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December 15, 2012
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Sierra backcountry conditions 'good' after rain, snow

TAHOE/TRUCKEE - There's fresh powder in the backcountry, but that doesn't mean you should leave your rock boards - or your avalanche beacon - at home.

Recreational conditions on Thursday were good, Sierra Avalanche Center forecaster Brandon Schwartz said. The new snow had settled, making for a supportive snowpack that prevented skiers and boarders from sinking to the icy rain crust.

When it comes to avalanche danger though, Schwartz said he was concerned about a layer that formed on Dec. 2 when the snowline fell to lake level in the morning, only to rise again later in the day.

That event created a weak layer of sugary snow between two rain crusts that can compromise the snowpack. The results from two stability tests Schwartz conducted Friday were the weakest he'd seen so far this season.

"Looking forward over the next two weeks, that's our big concern. If we get more snow, it could collapse," Schwartz said.

Each storm that rolls into the basin adds another layer to the existing snowpack. Predicting how those layers will interact and the effect they'll have on avalanche conditions is a tricky, dynamic science, and Schwartz reminds would-be-backcountry enthusiasts to check advisories like the one on the Sierra Avalanche Center website,, every day.

Meyers resident Canyon Florey trekked up Water House on his spilt board Thursday. Conditions were good, he said, especially after the amount of rain that drenched the slopes earlier this month and the shallow base.

Florey rode through light, dry snow that was up to 14 inches deep in pockets, but he said there were still rocks and logs to watch out for and it was slippery heading up the pitch.

Up until this week's storm, which dumped between 12 and 16 inches in and around the Lake Tahoe Basin, there wasn't much snow to worry about at lower elevations.

"It's been a really unique year in that we had so much precipitation, but snow levels were really high. At 7,500 feet and above, conditions were really good," Sierra Avalanche Center Director Todd Offenbacher said.

Kirkwood Mountain Resort, located above what Offenbacher called the 7,500-foot "magic mark," reported Friday 14 to 21 inches of new snow and a base of up to 50 inches.

Mt. Rose Ski Tahoe, with a summit at 9,700 feet, boasted 100 percent open terrain Friday, including The Chutes.

There's more cold, dry powder forecast over the next few days that could allow ski areas to open more in-bounds terrain and keep filling in the backcountry. Lake Tahoe could get another 7 inches of snow between Saturday and Monday, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Schwartz warns that if you do head into the backcountry, you better know what you're doing. Avalanches are predictable, he said, and it's up to individual riders to learn about avalanche safety techniques, check conditions daily or even hourly and come prepared with a beacon, probe and shovel.

"You control your own risk by deciding when and where you travel," he said.

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Tahoe Daily Tribune Updated Dec 15, 2012 05:42PM Published Dec 15, 2012 05:40PM Copyright 2012 Tahoe Daily Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.