Saturday, April 13, 2013

State of the High Sierra Backcountry - April 2013

Hi there backcountry skiers and snowboarders!

After the first wet one, Mammoth Mountain 12/3/12 
What an interesting season it has been so far. The winter started off perfectly with big wet storms in early December,
followed by high ratio snow dumps with uncharacteristically calm winds. This all gave us a very memorable early season of deep light powder skiing throughout the Sierra. It feels like a distant memory now. January featured it's usual June-uary thaw and began a drought that plagued us all producing record breaking low precip for the two month Jan-Feb time period. March came in like a lamb, and since then it has been highly variable, and unremarkable weather in the Sierra. We have experienced intense warming with little freeze, as well as profound low temps that resulted in some icy and firm backcountry conditions. There has been decent corn skiing for those who have hit it right and/or been willing to carry skis a bit for it. Weak storm systems that split upon reaching our mountains, or just brushed past them produced storms averaging around 2-8 inches of snow at a time and giving us fleeting moments of fun, powdery skiing on top of a mix of
crusts and sugary facets. The winds have finally come to the range with the last storms where winds up to 120 mph were measured. This has smoothed out some sun effects and should help create some decent corn skiing in the coming weeks.

A few highlights to show conditions over the season:

Negatives 12/19/12

False Gibbs & East Peak of Dana 1/8

Green Creek 2/18

Devil's Slide 2/20
Sawtooths 2/26
McGee Creek 3/13
Echo Col 3/26
Ionian Basin 3/26

Hiking with skis and boots up Convict Canyon 4/2

Check out the April-September runoff forecast from Edison/DWR:
Bishop Creek:  71% of normal
Rush Creek:  66% of normal
Lee Vining Creek: 60% of normal
Mill Creek:  52% of normal
Kern River:  41% of normal
Kaweah River:  52% of normal
Tule River:  31% of normal

What does this mean for us as backcountry skiers and snowboarders? Well, first of all, get it while you still can. Soon the roads will open and allow a nice wave of access to deeper snowpacks. But it won't last very long, at least not unless we have some sort of unlikely miracle event in May. Until then, target backcountry trips where the snow is, and that is pretty predictable these days.

Here is how I would describe where to find it: The best High Sierra snow coverage is currently located above 10,000 feet, North of the Palisades and just West of the Sierra Crest. The map below shows this graphically, where the green line and above is the approximate area of most snow, the yellow line and above represents marginal coverage, and the red line and above marks hiking terrain. (below the red line is considered foothills/valleys that are obviously snow free at this time)

High Sierra relative snow coverage map, Tioga Pass to Mt. Whitney
In addition to what you can represent on a map, upper elevation slopes and gullies more exposed to wind and sun are shockingly barren throughout the range. Along the Eastside there is already not enough snow down low on many sunny aspect slopes and couloirs, so the corn season could be better in May when when roads open further and more northerly aspects get more sun. Crest Tours are generally not recommended this spring, except in places like the Ritter Range, Goddard Divide, and perhaps the Sawtooths. Trans-Sierra tours like the High Route should be low tide but OK, just be prepared for significant extra hiking on the in and the out and understand that you may have to portage your skis across barren patches with relative frequency.

Be strategic for the rest of the season in planning your ski outings. For example:
  • Don't plan on descending below 9000' for very long anywhere in the range, unless you think it is worth the walking. 
  • Use roads like the one to South Lake or Onion Valley to get a high start. 
  • Consider carrying a light pair of walking shoes for long stretches of dirt.
  • Wait until Tioga or Sonora Pass Roads open so you can start or finish up there.
  • Re-route your Sierra High Route to Onion Valley instead of Shepherd Pass. 
  • Consider looping the Ritter Range High Tour back to Mammoth via the San Joaquin Ridge to avoid the long trail walk down to June Lake. 
  • Consider a high country basecamp trip instead of a point to point tour to maximize skiing and limit the difficulties of travel. 
  • Be flexible and wait for a good weather window so you don't add difficulties to the challenge of conditions. 
  • A good aspect of this touring season is that there will be plenty of access to open water and dry camping. You may be able to go a little lighter on cooking and shelter systems if you plan carefully and coordinate with stable weather.     
Enjoy what we have, and remember that this is the season to milk and savor every last turn. Hammer on those ski boots and fill them with mud. Scrape those edges on the rocks and don't worry too much about it. The snowline is rising and pretty soon it will be prime alpine climbing season. And next to more skiing and riding, what could be better than that? - Howie

