Report from March 14, 2019 – By Laura and Rob Pilewski, Tuolumne Winter Rangers
Ski Conditions and Weather
New snow: 18 inches
Total settled snow depth: 96 inches (at 8,600 feet)
High temperature: 40°F (March 12)
Low temperature: -7°F (March 10 and 13)
Mother Nature left no snowflake unturned this week. We spent the past three days at Tioga Pass, where the winds howled. Initially, the winds were out of the north, and yesterday they turned back around to the southwest with speeds clocked near 100 mph along the crest. It was an impressive scene as the high winds blew huge plumes of snow to the lee sides of mountain peaks against a backdrop of an otherwise deep blue sky. The cold temperatures and new snow that fell this week also added more water to our snowpack and kept the settled snow depth in the Tuolumne Meadows area near 100 inches (over eight feet).
The aforementioned high winds and new snow have changed surface conditions daily. The angle of the sun is getting higher each day as we near spring. Melt/freeze cycles are occurring during sunny days on east and south aspects, and below 9,000 feet, these are more pronounced. There is definitely some excellent skiing out there if one plans accordingly and pays attention to wind speed/direction, temperature, time of day, aspect, and elevation. Presently, all aspects in the higher elevations are wind affected to some degree.
Wilderness travelers to these higher elevations should be prepared for the potential of hard snow surface conditions. This includes park visitors approaching from the east via the Tioga Road and Lee Vining Canyon. Do not expect a road grade if coming up from the gate in Lee Vining Canyon. There has not been any machinery on the road as of this writing, and there are some steep side-hill sections that have serious consequences if one were to take a fall/slide. We recommend carrying an ice ax and crampons. Conditions are very dynamic this time of year and you might find softer spring-like snow during certain times of the day, that becomes “bullet-proof” (hard) once shaded or on cloudy days. It’s always better to be prepared for varying conditions even if it means carrying more weight on your back. This includes a map as well, as one may prefer a route up Lee Vining Canyon on a year like this so long as they are comfortable with their mountaineering skills. At present, the creek is bridged by snow.
Avalanche and Snowpack Conditions
For the avalanche advisory for this area of the Sierra Nevada go to www.esavalanche.org for the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center.
Currently, the avalanche danger is low in the Tuolumne Meadow area. Wind slabs have been developing in the alpine zone and require proper assessment and route decision making to avoid. It looks like we are heading into the longest dry spell of the winter (which doesn’t mean much given the frequency of storms this winter). The avalanche concerns will soon shift from wind slabs to wet slides on more solar aspects as the days get longer and warmer.
We had two notable wildlife observations this week. One was of fresh porcupine tracks on a ridge a couple of miles south of Tuolumne Meadows. Its tracks seemed to amble around rather aimlessly (as I assume our tracks making laps looked to it). At one point, it must’ve become frustrated with its four legs and instead decided to see how well its quills would slide through the freshies downhill. Unfortunately, it only worked for a couple of linear feet.
Secondly, we may have to eat crow on our last post. We believe that bird last week was not a western meadowlark but a horned lark. We are just used to seeing the horned larks in flocks during the summer down south in Sequoia National Park and not individually. However, on rare occasions, we have seen solitary horned larks here in winter. In fact, on Sunday, we saw two sitting on the snow of Lembert Dome, which is why we believe this was the bird in question from last week (we still cannot confirm if that bird was a juvenile, but it looked like the same species).
The Tuolumne Meadows Ski Hut is open. There is firewood and 8 bunks that are available on a first come, first served basis. For those visiting the Tuolumne Ski Hut from the east (only) permits are self-issued at the Ski Hut. For those entering from other areas, please see: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermits.htm or you may contact the wilderness office at 209/372-0740. There is no phone service in Tuolumne. We can be contacted regarding winter travel to Tuolumne Meadows via email, but we may be delayed in responding if we are on patrol. Come prepared, and please make good decisions while traveling in the wilderness!
Laura and Rob Pilewski –