The Lost Sierra

by Rob McCormick

The north face of Mt. Washington as seen from the summit of Eureka Peak.

The northernmost portion of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range ends in a stunning yet frequently overlooked region referred to as the Lost Sierra. The Gold Lake Highway (closed in winter) runs parallel to this range of peaks and lakes which is bookended by the spectacular Sierra Buttes to the south and Eureka Peak (formerly Gold Mountain) on the north end. The entire region is rich in mining history and was the epicenter of the gold rush in the mid 19th century.

Stamp mill from the mining era in Plumas Eureka State Park.

In the fall of 2014 I hiked the Eureka Peak Loop trail and saw terrain on Eureka Peak and neighboring Mt. Washington that I vowed to come back and ski in wintertime. The ski terrain on both mountains starts at the relatively low elevation of 5,200 feet which makes them unlikely objectives during leaner snow years. That said, the bountiful winter of 2019 stacked the region with a healthy snowpack and created ideal conditions for exploring the Lost Sierra.

Perfect corn in the east gullies of Eureka Peak.

I recently hooked up with local Dave Carmazzi and found good snow on the north face of Mt. Washington one day followed by perfect corn on the south face of Eureka Peak the following day. Eureka Peak can be accessed from the parking lot at the base of the old Eureka Ski Bowl or the museum at Plumas Eureka State Park. Mt. Washington can also be accessed from the museum or from Jamison Mine Road. Eureka Peak and Mt. Washington offer relatively easy touring routes and a variety of descents from breezy to rowdy. Both mountains have large avalanche paths in places (particularly in the Jamison Creek drainage between the two peaks) and should be navigated with caution or avoided altogether during dangerous snow cycles.

Dave Carmazzi enjoys 2,300 vertical feet from Eureka Peak into the Jamison Creek drainage.
The south face of Eureka Peak has plenty of exciting lines to choose from.

The simplest and safest option for storm days or backcountry newcomers is the old Eureka Ski Bowl which has the remains of two poma lifts and a modest ski lodge. The ski bowl is home to annual longboard races which pay homage to the miners who raced huge skis made from timber back in the mid 1800’s.

Abandoned poma lift at the old Eureka Ski Bowl.

Plumas Eureka State Park is located an hour north of Truckee via Highway 89 and about six miles west of Graeagle. From Graeagle, take route 506 past Mohawk to the tiny town of Johnsville. About a mile past Johnsville the road dead ends at a parking lot which is a popular starting point for snowshoers, nordic skiers and backcountry enthusiasts of all types. From the parking lot you can skin up Eureka Ski Bowl to Eureka Lake and Eureka Peak.

North Peak lies just to the northeast of Eureka Peak proper and can be mistaken for its true summit.
Rob McCormick on the south face of Eureka Peak with Mt. Washington in the background. Photo by Dave Carmazzi
You never know what you will stumble across in the Lost Sierra.

After a day of adventuring you can quench your thirst at one of several watering holes in the quaint and cozy towns of Graeagle and Blairsden. The Knotty Pine Tavern, Gumbas and the ever popular Brewing Lair are fine locations for sipping a drink while reminiscing the days highlights. If you are heading back to Truckee and want to break up the drive at the half hour mark you can hit Los Dos Hermanos in Sierraville.

Another lazy day in Graeagle.
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Here comes the sun

Donner Pass

After weeks of storms and overcast the sun finally came out and exposed a new landscape in the Tahoe Region.

A little slice of Alaska right here in the Sierra Nevada.
Windslab avalanche on Mt. Judah.
Mark Durgin finds perfect corn outside of Bridgeport, CA.
Suns out and so are the crowds at Squaw Valley.
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Mark Durgin has the deepest day of his life on Sunday, February 17, 2019.

This ski season is officially off the rails. Three enormous storm cycles have rocked the Tahoe region over the last three weeks, each of a magnitude that would stand out for an entire ski season. The heaviest snow has fallen on weekends and kicked off the first, second and third weeks of the month as “best ski day in a decade” type conditions.

The Tahoe region averages one storm a season which drops three feet of snow in 24 hours. We have received three such storms so far this month. The all time February snowfall record has been broken just over halfway through the the month. Locals are beat down from shoveling and endless snow removal routines. The powder skiing has been all time day after astounding day.

Just when you think you are done shoveling a roof-a-lanche adds another hour to your schedule.
Town of Truckee rolls out the heavy artillery late into the night.
Rob and Ethan McCormick sink into the powder vortex at Homewood.
Squaw Valley’s Tram Face is stacked and racked. Photo by Grant Kaye.
Another picture perfect day in the Truckee backcountry.
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Another week, another storm

Exploring the Lost Sierra as another storm moves in.

Before the snow quality from last week’s storm could decline, another system pounded the Sierra Nevada. Squaw Valley received just under 4 feet of snow in 24 hours. Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows did not open on Sunday in order to dig out and conduct extensive avalanche mitigation. Both resorts opened nearly all of their terrain at once on Monday morning resulting in a powderhound feeding frenzy. It seemed nearly every local in the region took the morning off and traffic from Truckee and Tahoe City reflected this. Low snow levels with the last two storms have made this an opportune time to pursue elusive ski descents down to the dessert floor in Nevada. Don’t look now but even more chaotic weather is headed our way.

Scott Gaffney hucks Main Air in the Fingers at Squaw Valley.
Bro, have you seen my car?
Savoring the post storm goods.
Robb Gaffney drops 5,000 vertical feet into Carson Valley.
…and here’s the chaotic next chapter. Torrential rain!

