Sierra Winter 2011-2012 Summary

Post by blogger | April 11, 2012      

Jed Porter

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!

Alex F. on a rare January ice ascent of the Dana Couloir.  The route is better known as a spring ski mountaineering descent.

Alex F. on a rare January ice ascent of the Dana Couloir. The route is better known as a spring ski mountaineering descent.

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.

Scott W. in Tree J Bowl, Mammoth Lakes BC, January 24.

Scott W. in Tree J Bowl, Mammoth Lakes BC, January 24.

Chad B. in Hollywood Bowl, Mammoth Lakes BC, January 29.

Chad B. in Hollywood Bowl, Mammoth Lakes BC, January 29.

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.

 Alex F. on Pretty Pass up Convict Canyon.

Alex F. on Pretty Pass up Convict Canyon.

Alex F. descending Pika Pass way back there.

Alex F. descending Pika Pass way back there.

Gratuitous TLT 5 modification shot.

Gratuitous TLT 5 modification shot.

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:

Ian M. on Lamarck Col in the Bishop high country.  Thin cover, what? March 5.

Ian M. on Lamarck Col in the Bishop high country. Thin cover, what? March 5.

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!

Avalanche course students in the June Mountain BC enjoying winter's farewell gesture. March 18.

Avalanche course students in the June Mountain BC enjoying winter's farewell gesture. March 18.

Jeff M in TJ Bowl, Mammoth Lakes BC.  March 21.

Jeff M in TJ Bowl, Mammoth Lakes BC. March 21.

Spring has sprung. Here’s to a great “second chance” at a ski season!

Classic view of the Bishop skyline:  Mounts Emerson, Locke, Basin and Tom presiding.  March 20.

Classic view of the Bishop skyline: Mounts Emerson, Locke, Basin and Tom presiding. March 20.

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.

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17 Responses to “Sierra Winter 2011-2012 Summary”

  1. Pierce Oz April 11th, 2012 9:28 am

    Even THAT looks better than the winter we’ve had here in Colorado.

  2. Andy April 11th, 2012 10:04 am

    Jed–way to score the WildSnow cameo!! 🙂

  3. David Lovejoy April 11th, 2012 11:24 am

    How fast is the snowpack disappearing in the Rock Creek area now that unseasonably warm temperatures and wind are upon up?

  4. Jed April 11th, 2012 12:00 pm

    Thanks, Wildsnow, for showing off our rocky season. It hasn’t been that bad, really. And we’ll have a spring season, I swear.

    I am skiing in Canada now, but will be glad to keep this thread active with what conditions notes I can share.

    David, I skied out of Rock Creek on the 3rd. The road was bare from the Sno-Park to about Rock Creek Lodge. But up in the head of the canyon things seemed pretty fat, relat. I’d guess that, above 11k, whatever we’ve lost in the last week or two will be replaced this coming weekend.

  5. Brent April 11th, 2012 2:20 pm

    Nice going Jed! I’m the ‘avalanche course student’ in red in the 3rd to last pic. That was a great course, and we sure did luck out with that 3-4 foot dump. Spring conditions in SoCal have been far better than I expected. The slopes that have held snow (mostly N-W aspects) are now in great shape with smooth corn and we’re even getting a little recharge snow this week. Here’s to keeping hope alive!

  6. Tyler April 11th, 2012 6:37 pm

    The Mt. Baker area has had an unbelievable year. As of March 31st , we’ve received 777 inches.

  7. Henry Hagood April 11th, 2012 10:18 pm

    Don’t listen to Tyler folks, he must have his precip confused, it rains here all the time!

  8. Brian Cripe April 11th, 2012 10:56 pm

    Come through Oregon on your way to Mt Baker. The Bachelor area has 182″ of snow pack right now.

  9. Ian April 14th, 2012 10:53 am

    Nice article Jed. Way to feed the stoke in a lean year. By the way, it’s snowing in Mammoth right now.

  10. harpo April 18th, 2012 10:30 am

    Thanks for that article Jeb. What date is that 30% figure from? Currently here in Tahoe, we are about at 70% of normal for season totals, although I am not sure if that is total season snowfall, snow pack water content, or snow depth.

    Does anyone know where I can get info on what % of normal we are at in what drainages for the different ways of measuring snowpack/snowfall in the Sierra?

  11. Jed April 19th, 2012 7:04 pm

    Good catch Harpo! Indeed, the 30% figure is from prior to the Equinox. And I quoted here from a summary of a drainage-by-drainage report heard on Bishop radio. I haven’t dug too deep, but I’ve never found a ready web summary of those numbers. Since the above text was written we had significant snowfall around March 18 and in Mid April. does have links to high-country snow sensors. But you have to poke around into prior years to get any idea of what it means in comparison.

