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Project Zero: An Effort Toward Zero Avalanche Deaths

Monday, November 16th, 2015

pz transparent

Project Zero is a collaborative effort striving to change perceptions of avalanche risk and shift the goal toward zero deaths.

By Shaun Nauman

The experience of backcountry skiing and snowboarding in the alpine is bliss beyond words. Snow carpets the alpine landscape and shimmers like diamonds when the first light hits. On the approach through snow covered spruce trees, humanity is left behind. It has a peaceful resonance, and tranquility that no words or pictures can truly capture. As you break tree line you are beckoned by a landscape bigger than the mind can comprehend. Rocky crags paint the landscape in an ocean of winter bliss as you work your way to the summit. Within the blink of an eye all that can change. A large persistent slab can shatter across the slope like a windowpane of glass, and the tranquility is suddenly changed in to in to a surreal nightmare.

pz_pres3In the past few years we have lost many legends, and, on a personal level, a few friends. The fact is, if you spend enough time in the backcountry you are eventually going to know someone that has died in an avalanche. If you don’t already, you will. At some point it becomes personal, for all of us. The sobering fact is that the more we read through avalanche incident reports, we see a recurring theme – same avalanche – different face. It has forced many of us to step back and evaluate why this is often happening to people with avalanche training.

The power of avalanche education is the industry-based framework that places everyone on the same page, with the same terminology and understanding. This process forms stronger communication of group dynamics while evaluating avalanche hazards, snow stability and terrain choices. However, it seems that even when armed with these skills we do not see a reduction in accidents and fatalities.

As educators, instructors and industry leaders we realized a need to look beyond teaching just the techniques of avalanche safety. Is the message telling people to get a beacon, shovel, probe and take an avalanche course fragmented? Is there a deeper layer that needs to be addressed? Avalanche safety and rescue techniques are a critical component, but not the entire picture. There is mounting evidence that a pattern of human factors is emerging. People tend to get pulled in to presumptuous and general rule-of-thumb behaviors, often referred to as heuristic traps. The common denominator lies not in the training but in the patterns of evaluating avalanche hazards.

pz_presHow do we address the bigger picture? Project Zero was launched as a collaborative effort with the mission to shift the perception of avalanche risk and to move the goal toward zero deaths. It is a ground-breaking unity of avalanche forecast centers, educators, equipment manufacturers and industry associations across North America.

When I first learned of Project Zero, the message struck me on a personal level. I sought a way to become a part of the initiative and was invited to take a role as a Project Zero Ambassador. I gave a presentation at the 2015 Silverton Splitfest in Silverton, Colorado under the current campaign, The Backcountry Starts Here. At the core of the campaign are the “Backcountry Basics” one should follow before entering backcountry terrain. These are five call-to-action pieces that serve to reinforce the baseline of a positive backcountry experience.

Backcountry Basics • Get the Gear• Get the

The first three call-to-action pieces are relatively self explanatory. (1) Get the Gear: Includes a beacon, shovel, and probe. (2) Get the Training: By taking an avalanche course, it puts you on the same sheet of music, same terminology and same understanding as others in your group. (3) Get the Forecast: Check weather and avalanche forecasts before deciding on an objective.

The next two call-to-action pieces are more complex and are the key components I elaborate on to streamline the complexity of “Get the Picture,” which is the importance of a routine. Backcountry users need to have a rigid, rule-based routine much like any other high-stakes industry. The analogy, as Bruce Tremper of the Utah Avalanche Center puts it, “is much like that of a commercial aviation pilot, performing pre-flight checklists.” The use of a method-based routine prevents us from making assumptions and rule of thumb shortcuts.

alptruthTo fully grasp this concept, people need to put their mind in an analytical mode that seeks and filters facts and look for clues. The clues are everywhere, and are often referred to as nature’s billboards. Systems that are employed for environmental traps such as ALPTRUTH, originally developed by avalanche researcher Ian McCammon, is an acronym used to stay on course and give you mental clues during pre-planning and while you are out. From a practical perspective, when ALPTRUTH is employed as an obvious clues system, it can help us gauge the bigger picture. As McCammon put it, “If I run through this checklist and notice one or two clues it gives me a gauge. If I start to see three or more of the ALPTRUTH clues, I know I am getting pretty far from shore and it’s time to reassess my goals.”