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Winter Mt. Whitney 2013

To Summit or not To Summit – Musings of a Sierra Mountain Guide

As I put away the expedition gear from my recent trip and place the kit back on the
racks in the garage, I find myself reflecting on the outcome of the trip I am returning
from. Drying the tent out, I think about the locations we used for camps and add a
little self critique as to if they could be improved on or not. Cleaning and putting the
cooking equipment away reminds me to look into a new pump for that ten year old
Primus stove that acted up a little on this last trip and may just be plum worn out.
Grabbing for the rope and rack, this time it is hard not to be a little dismayed. On
this trip we didn’t get a chance to use the technical equipment; weather came in on
us just hours before the wake up call for our attempt on the summit of Mt Whitney
in winter. While we made a thoughtful decision that most of the members of the
group were hoping to hear, not trying for the summit is still a bitter pill for me.

Having climbed and guided peaks on six continents, it is always fascinating to me
how one can find a ready challenge in your own back yard. Climbing Mt Whitney
during the winter months will always provide a challenge, but it is easy to forget
that even with the best preparation, all you need is a sudden change in weather to
throw a curve at you. Winds that make it hard to stand on your feet on flat ground
prove especially troubling climbing a steep couloir with some 3 rd and 4th class
rock. The added snowfall needs to be taken into consideration as well, as you don’t
want to climb the mountain, only to find the avalanche conditions to have changed
significantly on the slopes now below that must be crossed to return back to camp.
These problems can appear as readily on peaks close to home as they may in the
Andes or the Himalaya.

Without a doubt, proper planning and preparation are the key ingredients to a
successful trip. As a guide, this is where I see most groups fail to achieve their goal.
Perhaps they misjudged the difficulty of the route and couldn’t move fast enough,
or maybe they climbed too high on the first day of their trip, rendering legs useless
from the climb and heads hurting from the altitude. It all comes down to having
a good plan and knowing what to bring. But in the end, the mountain still sets its
terms, and no matter your level of experience, you won’t know what exactly what
to expect until you arrive. Examples of this happening to me flood to mind; a recent
trip to New Zealand to climb Mt Cook that shut my partner and I down to the point
of never setting foot on the mountain. Another trip to Ecuador that stymied us twice
on peaks, when strong wind and snowfall made us wonder if a safe descent from the
summit would be possible. Hasty retreat ensued in both instances, and we never
questioned our decision having endured the torment of the weather for several
hours before coming to it.

Back to Mt Whitney, it was a tough call we had to make that morning. The
conditions were pretty bad; the gusting wind was carrying frozen droplets of
moisture that pelted you in the face like little bb’s, and it certainly didn’t make sense
to roust everyone for the climb when we were almost being blown from our feet

just coming to the decision. Yet when you don’t try for the summit, you will always
be left not knowing the outcome of the attempt, had one been made. Would we
have turned back at Iceberg Lake having found it too difficult to keep our feet on
the ground? Would the stinging snow in our faces been enough to turn us back?
Or would the weather have broken and the summit come cleanly into grasp? In
the end the stormy clouds clung to the peak well into mid-afternoon, and reflecting
with our team on the descent from high camp that day, most were concerned about
simply leaving the tents that morning, no less enduring the weather on the more
extreme terrain of the climb. Sometimes it is just better to turn back and appreciate
the defeat, knowing simply it just wasn’t your day. While I sometimes struggle with
the undesired outcome, I never bemoan the fact that I still have all my fingers and
toes, and good decision-making has kept my partners and I from having a serious
accident in the mountains. Besides, if every climb was guaranteed to be a success,
what kind of adventure would that be?

Cheers and good hunting,
Jeff Witt