March 28, 2013
Birch Mountain Benchmark
I like Birch Mountain as a benchmark for Eastern Sierra snowpack conditions because it's gigantic and because it's readily viewable from Highway 395. Birch's upper face tells us a lot about what the wind has been doing throughout the year, and its lower slopes tell us a lot about temperatures—as well as overall snowfall. So how are things looking here in March 2013?
First, let's check in with last year's Birch photo, taken April 20, 2012. Holy smokes, there was more snow up high on Birch in late April last year! Last year, as in the worst year ever. To be fair, last season there were some fine April storms, and the same may happen this year. But that's still a bleak-looking Birch, no matter how you slice it.
To really appreciate the significant of these images, you need to look at John Moynier's photos in Backcountry Skiing California's High Sierra. Look at John's shot of Birch in the 1999 edition: the whole massif is practically a gleaming shield of white all the way to Owens Valley. That's what Sierra backcountry skiing used to look like. This, it seems, is what it looks like now.
Farther north, you'll find highly variable but improving coverage. Once again, Mammoth and the Ritter range seem to have the caught the best of it. There are rumors that Tioga Pass Road is plowed (but not yet open), and the high peaks of Yosemite look promising if you can get to them. We found a very strange snowpack on Esha Peak last Sunday. It's far from clear whether all those facets will consolidate into corn as spring progresses—or just transition directly into rot.
In a way, however, SoCal backcountry skiers have an advantage this year: we're used to skiing any snow we can find, however abominable. There's certainly snow to be found in the Sierra, even if it doesn't make for the classic Sierra spring skiing experience. Adjust your expectations accordingly, and you'll find plenty of options (Birch Mountain excluded).