The amount of information, data and resources available today can be overwhelming. In order to make good decisions we need to be able to sort and prioritize information and filter these facts. The mountains are not static. A complex understanding of terrain and snow science is essential to make fluid decisions. When making key decisions in avalanche terrain I always ask myself how I could be wrong. I emphasize to others to always be willing to reevaluate and change their plan based on new information. Employing a method such as ALPTRUTH can help keep you on track identifying environmental traps.

facetsThe final call to action – Get out of Harm’s Way: Daily, we make hundreds of decisions both large and small and we must make them efficiently. We are largely unaware of making them, even when they are critical decisions. Our decision-making is heavily affected by our biases and reliance on success of habits. Intuitive decisions are made on almost an unconscious level whereas analytical thinking is systematic. These intuitive decisions, or rules of thumb become “heuristic traps” when they are applied unconsciously and can be deadly when we use them in avalanche terrain unconsciously. McCammon also developed an acronym for basing decisions on familiar but inappropriate cues known as FACETS. Like facets in the snowpack, we want to avoid them. Heuristic traps account for the lion’s share of avalanche incidents. Basing our decisions on familiar, but inappropriate clues.

Employing system acronyms such as APLTRUTH for environmental factors and FACETS for human factors are a few tools for developing a routine and helping us stay on track. Consistent use of such routines and changing the mindset of backcountry recreationalists may help evolve the patterns of avalanche accidents and, ultimately, that is the goal of Project Zero. These are practical tools that can help novices recognize the conditions and events that have taken lives in the past and start them on an advanced routine in the backcountry.

This post comes from Shaun Nauman, a blogger ( and Boulder, CO resident. When Shaun isn’t studying snow hydrology and forecasting avalanches, the AIARE Level 1 Avalanche Instructor is finding new adventures in the backcountry on his splitboard. Watch for more adventures, gear reviews and fun reading from Shaun and other Ambassadors of Tahoe Mountain Sports.


Saturday, October 31st, 2015



With forecasts of El Niño ushering a potentially epic winter into the Sierra, Tahoe Mountain Sports’ upcoming Avalanche Education Series will help ensure the safety of you and your backcountry partners.

Tahoe Mountain Sports’ 2015-16 Avy Education Series presented by Ortovox is a free, three-part opportunity to learn practices that can keep you safe while participating in backcountry snow sports.

In addition to free, hands-on activities aimed at learning rescue techniques and how to use and service beacons and avalanche airbag packs, TMS will offer special, in-store deals each night during the series and raffles benefiting the Sierra Avalanche Center.

While the series is not intended to be an end-all education on avalanche safety, it is an exceptional opportunity to learn directly from Truckee-Tahoe’s resident mountain guides, avalanche safety instructors, meteorologists and local non-profits, such as the Sierra Avalanche Center.

All events are free and held at Tahoe Mountain Sports; 11200 Donner Pass Rd. in Truckee. Doors open at 6 p.m. Programs start at 6:30 p.m. For more information contact TMS at 530-536-5200 or

Part I – Reading Avalanche Reports, Understand Mountain Forecasts & Making Good Decisions
Weds. Nov. 18 – 6:30 p.m.
Zach Tolby, a NOAA meteorologist, will discuss mountain-specific forecasts and what a strong El Niño means for the Sierra. Don Triplat from the Sierra Avalanche Center and Steve Reynaud from the Tahoe Mountain School will discuss problem solving in winter scenarios and safe backcountry movement. Interactive weather and decision-making scenarios will follow in a small group setting. Great raffle will cap it all off. Ortovox presents this event with additional support from The North Face and Black Diamond.

