If you're planning a hike on the John Muir Trail or in the High Sierra for 2014, the Sierra snowpack typically is at the forefront of the planning process, especially if your trip is in early summer. It’s not unusual for eastern Sierra locals to look up in the high country this time of year, and call it quits for the backcountry ski season. Hard to blame them as the snow line creeps ever further from the end of the roads and south aspects become little more than pockets of disjointed “corn”. But the eastside rarely gets as much snow as the “other” side of the crest and this can be greatly exaggerated in a dry year.
While California as a whole, has persevered one of it’s driest winters on record, the same may not hold true for many of the highest elevations in the Sierra. This winter, from my home here at 7,200 feet on the east slope of the Sierra, I waited for snow to coat Red Mountain above my house. At 11,472 feet, Red’s north slope is usually coated and skiable to my front door, not this year. The talus was visible through a thin layer of snow the entire winter and I didn’t have to plow my driveway once! Convenient yes, but not all that encouraging.
However, on ski trips west of the crest, there has been light, but ample snow coverage at higher elevations. This is also shown by data gathered by myself and other snow surveyors through the California Cooperative Snow Survey program.
Around April first, I sampled sites at Bullfrog Lake, Charlotte Lake, Piute Pass, Virginia Lakes (Northern Yosemite area) and Devil’s Postpile. As well, other surveyors have measured sites through out the Sierra. These measurements indicate considerably more snow water equivalent (SWE) at the upper elevations then might be expected given the dismal ~25% of normal across the State.
Below are SWE averages for sites above 10,000’ in major watersheds between Mt Whitney and Yosemite (Tuolumne sites are above 9,000’). I give a comparison between this April and that of 2013 and 2012 for comparison. It should be noted that the April 1st measurements are considered peak accumulation.
Percent of average
River Drainage 2014 2013 2012
Kern 42 20 34
Kings 52 31 41
San Joaquin 51 32 43
Tuolumne 48 39 39
Lower elevations in these drainages (below 8,000’ in the north and 9,000’ south) are much drier and averaging in the low to mid 20%. Also, due to prolonged hot, dry spells, south facing slopes have been burnt free of snow.
Now, three weeks later, the higher elevations are still holding substantially more snow then they were at this time the last two years. While the May 1st field data won’t be in for a week or two, SNOTEL sites at the upper elevations are showing 30-50 inches of snow. Many of these sites were close to dry by May 1st the last two seasons.
When this winters snow will leave the high country is a guessing game at best and fully dependent on the whims of May (as I write this on April 27th, Mammoth Pass has received 34” of new snow, Charlotte Lake 25”). So while it is indeed a drier year, it is much snowier at the upper elevations than the last two years, especially west of the crest. If you don’t want to get your feet wet, plan on shorter excursions on the eastside. For longer trips, be prepared for snow, many of the passes may not melt out for a while.
(Important disclaimer: the above synopsis is solely the opinion of the author and in no way reflects the opinion, or water forecast, of the California Department of Water Resources)
SWE is the amount of water held in the snow and is the the most important factor in determining snow density and predicting runoff forecasts.
John Dittli is a 34 year resident of the High Sierra and works part-time as a snow surveyor for the California Department of Water Resources. His day job is managing his photography business. His award winning book, Walk the Sky: Following the John Muir Trail is available through his website www.johndittli.com and at fine book stores. To see more of John’s images and what he might be up to, follow him on Facebook.
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