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California’s Spring Season Aims for Endlessness

Real time Sierra Nevada snowpack report from a Mammoth local

After a winter that saw the Sierra Nevada range blasted with massive amounts of snow, spring has finally appeared… in late May. The “finally” is no exaggeration—the last two weeks featured frigid winter weather, and a couple of straight-up powder days.

But the sprawling east side of the Sierra now seems to have settled into proper warm days/cool nights corn harvest weather, and true spring skiing season has just begun.

Trust me, I know it’s late May and ski season might be long gone where you live, but we’ll be skiing for a couple more months here—and you should too. With the massive storms this winter, Mammoth Mountain long ago staked a claim on a July 4 closer. And while there hasn’t been any big announcement since, their website now cryptically says they will be open “until July 4 and beyond.”

Inbounds
That could easily be well beyond. According to a marketing source, there is no set closing day, and they’re open for skiing “…at least a few weeks longer [after July 4], maybe into August.” And Mammoth is skiing great—melting has barely begun above 9000 feet and the snowpack remains glacier-like with a 10-22 foot base. Twenty-two feet is plenty, but consider that in areas with a lot of wind-loading (Dave’s Run) or avalanche debris accumulation (lower Chair 23), there’s more than twice that depth. The upper mountain’s broad terrain is even more expansive than normal, with most of the terrain features—the rocks, trees, and cliff bands that divide up the mountain—still buried and completely smoothed over.

Long top to bottom runs of sweet, velvety corn are the order of the day—the Mammoth ski experience for the foreseeable future is best described as gloriously indulgent high-speed tanning.

Pro Tip: Mammoth Mountain is offering 50 percent off lift high-speed tanning tickets if you have a season pass at another resort.

Exhibit A: Rock-walled chutes are still buried under 20 feet of snow in late May at Mammoth Mountain. PHOTO: Hans Ludwig

Most of the kickers were temporary, but this run from Bobby Brown gives a little taste of the standard three-minute Mammoth spring lap:

Take away the jumps and most of the skill level, wait a couple hours for the snow to soften up, and that’s what I’ve been doing this week. There’s plenty of long-radius turns to be had out there.

Out of Bounds
Meanwhile in the backcountry, there’s been more activity on the peaks and “couloirs” of the High Sierra than we’ve seen since 2011. I put quotes around couloirs because many of them are still more of a bowl than a chute. Iconic spring classics like the Bloody Couloir near Mammoth, the elegant North Couloir of Mount Emerson, or the glacial Palisades couloirs south of Bishop are in, stacked, and calling your name. If you haven’t skied a big peak straight to the desert I can’t recommend it enough. Going directly from ski boots to flip flops is a special kind of joy.

Plenty of folks have been heeding that call—it’s been game-on in the high country since the major walloping ended in March, leaving the Sierra with a remarkably stable 200-percent-plus snowpack (in fact, May snow surveys showed 200 percent of a normal April snowpack). With all that snow after the pent-up energy from a multi-year drought, a major percentage of the crown jewel peaks and lines have already felt the caress of P-tex and wax.

Exhibit B: Spring skiing and “couloir” hunting has finally arrived in the Sierra Nevada. PHOTO: Hans Ludwig

POWDER Senior Photographer Christian Pondella and an array of partners have been particularly active, attacking big boy lines with a skinning frenzy from Mount Whitney to Sonora Pass—his instagram should be an effective gateway drug for those who haven’t skied here yet. In addition to the usual local suspects, Pondella has also been joined by a number of big names from out of town—expect to see imagery in the media this fall of Rad People going really fast on Sierra lines that have never been skied that way.

For those familiar with the landscape, the high country is still so stacked that it’s disorienting. A couple of weeks ago I went for a skin up Convict Canyon to ski a narrow little slot couloir on the west flank of Mount Baldwin. Unfortunately, the couloir had disappeared. Its 20-25 foot-tall walls buried somewhere in the middle of a spacious bowl. From high on the west side of Baldwin we could see deeper into the range, where it looks like an ice age has descended. Despite the couloir shortage, the run, with literally miles of swooping turns on smooth snow down a spectacular canyon, was superb.

That ice age snowpack means it’s also prime time for multi-day tours or high-alpine base camp skiing in the heart of the range. Earlier this month Exum guide Jed Porter completed a 16-day/25-peak attempt on the fabled Redline Traverse, conceptualized and executed by Alan Bard, Tom Carter, and Chris Cox and documented by them in POWDER circa 1983. The traverse tours the very crest of the range from Mount Whitney to Mammoth—125 miles and 80,000 vertical feet in Porter’s 2017 version—skiing as many peaks as possible along the way and rarely straying below 11,000 feet. His write-up is worth a read.

The rest of us won’t be skiing 25 peaks in 16 days, but the way I figure it, if that’s what someone can do with modern AT gear, we ought to be able to have a blast doing something a tenth as ambitious. As cool as the roadside skiing of the Eastern Sierra is, going deeper in the range and hanging out for a bit is another level of fun.

Access Status
While they’ve been delayed by the snowpack, plow crews have managed to clear almost all of the key East Side access roads to get you into striking distance without an epic dirt walk:

– The Mount Whitney road is open to Whitney Portal if you want to ski the highest peak in the lower 48.
– Big Pine Creek Road and Onion Valley road are clear for access to more huge 14ers out of the desert towns of Big Pine and Independence.
– From the Bishop area, the upper Buttermilks Road is in high-clearance 4×4-only condition with major runoff damage, but the Bishop Creek (Hwy 168) trailheads are all accessible from pavement.
– Rock Creek has been plowed within about a mile of the summer trailhead as of 5/20.
– McGee Canyon is clear.
– Lundy Canyon and Virginia Lakes Road to the north of Mammoth are clear.
– Twin Lakes out of Bridgeport is open but burnt down low.

As to the big passes that cross the range, Sonora (out of Bridgeport) should be open with about another week of plowing and the skiing off Hwy 108 will be stellar. Tioga (Hwy 120 from Lee Vining through Yosemite NP) is a another story. People have been hiking up from the bottom to ski the couloir complex off the adjacent Dana Plateau (a grind and melting fast down low), but the legendary car-shuttle scene may be weeks away to judge from this heli video of plowing operations from last month.

A more recent clip from local videographer Dan McConnell shows more progress, but also the scale and hazard of the job.

The current rumor is July 4 for the complete pass opening through Yosemite, but clearing the east side of the pass (to the Yosemite gate) for skier access could happen in the next couple of weeks. With the snow depth and the potential for post-plowing rockfall and wet slides that might be optimistic, but fingers crossed.

Since the regularly-scheduled Tioga car-shuttle frenzy is on hold, we’ll just have to make do with T-to-B runs on a stacked ski resort and sunny couloirs on lofty granite peaks. You’ve only got a couple months left.