Part 2 – Beacons and Beers
Weds. Dec. 9 – 6:30 p.m.
Learn the basics of avalanche rescue including proper transceiver and shovel use and group-rescue strategies. Jared Rodriguez of Ortovox and Steve Reynaud of Tahoe Mountain School will discuss the history and tech behind avalanche transceivers. Attendees will break into small groups for outdoor beacon practice including burial scenarios. TMS will offer discounts on products in the store this night only. TMS can update Ortovox, Mammut, Barryvox and Pieps transceivers for $5 this night only. Ortovox presents this event with additional support from The North Face and Arva Equipment.

Part 3 – Avalanche Airbag Sessions – Rep War & Party
Weds Jan. 27, 2016 6:30 p.m.
Learn the physics behind avalanche airbag packs and understand the differences between passive and active backcountry safety gear. The night’s highlight will be the “Rep War,” where representatives from major airbag companies debate each other on who makes superior airbag systems. TMS will offer free exchanges of all air or gas cylinders this night only in an effort to practice and to test your system. A season-ending raffle supporting Sierra Avalanche Center will follow with the grand prize of a Mammut airbag pack ($900 value) highlighting the evening. Ortovox presents this event with additional support from The North Face, Black Diamond, Mammut and Backcountry Access (BCA).



A First Attempt on Shasta, via Casaval Ridge

Friday, March 27th, 2015

Chris Cloyd is a TMS ambassador athlete based out of Truckee, CA. He and Steven Benesi, a distance runner and mountain athlete from Truckee, are attempting to run and climb all of the peak on the Western States Climbers’ OGUL List by the end of 2016. Their successes and shortcomings will be recounted in this space – subscribe to the TMS blog RSS feed to follow their story!


And…we’re Off! (Photo: Chris Cloyd)

Living in California, Mount Shasta possesses a particular mystique. If you’ve ever driven down I-5 from Oregon, you’ve laid eyes on Shasta’s imposing bulk and (if you spend any time in the mountains at all) considered what it must be like on its summit block. Many visitors every year climb or skin to the top, and you can ski all the way from the summit (conditions allowing) to your car for a 7,000 foot descent that is truly unique. This past week, I went up for a first attempt for Shasta’s summit with my friends Michael Jaskot and Matt Hardwick, and it was a trip to remember.


TMS Goes to Golden Alpine Holidays (B.C.)

Saturday, March 21st, 2015
Sunrise Hut with the ridge of Melting Faces in the background.

Sunrise Hut with the ridge of Melting Faces in the background.

If you are a backcountry skier or boarder and ever have the chance to travel to Golden, BC…GO! Go NOW!

While Tahoe wallows in the throws of our fourth consecutive dry winter, one can only hope that by going North, you will eventually find what you are looking for. This year was no different because even though it hadn’t snowed much in the two weeks before we arrived, the temps stay crispy cold and the sun is low keeping all the but the most southern faces in prime skiing condition.

Photo Feb 22, 2 23 40 PM

Earning Turns

This year’s plan was for 2 days at Roger’s Pass and then a rare, partial week at the Sunrise Hut operated by Golden Alpine Holidays. We arrived to sunny, bluebird skies and that is what would persist our entire time. It felt like we were back in California, but the mountains were blanketed in white, the temps never got higher than -10C and instead of Snickers bars we ate EAT-MORE bars!

Zack and his old school Iron Cross move!

Zack and his old school Iron Cross move!

The first two days we spent touring on Roger’s Pass from the two most popular and centrally located trail heads. Day ONE took us to Balu Pass with some great North facing pow on the way and Day TWO took us on the Young’s Peak traverse for our longest day of the trip.


Check out the Suunto Movescount video below for a quick glimpse:

(Utilize the Suunto Movescount App on your laptop, tablet or phone to make it work its magic.)

On Day THREE, a quick eight minute Heli ride from the staging area took us to the Sunrise Hut at around 7,000 ft. We got in, ate our first of the most awesome lunches and hauled water as fast as we could, so we could get out and get skiing. The terrain around the Sunrise Hut is pretty perfect for all day ski touring. We were able to ski about 600-1,100 ft runs all around the hut and in most cases, up into the alpine.

