Nevada Backcountry a Uniqe Skiing Experience
When most people think of Nevada, they usually think of either the bright lights of the Las Vegas strip, or the vast empty stretches of public land in the high desert. But they don’t often think of great snow or awe-inspiring terrain for winter sports. But that is exactly what can be found in the Mt. Rose area of Lake Tahoe.
Backcountry skiing tends to be a more practical endeavor on the West Coast than in more interior regions like the Rockies, for a simple reason. We enjoy what is known as a ‘maritime’ snowpack that tends to be more stable than in areas such as Colorado or Utah, with a more ‘continental’ type snowpack. This means that avalanche cycles are often more limited, and more predictable than in some of those colder climates.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t have avalanches here. Indeed, large and destructive snow slides are common, and require caution, education and good decision making to navigate safely. However in the Sierra there is commonly a predictable cycle, in which it may snow many feet in a few days, but after that is done, the sun comes out, things warm up and all those snow layers bond nicely together forming a more stable surface for us to get back to skiing steeper terrain, like we might enjoy at a controlled ski resort.
The tradeoff comes when skiing in these warmer climates leads to the dreaded rain events, which any skier will tell you is about the least enjoyable conditions to ski in, while also washing away our precious snow. Our solution, go higher. The Mt. Rose highway tops out at 8900 feet in elevation-the highest point you can drive to in the winter in the entire Sierra Nevada range. As a result of this, most of our skiing starts out above even the top of most of the California ski resorts.
This means that when it is drizzling (or worse) down at lake level, it is often snowing perfectly up on Mt. Rose. Sure, we are further east than the Sierra crest, which usually gets the bullseye for precipitation. This puts us in a significant ‘rain shadow’, which is the reason that Nevada is a desert, even though it is only a few miles from some of the wettest places on the planet.
However the elevation advantage on Mt. Rose usually makes up for the rain shadow effect. The proof is in the seasonal average snowfall reported by the Mt. Rose Ski Area of around 400 inches a year. That is close to the numbers for many of the California ski areas, often with better consistency.
Then there is the terrain. State Route 431 winds up and over the Mt. Rose summit, in the process passing a stunning diversity of places to ski. This terrain includes a wide variety of aspects, so that when the snow is best on the north faces we can head there, or if the conditions favor sunny south facing slopes, there is plenty of that to go around as well.
There is also a huge variety of types of terrain, from large open areas for plenty of lazy meadow skipping, to nicely spaced glades for moderate angle tree skiing in stormy conditions, to steep bowls to test our mettle when avalanche conditions subside. And the Mt. Rose Highway provides great easy access to it all.
And while the limited parking situation on the west shore for destinations like Mt. Tallac and Jake’s can frustrate many backcountry ambitions, we rarely have such parking or access issues. Certainly the Tahoe Meadows area can get clogged on weekends with sledders and snowshoers, but they rarely stray too far from the road. And even when the popular backcountry spots, such as Incline Peak and Tamarack get busy (like over the holidays, when many local skier’s lift passes are blacked out), it often takes only a minor adjustment in our route to completely avoid other skiers, and their tracks.
We should also mention the incredible scenic quality of the area as well. We regularly enjoy unique views, not only of the stunning beauty of the waters of Lake Tahoe, but also the magnificent vastness of the Great Basin desert to the east, often both at the same time!
Can you tell we are a little enamored with the backcountry skiing around Mt. Rose? Stay tuned to this space for more insight on the Nevada skiing experience. Next up, we will review the history and development of backcountry skiing, and examine some of the best spots to explore in our little winter wonderland.