The Pay Off - Sierra Storm Chasing

Open Snow Weather Map

The promise of precipitation was too much to ignore. A series of late November storms were lining up on the Pacific and barreling towards the Sierra Nevada. A lot of dialogue was swirling around about the systems, though, with everyone wondering, speculating, and predicting a full gamut of outcomes. Ranging from torrential rains up to 10,000 feet that could force the Tahoe communities to start from scratch, to rain at lake level foreshadowing copious amounts of blower above 7,000 feet. It seemed like every pow-starved skier and rider in Northern California fit one of two molds: Negative naysayer or eternal optimist.

For us, it was a worthwhile gamble on the last weekend of November. We knew full well that the potential rain would be a huge drag, forcing our crew to baton down the hatches of our West Shore cabin, watch football and drink whiskey in close quarters to pass the time, and ruminate and brood over what could have been. The other option that proved to be the impetus for us loading in the truck, weathering the pissing rain en route to Tahoe, and risking cabin fever can be summed up by one stat that had our heads spinning: The series of storms — if things lined up and it all came to a cold fruition — could drop as much as 100 inches on the Sierras. 

It seemed like a no-brainer; we opted to head to Tahoe.

Friday afternoon was shit. Unrelenting rain followed us from Santa Cruz to Sacramento, but we held onto hope as we started climbing in elevation toward Donner Summit. If the temps started to drop as we climbed, the rain would turn to pow. But, as we crested Donner Pass, at 7,056 feet, the Truckee River raged with runoff and the thermometer on my dashboard read 36 degrees. That night was spent sipping on whiskey and hoping it was pounding up high.

Those predicting rain and a wet weekend nailed it for Saturday. We woke up early to check the snow reports, and drove to the base of Squaw hoping to see something different than what we read online. But, soaking wet tram operators greeted us in front of the closed tram doors. “Not today, guys,” they said beneath dripping hoods. “It’s snowing hard on top but the winds are too strong.”

So, biscuits and gravy in Rosie’s dining room — a Tahoe City institution — were followed immediately by IPAs at Rosie’s bar, which lead to pulling slots and playing cards at the Crystal Bay Casino. The precipitation didn’t stop, but neither did the winds. Kirkwood was spinning its chairs while getting buried by wet snow, but the chairlift-halting winds had most of Tahoe’s mountains in a holding pattern.

Finally, late Sunday morning the rain at lake level turned to heavy wet flakes that accumulated quickly. As the winds started pulling back in the late afternoon we pulled ourselves away from the slot machines and headed up to see what was happening at Mount Rose — the semi-secret hidden gem on the eastside of Lake Tahoe. With a base elevation of 8,260 feet, Rose offered a solid option to rectify the weekend and sample the snow. Skin tracks winding up to the Mount Rose backcountry were promising, 40-plus inches of fresh were sitting untracked on the mountain after two days of weather closure, and we decided to sit around one last night to see if Monday was a-go.

Open Snow Map
“That shift in weather on Sunday morning was very much expected,” said's Joel Gratz. “That was the cold front from the final storm that came through. That whole weekend event wasn’t one storm, but was a series of a few storms that drew a lot of moisture off the Pacific, which also drew a lot of warm air. That final storm was strong enough on Sunday morning to pull in colder air from the north. It just took a stronger storm, a stronger piece of energy, to drag that colder air down.”

As Mount Shasta was getting buried beneath 18 feet of snow, our guys called in sick to work on Monday. It proved to be a solid decision. 

From Squaw to Mount Rose, the lift lines were sparse on Monday morning. Most of the pow-hungry masses were either at work or just over the weekend’s waiting game. But, Monday proved to be an all-time, early-winter day for the patient few whose priorities are straight.

Storm totals of 42 inches on the upper mountain at Squaw and 45 mid-winter inches blanketed Mount Rose, and bluebird skies sat over all of Lake Tahoe. The waiting game proved to be a war of attrition, but Monday’s conditions rewarded the patient.

What’s this mean looking forward and for everyone in Colorado, Wyoming, and Idaho?

“There’s a difference between an individual storm and a general weather pattern. What happened last weekend in Tahoe was a series of individual storms, but what were tracking now is an overall change in the weather pattern,” Gratz said. “The storm pattern is going to shift to a different orientation which should hopefully bring in colder air for more areas and give some new areas a better chance to see snow. That’s not a guarantee that we’ll see big snowstorms, but at least it sets us up for the PNW, the northern Rockies, and down into Utah and Colorado to have better chances of consistent storms over the next few weeks. That’s the key: consistent cold storms. Some might be big and some might be small, but at least we’ll have [storms] every couple of days, which is the most important part when considering good powder skiing.”

So, here’s to hoping that all of our communal patience pays off this winter just like it did for us in Tahoe last weekend, because my body can’t handle much more waiting-game whiskey and my wallet definitely cannot take one more hand of “maybe-tomorrow-will-be-blower” blackjack.

Skiing Mount Rose December 2012It was a bluebird pow day at Mt. Rose on Monday, Dec. 3, 2012.

Slashing Powder at Mt. RoseIs that a Soul Pole?

Cruising Mt. RoseCutting a rug at Mt. Rose.

Pow in your face at Mt. Rose in December 2012Pfffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffttt.

Sending it at Mt. RoseVapor trails.

Friends skiing at Mt. RoseWhat it's all about.

Squaw Valley December 2012Pretty much crushing it at Squaw Valley early December 2012.

Squaw Valley snow December 2012This is what winter looks like.

Sending SquawStraighten up and fly right.

Powder at SquawTime to track the living shit out of this.

Grip it and rip itAnd now we can all breathe a sigh of relief, winter is here.

Don't Miss Out On Another Storm, Stay Up To Date On Snowfall In The TGR SnowLab


TGR Contributor Greg Fitzsimmons

Greg grew up surfing Santa Cruz and skiing Tahoe as much as possible. After college, Fitzsimmons landed a gig at Francis Ford Coppola's literary magazine and got hooked on publishing. Fitzsimmons now tries to make rent in Aspen as a freelance writer.

Comments (0)

You Might Also Like...