Asst guide Hayden grabbing some pillow action

Assistant guide Hayden grabbing some pillow action

We were particularly fond of hitting the Ridge of Melting Faces for our first few runs everyday as it was the only time the sun was on it. When we arrived at the hut, the faces were clean and void of any ski lines so this made them extra tasty. Even after day FOUR, we still weren’t crossing even our own tracks and that is one of the best parts of a trip like this.

Photo Feb 27, 9 47 55 AM

Admiring our brush strokes on a previously blank canvas

Thanks to our guide/cook team of Julie and Rich Marshall we were incredibly well nourished and well guided throughout. We even got to celebrate Zack’s leap year birthday with some sparkler magic!

Zack's Leap year birthday party!

Zack’s Leap year birthday party!

Sara enjoying her Tele turns

Sara enjoying her Tele turns







Facebook Photo Album:

Tahoe Mountain Sports’ Mountaineering Move #SuuntoClimb #Suunto #Ambit3Peak.

Learn more about Golden Alpine Holidays and book a trip of your lifetime:

Learn more about Golden Alpine Holidays and book a trip of your lifetime:



Winter 2012-2013 Skiing & Snowboarding Photo Recap

Friday, November 22nd, 2013

Since we’re anticipating snow and the winter hype is strong, I thought I’d share some cool shots from last season. Get stoked…unlike most other places on Earth, Tahoe sees sunshine up until just about the time it snows. Sure, our radical weather systems roll through a later than our neighbors in the PNW, but we also avoid those melancholy transitional periods. Here’s to living in Lake Tahoe!


Cool contrast in the Northstar terrain park. Unknown flyer.



Dave (TMS Owner) skis off the top of Mt. Shasta. Click the image to read about it.


Splitboarding in Austria: Tirol, Near Schlick – Panoramic & Cashew

Saturday, March 16th, 2013


Investing in a splitboard is way cheaper than a heli-trip!

With the advances in manufacturing processes the market for splitboards has exploded. Splitboarding allows snowboarders the ability to traverse steep, snow-covered terrain that was previously only accessible by skis or snowshoes. With splitboards the only extra equipment required is a pair of collapsable poles which you can stow for the ride down. If you’ve never seen them, a splitboard does exactly what it’s called. A snowboard that splits down the middle and allows the rider to attach skins to use them for uphill climbing. At the summit, the rider then detaches the skins, reassembles the board and rides away clean. Our K2 Panoramic Splitboard in particular is great on steep, fast terrain and varied conditions so it’s ideal for powder as well as Spring corn. As we inch toward Spring conditions in the backcountry get safer and that makes it the perfect time to get out there.

Check out our write-up of the K2 Panoramic Splitboard Package here. Also be sure to view our current sales and promotions on tons of winter gear going on now.

Shasta/Lassen Mid-Winter Assault

Friday, February 15th, 2013


Who: Zach, Mike and Dave

What: Winter roadtrip from Tahoe to Shasta and Lassen Volcanoes

When: February 2013

Gear: The North Face VE25 Tent and Inferno 0- Deg. sleeping bag, Deuter Backpacks and Dynafit Huascuran Skis with Dynafit Bindings

The Tahoe doldrums had set in and we were ready to hit the road. Zach rallied the troops, we jumped in the Subaru and off we went to the North, the zone where the Sierras end and the Cascades begin.

We B-lined it for the Bunny Flat trailhead, which is the highest you can drive on Shasta in the winter months, and found ourselves alone at about 1am. Bust out the tent, sleeping bags, water bottles in the bags (hot water in a bottle + bottle in bottom of sleeping bag = warmth), and we were off to sleep in sub 10-degree temps. At this point, the wind was not nuking but it was blowing steadily. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We woke with a plan to camp on Shasta and summit on Sunday, but from the wind clouds and blowing snow that we woke to, that plan quickly changed to a day assault on the mountain and summit goals were left for another trip. You can see the howling winds in the pics below and bottom right:




When we returned to the car that day and checked some remote wind meters, we saw crests of about 65 mph at 9,000 ft. Considering we made it to 11,000 ft, we were judging the winds consistently at 40-50 with gusts to 80-100 mph at times. We made it above Lake Helen, dug ourselves a little trench so we could get a little shelter before heading back down. The views and our time up there were beautiful and we were all bummed to have to leave so quickly. The picture below and left is the trench we dug that pretty much filled right back in within minutes of us digging it: Shasta Winter TripSki lookout over Shasta