  12. Jed April 20th, 2012 8:52 pm

    Here’s a link to a State Snow Survey summary. Not exactly what we’re looking for, but it has some info:

    I just drove down the Eastside, back to Bishop from Canada. Coverage is still less than ideal, but a few ski descents remain possible:

    Lee Vining Canyon’s “Powerhouse” chute is apparently skiable, basically the entire way. Some creativity in using this low-altitude approach/deproach can access sweet terrain.

    Bloody Couloir looks great, but the access on that Laurel Lakes Road is problematic: Driving is blocked by significant snow-drifts, while skiing is blocked by long stretches of dry ground. Give it a little longer…

    Rock Creek road is plowed and open to the Pack Station. The view to Bear Creek Spire, Dade and Abbott reveals good-looking coverage. I’m sure there’s patchy stuff on the valley-bottom approach. A report from the killer-looking N. Face of Mt. Mills indicates great skiing there.

    A report from the South Fork of Bishop Creek last weekend indicated “surprisingly good coverage.

    This weekend is bringing warm overnight temperatures, so I’m going to cram these glacier-softened feet into rock shoes and get back to skiing middle of next week when temps cool down again.
    Great skiing”.

  13. Jed April 20th, 2012 9:01 pm

    Weird typo up there… Scott’s quote on South Fk conditions should read “surprisingly good coverage. Great skiing.”

  14. Jed May 9th, 2012 12:47 pm


    Last week I skied Mt. Abbot in the Rock Creek drainage. The road is open to the end. The best and most accessible skiing is in the Ruby Lake/Mills-Abbot-Dade Cirque. One needs to talk about 45 minutes to Ruby Lake and then can ski from there. Coverage above Ruby Lake will be good for another couple weeks.

    Yesterday I skied Dana Couloir to Ellery Bowl. We walked to the summit of Mt. Dana, skied the couloir, walked over to Ellery Bowl, and skied right to the Ellery Lake Dam. This tour will also be good for at least 2 more weeks… Ellery Bowl will eventually get patchy, but that can be easily scouted from below.

    Reliable reports from Conness and North Peak indicate pretty good coverage. Views into the Lyell group of peaks in Yosemite (accessible from the now-open Tioga Pass road) indicate darn good coverage. A few miles of approach walking would leave one in position for at least a few days of peaks, passes and traverses. That’s where I’d go for a multi-day between now and Memorial Day or so.

  15. Lou May 9th, 2012 1:55 pm

    Nice report Jed! Thanks!

  16. Hyron May 30th, 2012 4:19 am

    Apologies for off-topic but as requested a blog reply rather than email.

    I’m currently looking to buy my first set off AT gear. I ski reasonably well, 50 degree powder moguls is beyond me, at least after 5 or 6 jump turns but I’m comfortable in powder and on steep ice. I live and climb in Japan. Here the approaches tend to be very steep and in forests, therefore giving >30 degree hiking in tight zig-zags. This last season I have been out climbing alpine style with a friend using snow shoes. I’ve spent a lot of time knee, hip or waist deep in powder, great for skiing, rubbish for boots!! My friend uses snow shoes, which I really dislike.

    So, what do I buy. My current thoughts are … Hagan Off-limits, Dynafit or Plum bindings and TLT5s ( I have some TLT3s but I think they are probably too old by now, also everythin green on them failed – bad plastic!). Any recommendations would be appreciated, also maybe some idea of floatation needed to support my 100kg including gear.

    Many thanks,


  17. Lou May 30th, 2012 5:49 am

    Hyron, don’t get hung up on the “approach ski” consumer obfuscation terminology. What you want is a ski, with some width at the waist, but on the lighter side since you’re doing human powered skiing, correct? For a recommend I’ll go with something from our Ultimate Quiver ski review a few posts ago.

    How about the Black Diamond Carbon Justice, which is 111 wide at the waist? Pair with BD skins and Dynafit Radical bindings with brakes. Plum is ok but they’re not retailing a decent ski brake yet, and I recommend ski brakes for most people. That should give you a setup that does just about everything. For ski length, go with 185 cm if you’re hauling that kind of weight around and actually skiing downhill on the skis. If you’re just using the skis as approach skis, consider the 175 length.

    For boots, yeah, TLT-5 will be fine if again you’re basically hiking around with someone on snow shoes. If you want to ski harder on this ski with your weight, I’d consider something a bit beefier but still hike comfortable, such as Scarpa Maestrale. Link below is shopping for Justice and other stuff. Lou

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