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Backcountry Lemonade: Trans-Sierra Backcountry Skiing

Tuesday, December 11th, 2018

Old Man Winter Strikes Again

After 9+ months of planning, our Trans-Sierra backcountry skiing trip hung in the balance. Our intention was to tackle the High Sierra route, traversing from Shepherd Pass and ending up at the Wolverton trailhead in Sequoia National Park five to six days later. Unfortunately, the report from Eastern Sierra Avalanche seemed to get worse by the day.

After a dry December, January, and most of February, it appeared that Old Man Winter wasn’t completely asleep after all, and the largest storm of the year dropped 7 feet of snow right before we were set to depart.

Backcountry Skiing packing list

Sorting and resorting our gear, which included packing the Ultralight/Watertight Pro medical kit

Adapting to the Weather

After circling the wagons, our team of 4 decided to make the most of the following week and use the hut reservations we had made for Pear Lake in an effort to salvage some decent skiing. We left the Wolverton trailhead under blue bird skies and made our way into the cirque just below Pear Lake for one night of camping before we moved into the seemingly luxurious winter hut.

dinner at camp 1

Camp 1 at Emerald Lake

Despite having to adapt our plans from the more ambitious (and coveted) traverse trip, we had a phenomenal time. The skiing wasn’t amazing, but the people were and so was the terrain.

backcountry skiing

Skiing in past many signs of recent avalanches

Skiing up from our camp and looking out over the snow laden Sierra is an experience that any backcountry skier should seek out. Venturing out into the Tablelands of Sequoia brings you into some surreal scenery that is reminiscent of the European Alps.

mountains at night in snow

Camping under the moonlight

Backcountry Skiing Safety: The Right Training & Gear

As with any backcountry skiing trip, the risks need to be respected and calculated as much as possible. The knowledge that comes from Avalanche Trainings is useful but there is also a practical experience that must also be drawn from when making decisions in the mountains. Travelling with the proper gear and equipment (beacon, shovel, probe, first-aid kit, repair kit, etc.) is also essential.

skier assessing snowpack

Assessing snowpack

After the four days in the backcountry, we returned to the trailhead sunburned, sore, hungry, and tired. We were refreshed by the beauty of the Sierra once again and were already discussing plans for the following year. There is something about getting away into the backcountry that is good for what ails all of us. With the conditions at hand we made the best of the situation and created “backcountry lemonade” from the lemons the backcountry (and Old Man Winter) through our way.

backcountry noridic skiing

Looking out to the Tablelands and the Kaweahs

About the Author

As the General Manager of Southern Yosemite Mountain Guides, Graham brings diverse experiences from many corners of the outdoor industry globe. With his guiding career, he has also filled operational and management roles for several leading adventure based companies in North America and South America. His love of travel and adventure is infectious and immediately evident as he assists SYMG guests in creating their perfect journey into the mountains he calls home. The backcountry skiing trip early this Spring is a popular touring option that ventures into the backcountry of Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park.

AVALANCHE AVOIDANCE: TIPS FOR SAFELY ENJOYING RECREATION IN THE BACKCOUNTRY

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

Doug Abromeit - Director of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center


By Doug Abromeit – Director of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center

Avalanches typically kill more people in the mountains in the West than any other natural disaster, and the winter of 2007-2008 was particularly grim. Last year 36 people died – the worst on record. Two of those people were killed by avalanches off of house roofs, one was killed in a ski area and thirty-three were killed doing their thing in the backcountry — snowboarding, skiing, climbing or riding a snowmobile.

I am often asked why this past year was so bad and the short answer is that dangerous conditions existed virtually everywhere and they existed for extended periods of time. Typically one or two geographic areas will have bad avalanche conditions and the rest of the country will have relatively stable conditions, but that was not the case in 2007-2008.

Although there were many complex reasons for the spate of avalanche fatalities this past season, the weather – specifically, an unusual snowfall pattern — played a major role. In general terms, most mountainous areas started with relatively light snow fall and cold temperatures. These conditions produced a weak faceted snow layer that could not support the additional weight that was piled on top it by a subsequent series of large snow storms. The weak basal layer was analogous to the strength of potato chips; the big storm layers to the weight of a brick. Obviously potato chips have a hard time holding up a brick and so the basal layers collapsed and avalanches occurred.

The freakish weather wasn’t the only reason for the uptick in Avalanche deaths. Last winter, more people were out in the backcountry because the powder happened to be awesome just about everywhere. Technology exacerbated the situation. Because our skis, boards and snowmobiles are much better than they were just a few years ago it’s now easier and more tempting to get into steep avalanche-prone terrain.

WHAT YOU CAN DO TO AVOID AN AVALANCHE

There is only one absolutely certain way to avoid being caught in an avalanche and that is to avoid all avalanche terrain. Avalanches can only occur on slopes steeper than about 30 degrees, so if a person stays on slopes flatter than 30 degrees they are almost guaranteed to never get caught in an avalanche. But that’s easier said than done. Western mountain ranges all have an abundance of slopes steeper than 30 degrees and much of the best backcountry skiing, boarding and snowmobile riding occurs there. So if you choose to go into terrain steeper than 30 degrees – and most of us do – then you can only reduce your risk, you cannot eliminate it.

The most effective way to reduce your risk is to have the tools and skills necessary to identify avalanche terrain, assess snow stability, and carry out a fast and effective rescue if things go bad.

When you go out, along with bringing your dedication to following low-risk travel protocols, you must have a slope meter to determine slope steepness, an avalanche probe and know how to use it, a shovel, extra food, water and clothes, an emergency bivvy or blanket, and a good first aid kit. But the most important tool you can have is avalanche awareness skills. And the best way to develop those skills is to routinely read and/or listen to your local avalanche advisory provided your area has one, take an avalanche class (for information look on avalanche.org or go to your local outdoor shop), read books like the Avalanche Handbook and Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, watch videos like Think Like An Avalanche (available from Black Diamond mail order) and check out the Forest Service National Avalanche Center website at .fsavalanche.com.

There are no shortcuts; it takes time to learn how to assess avalanche danger and how to make reasonable decisions based on your assessment. I urge everyone who goes into the backcountry to take the time and make the commitment to develop your skills so you know when to say “go” and when to say “no”.

Doug Abromeit

Director of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center

(The NAC coordinates all the Forest Service Backcountry Avalanche Centers in the US, facilitates research, and manages the Forest Service Military Artillery for Avalanche Control Program, among its other duties)