Shasta in background






After a few beers in the parking lot (more…)

After Summiting Denali, Reflections on Training for the Climb

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

Brad Miller and Clay Kimmi of Adventures for Action set out last May to climb the West Buttress of Denali (Mt. McKinley) to raise awareness and funds for the International Health Partners of the United States and Tanzania (IHP-TZ). This blog post is the third in a series Brad and Clay are writing for Tahoe Mountain Sports, who is helping to gear them up for Denali. In past posts, Brad mused on the difficulty of big mountain training and how they were training for the summit.

Anyone who participates in a big mountain expedition inevitably gets asked the same few questions over and over again. One of which is this one:
“Did you train hard enough?”
In the case of Clay and I the answer is yes and no.
However, when it was all said and done, we were definitely prepared enough to get up Denali, which we did in a very respectable time. After being stuck in weather for 4 days at 17,000 feet, we were able to summit on day 12 and were down on day 15. We were definitely up for the task.
Climbing Denali is definitely not easy. We both had times where one of us would crash and were hurting by the end of the day.  More than once I had to fight tooth and nail just to stay awake in camp long enough to quickly choke down as much food as possible before passing out in my sleeping bag.
Most amateur climbers occasionally have a few of those days where you think that you should have trained harder because you feel like you just can’t go on.  But, those days are one of the reasons we all get out there in the mountains.  Those days are the tests we seek; they are the proving grounds.  During the times when you feel like you are at the end of your reserves, you have the opportunity to grit your teeth, dig deep and find the hidden strength to succeed.  And, after all, that is what big mountain climbing is all about.


Once on the mountain, Clay found that there was a distinct hole in his training regiment that left him hurting up to 14,000 feet.  When I asked him if he thought his training was adequate, his to-the-point reply says it all:
“Overall . . . no.  It was quite simply the lack of sled training that kicked my ass.  Not living and training at altitude was a small part of it, but the lack of strength training with the sled was what really affected me.”
No matter how much altitude you do with a heavy pack, everything changes when you pull a 70 lb sled. You have another item to deal with that is constantly trying to foul and trip you up.  You use different muscles than when just packing loads on your back. And combining all of this with skis makes everything that much more difficult.
In Kansas, Clay focused on stair climbing and running. While those activities certainly helped prepare him for the mountain, he neglected training with a sled and paid the price. Having trained up to 70 lbs with a pack while in his hotel stairwell in Kansas City, he felt fit and prepared. However, adding another 70 lbs on a sled that constantly fought upward progress showed him just how possible it is to take yourself to the end of your energy reserves while hauling heavy loads.
In addition to the hard work of pulling a sled up, Clay, a Kansas dweller, was not able to practice skiing downhill with a pack and sled. This missing skill set was desperately missed on our descent.  Add to that bad breakable crust snow conditions, the descent was a constant fight instead of a pleasant cruise back to base camp.
In reflecting back on how he trained, Clay said that aside from obviously adding a heavy sled element, he would have focused more on interval training in place of long distance running as he feels the intervals were more beneficial.


For my part, training in the Tahoe region served me well.  Throughout the summer months I was able to pack very heavy loads to altitudes of 10,000 feet on a regular basis.  The winter months allowed me to train in a manner that exactly reflected the work we were to undertake on the mountain.  Being able to work up to a 65 lb pack and 70 lb sled while skinning  up and skiing down packed forest service roads helped my mind and body comprehend and prepare for the task ahead.  Doing all this work at an altitude of over 6,000 feet made me that much more fit and I feel like Clay underestimates how much working out at 700 feet set him back.  Although he spent a week in Colorado before flying to Alaska, I don’t think this “acclimation trip” helped him much.  To access Denali’s West Buttress route you fly in to base camp at 7,200 feet. While my blood was already accustomed to this “daily living” altitude, Clay had to immediately started acclimatizing and so was handicapped from the start.
I agree with Clay that interval training was very important, surprisingly so in fact.  It is counter-intuitive to think of interval training as preparation for mountain climbing because there are no sprint-rest periods like in soccer or football.  What we discovered, however, was at 17,000 feet and above, a simple slip or stumble that requires a fast movement to correct constitutes a sprint.  These snap reactions skyrocket your heart rate and breathing and intervals definitely helped in recovery during these situations.  Intervals also greatly helped me lower what I call my working heart rate — the heart rate level I maintain when slowly slogging up the hill in a pace where I can climb for an hour or two without stopping to rest.

