A record snow year creates opportunities for backcountry bliss
By Leonie Sherman
Right now every river in California is a churning torrent, the desert is aflame with cacti blooms, and the foothills are carpeted in fluorescent green. But the Sierra Nevada Mountains are still buried beneath record setting snowpack. As long as the snow persists, those majestic mountains of light and wind are accessible only to the intrepid and dedicated. If you want to visit the high reaches of the Sierra Nevada anytime soon, you’ll need a pair of skis.
Spring backcountry skiing in California’s fair weather range means leaving the tent door open to track the moon’s course through a starlit sky. It means lazy morning yoga waiting for the snow to soften. It means spying on white-tailed ptarmigans in their winter camouflage, burrowed amid a tangle of white bark pines at 10,500 feet, only their jeweled obsidian eyes visible against the expanse of white. It means stepping out of the tent to pee at midnight and watching a hare dart from tree to tree on silent paws. It means listening to coyotes call across frozen ridges beneath brittle moonlight.
With snow accumulation at 275% above average, spring skiing means freedom. Want a short rocket ride to a hot springs? Head for Wild Willie’s before sunrise to watch dawn colors splash over Banner, Ritter, and the Morrison massif. Fancy a short steep descent? Point your car west of 395 on almost any road from Twin Lakes to Whitney Portal and pull off at an appealing gully. Prefer a stout climb? A peak in the Sherwins or Palisades will test your aerobic capacity. Crave solitude? Fling yourself at the crest, set up a base camp and pass your days exploring basins and ridges. Spring skiing is transportation, recreation, and entertainment.
Snow shuts down auto traffic, but opens up possibilities. A skier can float over a tangle of willows or a tedious talus field. Steep cliff bands soften beneath their load of snow. Massive cones of avalanche debris become a playground. The gentle slopes of seeping meadows too fragile for summertime exploration beckon to the beginning skier. Narrow chutes seduce experts.
Describing the texture and consistency of that thick white blanket would tax the vocabulary of an Inuit with a hundred words for snow. A single slope offers silky smooth, peeling layers, buttered corn, frozen crystals, pea soup, wind-boarded styrofoam, bulletproof concrete, and breakable crust at different hours.
After kicking, gliding, sliding, and carving various aspects and angles throughout the day, snow ceases to be an inanimate substance that facilitates travel and becomes a dynamic living entity. It’s a wind blown sculpture. It’s a source of water. Its rhythms and transformations are predictable with careful study.
Modern skiers flock to resorts and imagine the sport requires a lift ticket. But our ancestors first strapped sticks to their feet almost five millennia before the advent of the internal combustion engine. They were just trying to visit relatives and get around their mountainous homes. Early Europeans in the US used skis to work a mining claim or deliver mail. An activity that now features competition and corporate sponsors began in the wilderness.
Snow returns bustling campgrounds and trailheads to their original wild state. Beyond the groomed runs and lift lines is a world of mute splendor. The gate that bars automobiles and the flagging meant to discourage exploration protect the stillness of primordial wilderness. Snow allows the land to rest and recover from the indignities inflicted by summer crowds.
Even the idea of summer is relative in an epic snow year. As the days lengthen, temperatures rise, and snowmelt transforms placid rivers into furious cascades. On the coast, we trade boots for flip flops. Desert climbers seek shade. But a thick blanket still covers the forested mid-montane and treeless alpine zones. Chickadees greet dawn with the song of spring, but the transport of winter is required to hear them.
Sierra Nevada means “snow-covered mountains” in Spanish. But climate scientists predict the term will be obsolete by the end of the century; they forecast an end to snow in the range of light within 50 years. This record year may be a statistical anomaly. It may be the last big snow of our lifetime. It may become the new normal. We can’t see into the future, but we can enjoy the present. There’s never been a better time to strap skis to your feet and take to the hills.