Persistent Slab… an avalanche problem you don’t see often in the Lake Tahoe backcountry. This challenging issue has been lurking in the snow-pack since December 15th. To celebrate New Year’s Eve, we knew we wanted to do a Tahoe backcountry mission, but where and how? Images of us hearing a “WHOOMPF” below our splitboards and triggering a MASSIVE slide scared us to the core. Having very little experience dealing with Persistent Slabs, we decided to play it safe and pick some low angle terrain on SW-S-SE aspects. Was it the best snow out there? Absolutely not! But, we had a blast AND got home safe.
What is a persistent slab and why it scared us
First thing to know is most deaths occur in slab avalanches, and Persistent Slabs are the most difficult category of avalanches to manage and predict. They occur when a “crust” forms from something like a rain event that froze, giving the new snow that falls above it a place to slide on instead of bonding to the older snow below it. The worst part? They happen even when no signs of natural avalanches exist. If that wasn’t enough, Persistent Slabs last through initial storm cycles and continue to grow and become larger and more destructive over time. Not wanting to take a risk like that, we studied the last few days of avalanche reports/weather conditions from the Sierra Avalanche Center and picked only slopes that didn’t appear to have this issue – meaning slopes that were SW-S-SE facing.
Low Tide in Lake Tahoe Backcountry
To say that this ski season isn’t a bit abnormal would be an understatement. Nearly every storm that has hit Lake Tahoe so far has been massive but the snow levels have been incredibly high. This has left very little snow below 8,000 feet, so in our heads there were only two options sitting above the 8,000 foot mark:
- Carson Pass
- Mt Rose Wilderness
Mt Rose was quickly out of the question because of the amount of people in town for the New Year’s celebration so our decision was to hit Carson Pass. With our location locked down, we planned to meet at the intersection of Routes 88 & 89 around 9:00 am and together head into the Lake Tahoe backcountry.
The best part of waking up is…
They may say that the best part of waking up is “coffee in your cup” but the sound of crackling bacon is a close second. Standing next to the stove preparing some sustenance, I starred out the window. The sky was clear and the ground looked deeply frozen. The snow crystals glinted in the early morning light. Over breakfast, I checked in again with the Sierra Avalanche Center forecast to see if anything had changed from the day before. It hadn’t so the plan we made was good-to-go.
From sunny & clear to foggy & snowy
Throwing my gear into the back of the truck, I was off! Quickly glancing at the motels on Lake Tahoe Blvd., I noticed most people were still sleeping. Instead of sleeping in, we were taking the words “Carpe Diem” to heart. The roads were empty as I turned onto Luther Pass. In the distance, clouds were hugging the summits attempting their best to roll into the Tahoe basin. Is the weather different on Carson Pass? Making it over the summit, what seemed like clouds actually became fog that drifted into Hope Valley. Arriving at the designated meet up point, we consolidated gear into one vehicle and were off to the Meiss Trailhead atop Carson Pass.
Cloudy weather leads to empty mountains
Reaching the trailhead, there were only a few cars dotting the parking lot. A couple of diehard backcountry skiers and snowshoers sat in their cars prepping for their own outings. We stepped out of the truck and felt the cold moist fog smack us in the face. Flurries slowly drifted to the ground from the low-lying clouds as we geared up for the adventure. Since our objective was to stay on low lying terrain that was SW facing, the fogginess did not affect our plan. With a quick transceiver & plan check, we splitboarded our way up the slope. The rustiness from a few months off of skinning swiftly disappeared as we hiked up the ridge.
Powder calls like a Deadly Siren
The parking lot vanishes quickly as we ascend. Looking to the right, the soft pillowy-untracked powder calls out to us like a siren. It’s impressive to see no one made the rash decision to drop into these N facing slopes. It may have contained the best snow but at the same time the biggest risk. Rising further up the ridge, the clouds continued to blanket the area. It wasn’t until we reached the summit the fog burned off, giving us glimpses of Red Lake Peak, Round Top, Elephant’s Back, and Kirkwood Ski Resort in the distance. Standing there, we take in the views as the clouds drift in and out. The puffy white fog made it feel more like we were in the Himalayas than on the top of a ridge in the Sierra Nevadas.
Ice over Powder leads to getting home safe
Walking over to the other side of the ridge, we put our splitboards together and drop in. The snow is firm but carvable. We follow around to the other side of the slope and can see the parking lot below. Taking some sweeping turns on the descent, we take great care not to fall on the icy snow. Making it to the parking lot in one piece, we slap some high fives. Was it the best snow? Not really. Did we accomplish our goals for today? Absolutely! We had the mountains to ourselves, got some recon done, and most of all burned off some calories before the evening’s festivities. With the clouds parting, we looked up to the peak and said “We’ll be back!” Until then… HAPPY NEW YEAR and hope everyone is patient for the snow to heal in the Lake Tahoe backcountry.