Mammut Alyeska Jacket
Mammut Alyeska Jacket
MSRP: $698.95

Summer Skiing at Mt. Shasta

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

For this Adventure of the Week, Truckee resident and skier Mike Vaughan writes about an early-summer tradition to summit and ski Mt. Shasta. While the rest of the state is baking in June sunshine, Mt. Shasta still holds perfect corn for thousands of vertical feet.

Who: Aaron Breitbard, John Riina, Mike Vaughan

What: Climbing, summiting, and skiing the Hotlum-Wintun Route from the Brewer Creek Trailhead.

Where: East side of Mt. Shasta.

When: Sunday June 16

Gear: backcountry ski gear, ice axe, crampons

First rays of morning sun hit the east side of Mt. Shasta

For the past four years, I have been prying myself away from the great early-summer mountain biking around Truckee and North Tahoe to make an annual pilgrimage north for one last ski. The east side of mount Shasta provides a sustained corn run of close to 7,000 vertical feet. Alright, it’s generally not perfect corn the whole way — but when timed well, it’s an awesome ski considering it’s summertime in California.
The road to Brewer Creek Trailhead is not plowed and generally melts out sometime in June or July. Last year, I couldn’t quite drive to the trailhead when I skied it on July 30. This year we drove straight up to the trailhead on Saturday night, June 16th.
The forecast low on Saturday night was 39 degrees at 12,500 feet, and the forecast high in Redding for Sunday was 104. An early start was definitely in order. Many people choose to take two days, but we opted for the 24-hour turnaround. Camped at the trailhead Saturday night, making coffee by 3:30 am, and hiking shortly after  4:30. Just after 5 am we were on snow skinning.
One great thing about the east side of Shasta, as opposed to the more popular Bunny Flat Trailhead on the southwest side, is the fact that you can see the summit shortly after starting your hike and you get to watch an amazing sunrise. (If you miss the sunrise, you must hike really fast and can afford a late start.)

Skinning up at sunrise

Pat Harwood hiking up the Hotlum-Wintun Ridge, 2009

Snow was soft, due to the non-freezing temps overnight and we were able to skin to about 12,000 feet. From there it’s skis off, crampons on, and ideally ice axe in hand. We summited (14,179 feet) shortly after 10 am. We were met there by a steady stream of people hiking up Avalanche Gulch from Bunny Flat and Lake Helen. On a busy Sunday, 100 people might summit from the southwest side of the mountain, many with guides, and most without skis or boards. There were about 20 people climbing the east side of the mountain, all with skis or boards.


After some time hanging out on the summit we dropped in around 11 am. When skiing the east side, you can literally put your skis on 15 feet below the summit and drop in to the true east face above the Wintun Glacier. It’s about 45-degrees at the top, and remains relatively steep for 3,000 to 4,000 vert. The snow on this whole pitch was perfect corn. Then we traversed left to the lower portion of the Hotlum-Wintun Ridge we hiked up earlier. More good skiing, followed by some very sticky skiing, dirt skiing, and ultimately some dirt walking. Beers at the car shortly after noon.

Pat Harwood shredding down the Wintun Glacier, past a group of jealous hikers, 2009.

In the years I have been skiing this route I have encountered boiler-plate re-frozen snow, all-time corn, painfully sticky snow, a little pow, and large sun cups. All in all though, the east side of Mt. Shasta has never failed to produce an awesome day of skiing to wrap up the season.


