of a lifetime”, then saying that this season here has been abnormal would be the “understatement of a lifetime.” Here and now, just past the vernal equinox, we face the vaunted Sierra corn season with some trepidation.
The only folks that watch the Sierra snowpack more closely than skiers, snow-surveryors employed by the water-obsessed California government, tell us that we re looking at snow-cover around thirty percent of normal. An even more poignant portrait of the state of the Sierra comes from examining the state of the Sierra skier. What have we done up to this point, and what does a finger on the pulse of Sierra skiers reveal?
Early season, or more accurately this year, pre-season, lasted well into January. Ice was the name of the game. Connoisseurs of frozen h2o found their fix ice skating and ice climbing. Virtually zero snow left frozen lakes and waterfalls and melt-freeze couloirs accessible, glassy, and inviting. Tioga Pass road, normally closed from early November to late May, stayed open until January 17!
The weekend of January 21 brought a 1-2 punch of base-making storms. Catch was, this base came just to the section of peaks centered around Mammoth Lakes. Those who could find their climbing skins beneath the piles of skates and screws scored a couple weeks of wintry snow on the Mammoth Crest.
February and most of March brought a series of storms, each a little larger than the last. Indicative of the frazzled minds of Sierra backcountry enthusiasts, each was heralded in forecasts, formal and otherwise, as the “first big winter storm of the season.” In the aftermath of each, as more and more people got out for their first tours, relieved exclamations of “finally” repeatedly rang through the ranks.
Summoning optimism, we tried to force a mid-winter ski mountaineering session during a period of high pressure. Daring to extrapolate snow-cover amounts to parts of the range beyond the Mammoth Lakes basin, Alex and I tackled a single-day, three-pass loop from Convict Lake to Mammoth. Getting soundly reprimanded for such wishful thinking, we found very thin cover, wind-scoured lakes and firm snow. That experience was more than enough to send us back, tail between our
legs, to powder-hunting in the Lakes Basin.
All this talus and crusty snow flips open those instep buckles. A strip of duct tape is the solution, as always. Any readers have other ideas?
After our solid trouncing in the Convict-to-Mammoth effort, we wisely stayed more conservative with snow-cover estimates. However, if alpinists have anything to brag of, it is a short memory. By early March my feeble mind had once again over-ridden better judgement. A partner and I tried skiing the approach to a climb on the other side of the Sierra Crest from Bishop. See for yourself, pretty grim:
Folks have kept at it, with a few die-hards making the most of each powder dusting. The snow-snobs were understandably absent. That segment of the population falling between die-hard and fair-weather status opted out more and more as the season progressed. By mid-March, those who were giving the season a chance were at least a little hungry and ready for more. Those who had buried the ski gear and aspirations under the burden of a 2012 version of Seasonal Affective Disorder (“This season is effectively a disorder…”) were too starved and sullen to react when winter really reared up to go out like a lion! Those of us prepared and psyched totally scored just before the equinox!
Spring has sprung. Here’s to a great “second chance” at a ski season!
Who will grab the narrow window of excellent ski mountaineering conditions that the Eastside is bound to provide this year?
Jed Porter is a full-time year-round mountain guide in Bishop, California. He wouldn’t say no to a turns-all-year schedule, but he sure enjoys the variety of mountain adventure that life in the High Sierra provides.