The 2023 South Sierra Snowpack
Beware those tempting faces and gullies, my friends. At nearly 300% of normal, we've got yesterday's snowpack, to be sure, but we've still got today's temperatures.
Dave Braun, OP, and I skied Mount Baxter's southeast face on Sunday as a sort of high-level shakedown cruise to assess the Sierra and ourselves. Results were mixed.
I could tell you a great deal about the intricate interplay of decisions, circumstances, and quirks of fate that led to me skiing over to Preston to give him some water moments before a large wet slide spontaneously began above us.
But at least for now, I would rather focus on giving you my overview of current conditions in the South Sierra, in hopes that will help keep you from experiencing a similar adventure (we're okay, sans a bit of lost equipment I will hike back for when things melt out).
The snowpack is incredible; we skied all the way down to about 6600' on the north aspect of the Oak Creek drainage. That's part of the siren right now: you can ascend and descend on snow instead of the usual hellish bushwhack in the lower gullies.
So, yes, the scene is set for big line skiing—easy access plus lots of big walls covered with snow.
But here's what you need to think about: unless it's quite cold, those low gullies will become shooting galleries in the early to mid afternoon, which is probably when you'll be descending through them.
And those big faces are covered with surprisingly layered and unconsolidated snow that can suddenly shift into motion as the sun warms it. Note that northeast faces currently (as of Sunday) have wintery snow that appeared to be poorly bonded to a hard (rain crust?) layer below. We saw clear evidence of recent large slabs breaking loose on those aspects.
On all aspects down low and sunny aspects up high, there is considerable wet slide potential, including dangerously large wet slides, and including the possibility of wet slabs breaking off on crust layers below.
In the good old days I would have skied this in May and started my descent right around 10:30 a.m. That would have keep us safe on the southeast face, but also put us right in the danger zone for the lower gullies.
Given that it's only April and temperatures really weren't that warm by Sierra standards, I mistakenly thought we had more time to work with, and thus we were on Baxter's face right around noon.
We were easily an hour too late. On the high face and cirque we saw and/or triggered numerous wet slides, some of which were quite large. By the time we reached the lower-elevation gullies, everything there had mostly already slid, creating massive debris fields and the usual snow bridge and hollows concerns.
So choose your poison—or don't. The easy snow paths in the gullies are hard to resist, but be aware of the dynamic I've described—you're going to have to decide how to time the faces and the gullies, and that's a dilemma that may persist for a while.
— April 11, 2023
Andy Lewicky is the author and creator of SierraDescents
Dan April 12, 2023 at 11:26 am
I don't have the skill to ski that face, but I did notice it was filled in enough to be a go. Glad you're still around to write about your experience on it. Hopefully cooler weather comes along and deepens the freeze.
charles April 12, 2023 at 5:59 pm
Glad you are all ok!! That photo is just stupendous... How much vert was that climb?
Andy April 12, 2023 at 6:47 pm
About 7000K vertical, so definitely in the "good training for Williamson" category. :) Seeing all that snow juxtaposed against Owens Valley (and Owens Lake w/water!) is mind-blowing.
Brad Brown April 13, 2023 at 6:48 am
Just came back from Utah, lots of snow movement there after a 5ft event. Crazy transition from pow slides to wet slides in a few days on record snow pack. Little Cottonwood Canyon to Alta/Bird was closed due to avies, we never made it there. The
resort opened briefly last week then closed due to an in bounds avie, no injuries TG. Full interlodge conditions for days. Those resorts just reopened. Meanwhile we spent pleasant days at Brighton/Solitude up the adjacent canyon. Saturday’s exit was also avie affected as a wet slide crossed Big Cottonwood Canyon delaying us for a few hours-adding a scramble at the airport for a 9:45pm to Ontario. Similar to Ca, this is all unfamiliar territory to Utahans. I foresee night ops in your future Andy, this feels scary different from from 2010 and 17. You may have to amend “pray for snow” signature. For now mine will be “pray for stable snow and safe travel”.
Andy April 13, 2023 at 1:08 pm
Night ops for sure!
charles April 14, 2023 at 1:16 pm
Night ops as in start any long uphill travel at like 2 AM?
We used to downhill skateboard Mt Tamalpais, north of San Francisco, by full moon- six mile, ~30MPH or so cruise, quite illegal, but at night the ranger wasn't policing it, and also the road was closed to all traffic. After 10 minutes of eye adjustment, visibility became very good, no problems seeing everything. Great times.
Louis Tremblay April 15, 2023 at 9:09 pm
Any thoughts on a Whitney attempt this month? What would you advise? Seems like tricky conditions.
Larry Pitman April 24, 2023 at 12:52 pm
I'm glad your back dude, stay safe...
Andy April 24, 2023 at 1:38 pm
I think this would likely be a great year to do Whitney's north face. Stability is improving, and long-range temps are expected to be cool.
Be esp vigilant for snow bridges & fast water, and remember on May 1 the awful Whitney Zone permit system goes into effect.