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Glass Half Full: The Neutrino Couloir at 21% Normal Snowpack

The Hole in the Wall Couloir on the backside of Mammoth Mountain in 2014/15's best form.

As many people know, this past year in the Sierras was the driest year on record. But it was also my first season in the Sierras, so I didn't have the good sense that more seasoned locals have, and I was stoked to ski anyways! However, after five straight months of skiing chocolate chip-spattered couloirs like the Hole in the Wall (above), I was ready for some snow.

Traditionally in the Sierras, April first marks the date where the snowpack is at its peak and net growth turns to net loss. So, every year the good folks from the California State Water Resources Control Board trudge up to the high passes in the California Cascades and Sierras, like 9000' Tioga Pass on the east side of Yosemite, and measure the snow depth. 

They do this so the state knows how much water the farmers in the Central Valley and the fashionistas of Palm Springs will have to farm with and water their golf courses with, respectively. Well this past winter on Tioaga Pass, the measurement closest to my home in Mammoth, measured 4% of normal (again, see photo above)....  

This was not great news, but it was certainly not unexpected (again, see photo above) so I started looking at the state and I discovered that up north, Lassen Peak, the southernmost volcano in the Cascade Range, was at a jaw-droppingly luscious 21%!!! Now, 21% of normal may not seem like much to you Teton types, but both the Sierras and Lassen get about the same average snowfall (~400" a year), which mean that while Lassen was still pretty low on snow, it did have five and a quarter times more snow than we did in Mammoth.  A trip two years ago had imprinted on my mind the image of the Neutrino Couloir, a (for me) butt-clenchingly steep dog-leg couloir that comes off the top of Brokeoff Mountain, adjacent to Lassen. 

That night, I had a Skype call from 8pm till 2am with a toilet company in India that is collaborating with me on my PhD thesis (not important), but my friend and I decided to go for it anyway. We drove to a $35 motel in Reno, my buddy slept while I Skyped, and then at 4am we woke up and my buddy drove while I slept. By 6am we were at the trailhead in Lassen National Park and the weather was perfect.

Map of the route for Neutrino Couloir.

There was snow!! Skins were on at the car, and in about an hour we were transitioning to crampons and tools and staring up at the couloir. 

The Neutrino is the obvious couloir center right in the photo.

21% snowpack sure looked good compared to what we had been skiing all season, so psyche was pretty high. The upper couloir got steep, the dog leg, according to Summit Post, is 62 degrees, and if I had felt stable enough to measure it, I would have attempted to confirm this, but I was too scared. 

The author, taking his time up the bootpack.

Sam, my skiing partner and a champion of steep snow climbing ran up the thing while I carefully kicked in each step. Luckily for my cowardliness, I was the star of the photos form his perch above the couloir. 

Climbing the Neutrino Couloir.

By the time I heaved myself over the lip, the snow had softened enough in the lower chute to make the skiing excellent. We both decided to descend the dog leg hiking down in our boots, as it was a bit over 60 degrees and we like to leave skiing that steep to the French. Once we got around the dog leg, crampons came off and skis went on, a few hesitant turns on high fifty degree corn took us to a much more comfortable corn angle, and then out of the chute. 

The skiing was excellent and the 21% snowpack felt like 500% snowpack. That night, we decided to camp in the park, only to find out that we had forgot our food back in Mammoth. I did, however, have a few packets of purple stuff that a friend had given me as a goodbye gift on her way back to Korea. It tasted fine and kept us warm so we were happy, although we still are not sure what it was because everything on the package was in Korean. 

Korean purple stuff to celebrate a successful win. 

We woke up and drove back to Mammoth. As we passed through Bridgeport it started to dump snow on us–more snow than we had seen all season. Little did we know May would turn out to be the best skiing of the year.

More to come...

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