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As good as it gets at Squaw Valley. Photo by Kevin Quinn

This winter went from great to amazing as a four day storm dropped five to eight feet of snow over the Tahoe Region. This one finished with a day and a half of blower pow that resulted in truly bottomless ski conditions. Squaw Valley’s legendary KT-22 opened at noon on Tuesday, February 5 just as the skies cracked bluebird. MSP Filmaker and North Tahoe local Scott Gaffney called it the deepest sunny day he’s ever skied at Squaw. Ski touring was nearly futile as pole plants pushed into the abyss and ski tips were prone to submarining. Cold temps this week are keeping the trees looking like a Dr. Seuss winter wonderland. If one can obtain Nirvana through skiing, this must be what it looks like.

Trenching in the backcountry.
Mark Durgin makes the most of lunch break at Squaw Valley.
Squaw Valley just before noon on February 5, 2019.
Farming pow at Alpine Meadows.

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2018/19 Ski Season So Far: Situation Normal

Ahhh! Winter!

How refreshing it feels to be in the midst of a perfectly normal, average, standard ski season. Feast or famine style winters seem to have taken a hiatus as we chug along with pleasant consistency. A warm and dry November was followed by a snowstorm the first weekend in December and we’ve been in good shape ever since. Storms have rolled through and refreshed the mountains in well spaced intervals. A couple of the larger systems were puking fluffy blower in the early evening hours only to be pissing rain by midnight. Fortunately conditions morphed into wintry bliss within a day or two. If one could complain about anything (and one really shouldn’t), it would be that elevation 7,000 feet seems to be the new normal for snow/rain line. That said, the last storm cycle plastered a good solid base down to 6,000 feet so lake level trail heads are now in play. Advance weather reports are calling for two to three feet of snow this coming weekend. And it’s only January.

Pondering options in Desolation Wilderness.

A sneaker pow day in mid December. Dusting in town = 6 inches up high.
Glorious ice on New Year’s Day.

Peek a boo!

We’ve come a long way since November.
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Miracle March Delivers

Feels like a miracle has happened in the Tahoe backcountry. Photo by Grant Kaye.

Mother Nature continued to save the soul and spirits of Tahoe riders with another massive one-two punch snowstorm over the course of four days. By the time it stopped snowing ski areas were digging out from 100 inches of new snow. Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows received over 40 inches in 24 hours. People were claiming Saturday to be one of the deepest days of their lives. What started as one of the worst seasons on record seems poised for a dramatic comeback. With over 150 inches of new snow this month we can start officially calling it a Miracle March. More snow is forecast for later this week so it seems the gift will keep on giving. Enjoy!

Stairway to heaven.

Alpine Meadows on Friday afternoon, March 16, 2018.

Grant Kaye floats through nearly 100 inches of new snow near Donner Pass.

Skier: Rob McCormick. Photo by Grant Kaye.

Deeeeeeep. Skier: Grant Kaye

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In Like a Lion

Winter has finally arrived in Tahoe. Skier: Mark Durgin

Tahoe riders are celebrating five to seven feet of snow that fell in the last week. The multi day storm cycle started with wet, dense snow and transitioned to ultra light fluff with snowfall rates approaching four inches an hour on Friday night. Valley floors received over three feet of snow finally bringing lower elevation trailheads into play. Conditions have been spectacular though not without hazards that frequently accompany tremendous snowfall in a short time frame. A snowboarder was reported missing at Squaw Valley on Thursday night and found dead Friday morning (cause of death still undetermined). Friday afternoon an in-bounds avalanche below the Olympic Lady chairlift at Squaw Valley overtook five skiers. Some sustained injuries but no-one died in the incident. Backcountry skiers should be aware of a deep slab avalanche problem throughout the region. Large destructive avalanches have occurred over the past several days.

Check out more on this concern the Sierra Avalanche Center:

Deep slab avalanche crown visible on top of Schallenberger Ridge.

Donner Pass on March 4, 2018.

The Palisades at Sugar Bowl.

82 inches of new snow has Squaw Valley looking like it’s normal winter self.

Elevation 7,400 feet was still dirt just a few weeks ago.

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Trending toward winter

Fifteen inches of new snow at Squaw Valley on Monday.

Small storms last Thursday and Monday combined with cold temps have finally made it feel like winter here in Tahoe. More terrain is coming into play and the skiing has been quite good. Forecasters are calling for the first big time snow event of the season later this week. This one looks to be measured in feet, not inches. Locals and business owners are hoping for a mega March to salvage what has been an extremely disappointing season so far.

The Pacific Crest looks about one good storm away from game time.

Geoff Forcier hoping for a miracle March.

The gremlins are starting to leave their marks in the high country.

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Nothing to see here

South facing terrain as seen from Mountain Run at Squaw Valley on February 10, 2018

The tremendous ski seasons of 2016 and 2017 seem like a distant memory now that Tahoe is in the throes of another horrifically lean winter. How bad it is it? Historical snowfall data has us trending with the three least snowiest of all time. If we don’t receive substantial snow by the end of February we could end up with the least snow in history up to that point. It’s hard to fathom that we are already grasping for a miracle March as our best and only hope. Although a strong finish is possible, a look outside is more likely to induce flashbacks to the not so distant drought cycle of 2012 through 2015. While mid mountain base depths are adequate, there is virtually no snow at elevation 6,000 feet.

Great ice skating was the silver lining to an extremely dry December.

Despite the somber season thus far there is still plenty to be grateful for. Modest snow events have kept ski areas in the game and groomers and off piste (at times) have skied remarkably well given the circumstances. Temperatures in the 50’s and 60’s have inspired some people to ride bikes, go for a hike or paddle on the lake. Sometimes you just have to find a nice patio to drink beer in the warm winter sunshine and remember that after all it’s still sunny California. Life could be worse. But for reals can we please get a late season miracle?!?

Those looking to hit the road in search of powder should consider Montana which is having a splendid season. Lone Peak at Big Sky on January 21, 2018.

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