New Snow: 17 inches
Settled Snow Depth: 141 inches
High temperature: 38°F (March 27)
Low temperature: -15°F (March 26)
Ski Conditions and Weather
Winter kept an icy grip on Tuolumne Meadows on this alleged first full week of spring. We had to do a double take when looking at the thermometer yesterday morning when packing to go to Vogelsang for the snow survey. “15°F, pretty cold out there; wait a minute, is that a minus sign in front of the 15?! Yowza!” Better fill the thermos, pack the extra warm puffy, and plug in the heated socks! The following day, the Dana Meadow snow survey started out at a balmy -13 °F. Where are you, spring? According to the forecast, it is nowhere in sight.
This winter is one for the record books and California keeps on setting new ones. It is interesting to remember that not even ten years ago, in 2015, the Sierra Nevada experienced not only the driest winter on record, but the driest winter in perhaps a millennium. To put that into context, in 2015 we measured 11.5 inches of snow and 4.0 inches of snow water equivalent (SWE) at the Dana Meadow snow course. Yesterday, exactly eight years later at the same location, we measured 162.45 inches of snow and 72.75 inches of SWE.
Ski conditions are excellent, but ever dynamic this time of year. In spite of the cold temperatures this week, the higher angle of the sun and long days caused a sun crust to form on most aspects except north. As we write this post, it is spitting snow and another couple of feet of new snow are in the forecast. This winter just keeps on giving!
Plan accordingly for a trip to the Tuolumne Meadows Ski Hut!
In a year like this, even the most fit visitors will find it difficult to make it in from the Lee Vining Gate to Tuolumne Meadows in a day especially with a heavy pack. It is a tough balance between being prepared to bivy and traveling light and fast.
The Lee Vining approach to Yosemite remains a mountaineering experience. We recommend an ice axe and crampons in the kit as hard and steep snow will likely be encountered, if not on the way in, then on the way out. Remember snow surface conditions are variable depending on time of day, wind, aspect, and elevation. What might be a moderate boot pack or ski traverse on softer snow may turn into a fearful slide for life scenario on hard snow at another time. To elaborate, the Tioga Road grade has been replaced by steep, consequential, side hill traverses in places by the heavy snow, winds, and avalanches. There are countless alternative routes into Tuolumne Meadows, but they too require mountaineering skills. It is not just a “walk in the park” when snow blankets the ground.
Avalanche and Snowpack Conditions
The upper meter of snowpack continues to be quite complex. There are layers of crusts sandwiched between faceted grains. The cold temperatures this week contributed to more faceted development and will be tested once again if buried beneath the new snow load that is in the forecast. It is a very atypical snowpack for the Sierra Nevada for this time of year, and we recommend “treading lightly” until the pack becomes more isothermal and “springlike.”
Aside from our random sightings, there seems to be a dearth of bird life this winter. They have been hunkering down a lot like us and are not belting out songs on these subzero mornings. The mountain chickadees are still hanging tight in larger flocks of ten or more. A few more common raven were seen this week along with the winter resident brown creeper, white-breasted nuthatch, hairy woodpecker and Clark’s nutcracker. Pine marten and weasel tracks abound as do snowshoe hare and black-tailed jackrabbit (aka Townsend’s hare).
We did hear a pika bark from the talus above Fletcher Lake. We hope its hay stores hang in there until the snow melts. But with twelve feet plus, that may be a while…
Yosemite Winter History
Winter recreation in Yosemite has a rich history. Noted author and Sierra historian Gene Rose has written extensively on this topic in his book Magic Yosemite Winters. Gene has graciously given us permission to reference and/or quote his book for our upcoming posts.
Badger Pass is the oldest ski resort in California and is only one of three lift-served resorts that operates in a national park. “Facilities or not, ten thousand skiers visited Badger Pass in the 1934-35 season…” and by December 1935 a new Tyrolean Ski House was built. By the 1939-40 season, Badger Pass saw upwards of 60,000 skiers (p. 34-54).
“An all day lift ticket was a dollar, but you could get a single ride for 25 cents….There was no groomed snow or anything like that. Often it was junk snow. [Skiers] groomed the run by boot-packing.” (p. 55)
Now the average adult ski lift ticket in the United States costs between $75 and $100 with some resorts charging over $200 for the day! That’s yet another reason why you’ll find these two wilderness rangers who get paid mostly in sunsets, self-propelled.
[Magic Yosemite Winters, Gene Rose. Cold Stream Press, 1999. Pgs. 34-54 and 55.]
The Tuolumne Meadows Ski Hut is open. This primitive cabin is the campground reservation office in the summer and is located along the Tioga Road at the entrance to the campground. It is marked with a sign. There is firewood and 8 bunks that are available on a first-come, first-served basis. For those visiting the Tuolumne Meadows Ski Hut from the east (only) permits are self-issued at the Ski Hut. For those entering from other areas, please see Yosemite’s website: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermits.htm (#3: Do I need a wilderness permit during winter?) or you may contact the wilderness office at 209/372-0740. As of this writing, there is NO electricity or phone service in Tuolumne Meadows.
Come prepared, and please make good decisions while traveling in the wilderness!
Read through the following two pages before embarking on any day or overnight snow travel within this park:
You may contact us with any additional winter Tuolumne Meadows related questions but response times may vary if we are away on patrol.
Stay safe and warm!
Laura and Rob Pilewski - Tuolumne Meadows winter rangers