LAKE TAHOE — Backcountry skiers and snowboarders looking to take advantage of the fresh snow falling through the weekend should monitor avalanche conditions carefully.
The Sierra Avalanche Center has issued a warning that avalanche danger is expected to be high through Saturday.
“We're skiing here because it's relatively safe,” backcountry snowboarder Blair Mcleod said after a run up Powderhouse off Highway 89 Friday. “We didn't drop the bowl because there's two layers up there that are suspect.”
Mcleod and friend Eric Lee O'Brien were prepared for the danger. Both wore beacons and carried probes and shovels. At the top of the run, they dug a snow pit to examine weaknesses in the layers. On the way down, they stuck to the gladed areas that are less prone to avalanches.
This winter, with longer periods in between storms, the snowpack has developed distinct layers that are vulnerable to sliding, said David Paradysz, Kirkwood Mountain Resort's assistant director of ski patrol. Paradysz handles the resort's avalanche control and sits on the board of the Sierra Avalanche Center.
He'll be watching this weekend's storm totals closely for signs of avalanche danger.
“When it's snowing, the conditions change drastically and radically,” he said.
Because the Sierra Nevada typically has lower danger than Colorado, many backcountry enthusiasts don't realize the risks that are posed by the lower snowpack, Paradysz said.
“I think people get spoiled here. Our normal winters are substantial and people get used to just going right out,” he said. “This year takes a little more awareness and decision making.”
Brandon Schwartz, a forecaster with the Sierra Avalanche Center, said the current weak layer has lasted longer than normal for Lake Tahoe's snowpack. With the loading that will occur through the storm, this layer could produce large, destructive avalanches, he said. Skiers and snowboarders need to make decisions accordingly, he added.
“I think it's important to tell people that avalanches are really predictable,” Schwartz said. “People traveling in the backcountry choose their own level of risk. There's a big difference between reading the advisory and heeding the advisory.”
Across the country, there have already been more avalanche deaths than last year. So far, 29 people have been killed, up from 26 last year. Including the recent death of Truckee's Nick Dodov in Alaska, three of those people have been from the Lake Tahoe area. Two of them, Olympic Valley's Benjamin Brackett and Minden snowmobiler Daniel Kuhner, were killed in slides in the region.
Almost as a forewarning for the weekend, ski patrol set off a large avalanche down Squaw Valley's KT-22 run Friday before the lifts opened. No one was injured.