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Skier breaking trail through fresh deep snow in Tuolumne Meadows on February 6, 2019 (Pilewski)

New Snow, 97 Inches: Tuolumne Winter Rangers Report

YOSEMITE — Tuolumne Winter Rangers Laura and Rob Pilewski are back again with weekly stories from the field.

New snow: 97 inches
Total settled snow depth: 102 inches (at 8,600 feet)
High temperature: 46°F (January 31)
Low temperature: -20°F (February 6)

Ski Conditions and Weather

This week saw an impressive return to winter with a series of storms that dropped a whopping 97 inches of new snow, with a 6.21 inches of snow water equivalency, over a five day period. The finale to this event was 38 inches of new snow in a 24-hour period, and plummeting temperatures that hit a low of minus 20 degrees.

This intense rate of snowfall was not something we have experienced in our time as the Tuolumne Meadows winter rangers. The landscape, or “snow-scape” such as it is, in the Tuolumne Meadows area is significantly different than it was a week ago. There is currently over 100 inches of snow blanketing this part of the Sierra Nevada with potentially more on the way this weekend. We will be digging out from this one for a while.

As for the ever-changing ski conditions, the trail breaking (is that actually skiing?) became a waist-deep exercise in patience, planning, and teamwork. The low density “fluff” that fell this week resulted in sinking nearly to the bottom of the new snow when standing on skis — and when that new snow is nearly 7 feet deep, well, you get the picture. We’re talking the quarter-mile-an-hour variety here, folks.

Needless to say that the Tuolumne Meadows rangers did not range far this week, but their shoveling and trail breaking muscles got a good workout. As the snow settles over time, the ski travel will improve, as will the ski conditions on the surrounding slope. Hooray for the water in California!

Avalanche and Snowpack Conditions

Please refer to the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center (ESAC) for the avalanche advisory for this part of the Sierra Nevada.

Mother nature surely tested the snow stability with this one, with almost a hundred inches of snow and with over six inches of water. Today [Feb. 6, 2019] is the first day we have seen the sun, so our observations have been limited.

However this morning from Lembert Dome, we were able to see avalanche activity in the Tuolumne Meadows area on north facing rocky treed slopes around 9,000 feet. Some of those slides appeared to have crown lines that stepped into the old snow over ten feet deep. Wind and/or storm slab avalanches were visible as far away as the north slope of Mt. Lyell. Although we did not see as many avalanches in the alpine zone, it was obvious that the winds had ravaged these mountains during the storm and probably obliterated most evidence of slide activity.

The persistent weak layers are now deeply buried and the new snow seems well bonded and homogenous and will continue to strengthen and set up. Now the primary avalanche hazards will be driven by the wind and/or the sun (rapid warming). This is a very dynamic time period with potentially more snow on the way. Continue to monitor the daily weather and local avalanche posts.

Avalanches (show with red lines) on Johnson Peak on February 6, 2019 (Pilewski)

Wildlife

The day before this series of storms hit Tuolumne Meadows, the birds and other wildlife were scurrying about as if they, too, were making preparations for the impending weather. One ermine (short-tailed weasel) scored big before hunkering down. But, we accidentally spooked it while it was attempting to drag a dead bushy-tailed wood rat twice its size across the snow to its burrow. Given how soft and furry the rat’s pelt looked and how many calories were probably packed inside its plump body, it was no surprise to see the weasel patiently waiting to retrieve it once the coast was clear. Within five minutes, the weasel excitedly hopped about thinking that we were gone, grabbed the rat by the scruff of its neck and claimed its prize.

General Information

The Tuolumne Meadows Ski Hut is open. There is firewood and eight bunks that are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

There is no phone service in Tuolumne Meadows. We can be contacted regarding winter travel to Tuolumne Meadows via email, but we may be delayed in responding if we are on patrol.

For those visiting the Tuolumne Ski Hut from the east (only) permits are self-issued at the ski hut. For those entering from other areas, visit: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermits.htm or you may contact the wilderness office at 209/372-0740.

Come prepared, and please make good decisions while travelling in the wilderness!

Happy Skiing!

Laura and Rob Pilewski – Tuolumne Meadows Winter Rangers

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