Winter Returns

El Niño gives Tahoe backcountry skiers a huge helping of powder

Words and photos by Brennan Lagasse

Winter-Returns---DSC04374

Jillian Raymond enjoys another prime powder day on the West Shore of Lake Tahoe.

“I’m going to ski this super cautiously, island of safety to island of safety. Copy?”

“Yes. I have eyes on,” my partner responds.

Slowly, I dance my way into Emerald Chute, one of the most classic backcountry ski lines in the greater Tahoe area. Earlier in the day, Ming Poon and I had broken trail, methodically working our way up crystalline fields of powder until we crested the top of the line, which feeds directly into the iconic Emerald Bay. A couple of friends caught us as we were getting to the top, and together the four of us shared in one of the best runs any of us has experienced in our Tahoe backyard in at least four years. Our friends had to take off after that run, but Ming and I went back for more.

Falling 2300′ into Emerald Bay and adjacent to the Eagle Chute, the Emerald Chute is a prize. It’s barely been touched over the past few drought years. However, as of mid January the high peaks around Lake Tahoe have seen about 220 or so inches of snow. That’s roughly the same amount they saw all of last season. Coverage is good and getting better, but in essence it’s the current quality that has stood out the most to backcountry users who seem to be celebrating powder day after powder day.

This past fall, the buzz from the “Godzilla El Niño” predictions had all but brainwashed even the most jaded of Sierra veterans into thinking that this could be a year of snowy redemption for the Range of Light. I always say, never count it until we’re skiing it, and truthfully October was so dry I felt lucky to bag one enjoyable ski day in the Tahoe backcountry skiing off the top of our highest peak – Freel – after a small storm. If this was to be a season of salvation it sure wasn’t starting out very impressive.

As November appeared there still wasn’t that much snow in Tahoe, but by months end around five feet had fallen breathing hope into forecasters’ predictions. As much as early season conditions can be difficult to negotiate in the backcountry the skiing was fun. Enter December and the faucet started opening up to the tune of more than twelve feet of new snow. Slowly but surely, iconic peaks and classic lines started to fill in like we haven’t seen in years. In actuality, Tahoe is hovering right about average in terms of annual snowfall right now. The same can be said for the entire Sierra Nevada range. But because the past few winters have been so poor the positive response amongst the community has been overwhelming.

Brendan Madigan knows about the drought all too well. Beyond being an accomplished backcountry skier himself, he is also the owner of Alpenglow Sports, a Tahoe City gear shop specializing in outfitting Tahoe residents and visitors with the best backcountry ski gear on the market. According to Brendan, “After four winters of damage control it’s really nice to have a normal winter again. There is a collective happiness in Tahoe and the unmistakable powder smiles are everywhere you look. Snow is crucial to the long-term health of our economy and we just hope things keep the established pattern well into 2016. When you run a ski business you’re a genius when it snows and a bit of a dolt when it doesn’t.”

To me, Brendan’s sentiment has been salient concerning our excellent start to the 2015-2016 ski season. People are fired up, from ski resort staff, to local business owners and dirtbag ski bums. It’s been a steady, growing groundswell starting gradually in November, building through December, and cresting with the consistent snowfall we’ve seen thus far in January.

It may not seem crucial to the untrained backcountry user, but January is a tricky month in the Sierra, especially in Tahoe. If you go back to our last big season of 2010-2011 Tahoe received barely a few inches of snow in January, but finished with a staggering 800+ inches on the season. We’re used to snow starved “Juneuary” conditions during the first month of the year, although savvy backcountry skiers and riders can often find prime winter corn if enough of the white stuff has fallen during early season storms. Luckily, as much as corn skiing is prime in the Sierra, no one has had to think about seeking out slopes that are more prone to softening with solar radiation so far this season. It’s been nothing but powder days, and if forecasters predictions hold, it looks as though a wet trend will continue well into spring.

Back to the Emerald Chute, knowing Ming has his watchful eyes on me, I slide into my next turn popping out of the more narrow upper reaches of the chute. With a southeast orientation, this is not the easiest line to get in full on powder conditions. I pull into a safe spot gaining the unique view of towering golden granite to my left, Emerald Bay a few thousand feet below, and perfect knee high powder coating the entire run. I’m as giddy as kid in a candy store, but I know we can’t celebrate until we’re at the bottom.

Ming drops in, surfing his way toward me and my safe spot.

“Ummm … this is insane,” he says with a grin stretching wide across his face. “I’ve never had this line in such good conditions!”

“Me either,” I respond knowing we’ve both ridden this line numerous times, but right now, in the moment, it’s by far the highest quality we’ve both ever experienced in this truly epic location. We continue our way down in utter awe at our fortune.

Later that night, we talk to friends who were skiing in the Donner Pass area, the West Shore, and down towards Carson Pass that day. Everyone is saturated with powder fueled stoke. The energy is contagious, and the weather is pointing to nothing but more light, cold snow for our area. It’s always a good time when you’re in Tahoe, whether you’re a long time local, weekend warrior, or first time visitor, but this winter, right now, there’s no better place to be a backcountry skier or rider in the lower 48.

A happy crew gets walled in a pinner couloir in the Tahoe Basin.

A happy crew gets walled in a pinner couloir in the Tahoe Basin.

Making turns off the Peter Grubb Hut.

Making turns off the Peter Grubb Hut.

After four consecutive years of lean snow, snowsports enthusiasts revel in what feels like one long powder day.

After four consecutive years of lean snow, snowsports enthusiasts revel in what feels like one long powder day.

Fueling up for another fun day of perfect powder in the Tahoe backcountry.

Fueling up for another fun day of perfect powder in the Tahoe backcountry.

The classic “Cross” of Mt. Tallac.

The classic “Cross” of Mt. Tallac.

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