How to Locate Fresh Snow and Safe Avy Conditions

One of my backcountry partners and I kept a close eye on storm cycles during the first week and a half of January. Even when I had to attend Winter Outdoor Retailer, a four-day tradeshow in downtown Salt Lake, I was checking OpenSnow.com’s Powder Finder app, reading NOAA forecasts for different regions, and scouring avy reports.

Ideally you want to arrive with the storm, not after. Timing can be a tough thing to nail. You can show up and everyone else chasing powder is already there. Or worse, you show up before a storm that never comes. Once you do figure out where the snow is going to fall, then you need to figure out what the snowpack looks like.

How We Followed a Huge Storm Cycle to Tahoe

For example, we initially thought we could tour the greater Rainier area. Washington sees monstrous snowfall totals. The snow there gathers amount of moisture from the ocean, making a dense, deep snowpack with characteristically low avalanche danger.

That said, as I talked with locals about the snowpack and watched the avy danger rise, that zone got incredibly sketchy. So, Washington was out.

I kept reading about a huge storm approaching from the Pacific. Nearly every ski and snowboard website buzzed that it was going to drop 3-5 feet on California. On the 12th, we packed my friend’s Suburban and drove to Lake Tahoe.

Using a tiny house in Truckee as a basecamp, we chased powder all over Tahoe’s northern rim. It snowed pretty much every day for a week. Three to five deep was a fairly accurate mark, with three storms coming through.

Avy Danger High: Don’t Do Stupid Stuff

While this made for some spectacularly deep turns, it also caused the avy danger to skyrocket. Several people got caught and buried. An all-time storm cycle isn’t something to be missed. However, it’s not worth risking serious injury or death.

We made the painful, pride-swallowing decision to be conservative. We rode low-angle bowls, ridgelines, and trees. We dug around, checking the snowpack. We stay inbounds twice, just because it was the safest decision to make.

I’ve been thinking about this trip as a lesson to chill the heck out. The Wasatch has seen a lot of snow this year, and already many natural and skier-triggered slides.

There was a rather high-profile avalanche fatality of a local skier two days after I got home from California. It’s so easy to get caught up in the search for fresh snow and to forget that it’s just skiing.

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