The east side of Mt. Shasta, from the road to Brewer Creek, June 2009

Black Diamond Neve Pro Crampons
Black Diamond Neve Pro Crampons
MSRP: $159.95
Pieps DSP Avalanche Beacon
Pieps DSP Avalanche Beacon
MSRP: $449.95

Tioga Pass Opening Weekend – April 2012

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012

This Adventure of the Week comes from TMS owner, Dave, who ventured down to the Eastern Sierra to salvage this crazy, low-snow season for some high elevation, alpine fun!

Who: Dave, Andy from Sierra Descents, Zach, Sara and Molly the dog

What: Backcountry spring skiing

Where: Tioga Pass Road, the Eastern Gateway to Yosemite National Park

Gear: Deuter Guide 45 Pack, Black Diamond crampons and ice axe, Sol Sunscreen, Mammut Gobi Hat and so much more……..

Caltrans doesn’t take a big liking to skiers I don’t think, but when fishing season is due to open, you can rest assured that means most of the roads on the Eastern Sierra are going to try and open. And luck just has it that every year, the fishing opener coincides with some of the best spring skiing the country has to offer. Yup, right in our own backyard, the Eastern Sierra is a spring skiing mecca, and when the roads open up to 9,000 ft+, you can’t really go wrong.

View of False White from the parking area on Hwy 120

View of False White from the parking area on Hwy 120

Being a horrible snow year in this part of the Sierra, we were quickly turned around from a lower route on Mt. Koip due to miles of hiking that would have had to be done on dirt, and instead opted for the snow start and end. We parked at the intersection of Saddlebag Lake Rd and Hwy 120 both days. False White is a pretty easy and straightforward 2.5–3 hour climb from this parking area. Saturday was super warm with almost no wind, so we opted to explore a bit as the regular descent (southeast face) was a bit mushy already. Instead, we headed to this notch we spotted that would drop us on the north side into the Skeleton Lakes Basin.

The shoulder on False White by which we accessed the North Bowls

The shoulder on False White by which we accessed the North Bowls

This proved to be a great choice as the skiing stayed wintery over there and gave us an extra long tour to get out. We were still off the snow by 2pm as the warming was getting extreme and the snow was turning quickly. Our views and ideas just as quickly turned to Sunday and the idea to bag one of the couloirs on Mt. Conness.

For Sunday, Andy from Sierra Descents and Sara (Zach’s wife) met up with us for what was sure to be an epic. I had never traveled in the winter back to Saddlebag Lake and Conness in particular so I was extremely excited to see this new terrain and ski some of the best stuff we could find.  We started at 6:30am to ensure the midday heat would not be as much of a problem as it was on Saturday and headed out towards Saddlebag Lake. Once rounding Saddlebag, getting overtaken by some super fast and crazy backcountry Nordic skiers (see this photo album), we pushed on to the Conness Glacier and eventually the Y-couloirs on another route to the ridge.

The Conness Basin as seen once rounding Saddlebag Lake

The Conness Basin as seen once rounding Saddlebag Lake

It took about 4ish hours to reach the base of the Y-Couloirs and based on the look of them and the possible bergshrunds that we could see in the shorter, Summit Couloirs, we decided this was the way to go. Crampons and axes out, we headed up. Andy lead the first half and then I took over for the second on some pretty steep and exposed terrain; we sure were happy to have those crampons on. After about an hour in the chute, we pulled up and over and were on the ridge with a view out into the rest of the Sierra that can’t be beat.

Sierra PanoramicThe snow in the chute was perfect, edgeable and carveable with even a little pow thrown in for fun. And then, the way out was just perfect soft, corn snow and we were able to kick and glide our way back to the car without donning skins again. This video from Andy at Sierra Descents pretty much sums it up. Can’t wait to get out there again!

See the rest of the pictures from this Tioga Pass skiing trip on our Facebook Album.

Black Diamond Raven Ultra Ice Axe
Black Diamond Raven Ultra Ice Axe
MSRP: $109.95

The Tahoe Mountain Sports Adventure of the Week blog series takes a walk, hike, bike, or Eastern Sierra backcountry ski trip in someone else’s shoes, from pro athletes to local Tahoe adventurers. Let us know if you’ve got an adventure to share.

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