Nice weather eating away at snowpack |

Nice weather eating away at snowpack

by Jim Donald

Late fall and early winter brought huge amounts of precipitation to the Sierra. As you may know, Department of Water Resources measured the average snowpack at year’s end and found it to be 198 percent of normal.

Indeed there is a lot of snow at Carson Pass. Huge snowbanks more typical of late March line Highway 88. But as I write this it is dry and warm, topping 60 degrees here in Markleeville. The weeklong forecast shows dry but cooler later in the week. More troubling is the three-month outlook calling for the dry weather typically associated with our current La Nina event.

But outlooks and forecasts are best guesses based on complex analytical modeling of atmospheric conditions and as such contain significant chance for error. By the time this column makes the paper conditions may be entirely different. But, for better or worse, we live with what we get.

Earlier in the season we saw some of the best cross country skiing in memory but the snowpack has become icy and hard, only softening on south aspects at midday on sunny days. Snowshoes or good timing is what you need for the following outing at the Carson Pass snowpark area on the south side of Highway 88. Snowpark permits are available at the Alpine County Chamber of Commerce, Woodfords Station, Sorensen’s Resort and many US Forest Service offices.

Pick up the trail heading south at the east end of the parking lot, make a short traverse of a steep slope and continue, following the wiggles and undulations, descend gently to a hemlock grove and climb again under a north facing wall. As you climb note that the forest is changing to a lodgepole and western white pine mix and thinning considerably.

The obvious trail continues south leveling and then descending slightly through an open area where views of Elephants Back, Round Top and the peaks surrounding Kirkwood become visible. Just below Round Top is Winnemucca Lake and this trail will take you there.

Climb again on switchbacks, enter the whitebark pine region and note the occasional views of Caples Lake and, on a clear day, the coast ranges in the west. Whitebark seeds are an important food source for many birds and mammals in this area, and according to scientists in Yellowstone are a major part of that area’s grizzly bear’s diet. Early settlers however made sure that the animal on our state flag didn’t survive to enjoy these seeds.

Continue generally south, enter an open bowl where the wildflowers grow abundantly in summer and track a gently climbing arc southwest, top a rise and descend to the west shore of Winnemucca Lake. Round Top fills the view with its breathtaking chutes and steep slopes. At this point you will have climbed about 600 feet and travelled 2 miles. Stop here for lunch, practice tele-turns into the gully just west of Winnemucca or head up to Round Top Lake by making a mile climbing traverse to the west to gain the divide between the American and Mokelumne River drainages. Fourth of July Lake lies about 1,100 vertical feet down and perhaps 1.5 trail miles further, a trip best left for summer or expert skiers.

The slopes coming back from Round Top Lake make for wonderful telemark practice and are varied enough for all skill levels except beginners. Trace your tracks back to the car or vary the route as much as snow conditions and terrain familiarity allow.

If the snow is really hard and icy you may want to try a sunny aspect at a lower elevation.

Do not forget to check the weather (, avalanche conditions (, road conditions ( and make sure your pack contains the 10 essentials.