Winter storm brings avalanche concerns to Tahoe Basin
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — Winter returned to the Tahoe Basin Wednesday night, to the delight of skiers, snowboarders and resort officials. But higher-than-predicted snow totals will remain a cause for concern among backcountry travelers this weekend.
“It was a little more than we forecast,” Reno National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Faucette said regarding their initial predictions. “We’re right about where we should be (for the winter). As far as what we need, we need a lot more to end the drought.”
Close to two feet of fresh snow fell at higher elevations, prompting the Sierra Avalanche Center to raise the region’s avalanche threat to “considerable” Thursday — Level 3 on their five-tiered scale. The rating means natural avalanches are possible and human-triggered slides are likely on numerous backcountry slopes. Trail users and skiers should use extra caution on or near slopes above 30 degrees.
The group’s website cited reports of numerous natural avalanches across the region during the storm, including a slide onto Alpine Meadows Road near Squaw Valley Resort.
A press release from the North Tahoe Fire Protection District reported that two vehicles where involved in the slide, three people were rescued and uninjured.
The avalanche prompted Alpine Meadows Ski Resort to remain closed Thursday and put Squaw Valley on hold.
The avalanche center’s forecast cautioned prospective backcountry users of wind-loaded slopes susceptible to slides on northwest, north through southeast facing aspects.
“Those wind slabs are still forming as we speak,” Sierra Center forecaster Steve Reynaud said Thursday. “We’re expected to have elevated avalanche danger through tomorrow at least.”
Reynaud said concerns could remain through the weekend above tree line, and he recommended exercising caution.
“There are many clues as to where wind slabs are,” he said, referring to terrain features like ridges and gullies that collect snow.
“Skiing below tree line is going to make sense,” he added.
In addition to wind slabs, storm-slab slide danger was a concern on all points of the compass, below or near tree line following the storm. That danger may subside by the weekend.
Reynaud reminded users to always check for updated forecasts before venturing into the backcountry.
The Wednesday/Thursday storm was a welcome addition to the region’s snowpack. A dry start to February caused snow-water equivalents in the snowpack to dip below average in the central Sierra Nevada region. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, however, the Tahoe Basin remained above average with regard to snow-water equivalent through the recent dry spell.
“I’d say this storm might bring us back to average,” OpenSnow.com forecaster Bryan Allegretto said, speaking to the region as a whole.
While February is typically the highest precipitation month during the winter, Allegretto said that’s not a cause for concern.
“We can pick up the whole month’s precip in one or two storms,” he said. “I’ve seen 100 inches in a week.”
And while February was relatively dry, he was optimistic for March based on forecasting models.
“Hovering around average isn’t too bad,” Allegretto said. “If we get big storms in March, which is definitely possible, we could get back above average.”
Area resorts will be looking at another banner weekend thanks to this week’s snowfall.
“We started ramping down the expectation. Originally it looked like it wasn’t going to happen,” Heavenly and Kirkwood Mountain Resort spokesman Kevin Cooper said of the forecast. “This morning (Thursday) was an absolute surprise.”
Cooper said Heavenly and Kirkwood each received 24 inches of snow from the storm. Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort reported 21 inches as of Thursday morning.
As of Thursday Kirkwood received 328 inches of snow for the winter; Heavenly recorded 267 inches total.
Clear skies and warmer temperatures are expected for the weekend.
“It’s going to be a fantastic weekend for skiing and riding,” Cooper said. “Any line is skiable once again.”