DECEMBER: High Elevation Pow Hunting
Words and Photos: Ben Birk
For a snowboarder living in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range, December means cold mornings, windy ridge tops, and shadowed northern faces. The month has historically brought substantial snow to the mountains, with early season dumps covering up the mostly granite landscape and allowing boarding activities to take place. High elevation spots from the Eastern Sierra, to Mammoth, to Mount Rose, to Mount Shasta receive anywhere from 5 feet of snow to over twenty. Splitboarders race to beat skiers to ridge tops, as most riding is confined to a few select zones. December also means Avalanche Awareness Month and many riders use the first 31 days of the backcountry season to brush up on their avalanche skills by attending a seminar or really stepping up their knowledge and taking an AIARE certified course.
Seven days of a strong eastern wind characterized the start of December this year. The snowpack had begun to blow off the mountains, back toward the ocean from which it came. The last time it snowed was November 20th, and most backcountry enthusiasts had decided to stay home. Those that did hike up faced the hardships of variable snow, freezing temps, and blasting gusts on the ridges. Good powder was found on perfect north-facing aspects not receiving sunlight. But the tide was low and snowboarders wanted more depth to could expand their search for the next line.
December 8th through the 10th, a series of large storms pushed inland from the Pacific Ocean on a weather phenomenon called the Atmospheric River. The systems didn’t receive the cold air they needed and hit the mountain range very warm and wet, with snow levels above 8,500 feet and rain everywhere below. Cold air and more wind came after the storms, turning what remained below the snow line to a sheet of ice. For the first time all month riding was mostly put on hold. Even by the diehards. However, high elevation east-facing slopes were developing some quality transitional snow that was extremely fun to ride.
On December 15th, another storm with high snow levels and rain hit the area. Any snow below 8,500 feet was total garbage, but above 8,500 it DUMPED. Overnight the storm delivered some of the deepest conditions seen in recent Decembers, turning some high elevation zones to mid-January snow depth. In the Eastern Sierra the rain had made the traditionally long approaches somewhat shorter. allowing easier access to high elevation couloirs that had received snow. In the northern part of the range on Mt. Shasta conditions looked good as the top of the mountain sits at an elevation of 14,179 and received feet upon feet of snow during the last two storms. Air temps slowly rose over the next 10 days keeping everything fun.
The third and final storm of the month came Christmas Eve and delivered snow down to 3,000 feet. Snow fall was in the 3 foot + range for the entire Sierra which had every snowboarder in 250 miles pulling out their boards and rushing into the mountains. Air temps slowly warmed over the next 5 days and kept conditions primo through the year's end.
The period of no snow followed by heavy snow/rain and cold temps have made for some serious concerns in the snowpack over the month. Here is what expert Max Wittenberg, owner of West Wind Collective, a Sierra-based company which provides snowboarders with avalanche training and backcountry skills has to say about how the snowpack progressed through the month of December:
“The preseason snow that graced the area was left to rot and was the primary concern at the beginning of December. After a cold and snowy start mid month, snow levels turned out to be the biggest factor. Above 8500 feet harbored good cold snow, but below the surface existed persistent weak layers from the early season snow. Below 8500 feet had seen multiple small and large rain/snow events, wind events, and warming. This left multiple supportable crusts, which in turn have formed facets around them, creating an even more complex snowpack than normally seen in the Sierra. During the end of December big snowstorms impacted the area depositing 3-6 feet of snow and buried these weak layers deep within the snowpack. This in turn has created a deep slab problem, mixed with storm slabs and wind slabs. The moral of the Sierra’s season so far? Things aren’t always as they seem.”
In an era of mass FOMO, it's easy to get caught up in the notion that it's good everywhere but where you are. The truth is there were some amazing moments in December with over 10+ days of good snow. With the majority of our snowfall still to come and storm after storm lined up on the Atmospheric River. The range as a whole is looking decent, especially when you consider we are only a 1/6th of the way through our season. So now in January, stay in your healthy habits. Early to bed, early to rise, eat your greens, drink lots of water and remember to wax your board. We're about to get dumped on; it's going to get deep, and you’re going to have fun.