After four years of drought, the Sierra Nevada range is miraculously covered in snow, and Californians are giddy: a white Christmas in the mountains, finally.
Ski resorts opened earlier than they have in years, and winter storms are assaulting the resorts around Lake Tahoe. State water officials announced this week that, for the first time in years, the Sierra snowpack is deeper than normal.
If there’s a spot in the United States that has yearned as deeply as this one for precipitation, we don’t know of it. But those drifts of fresh powder come with their own seasonal risks, from slick mountain roads to unstable ridgelines, and tourists can have short memories.
As it is, an early-season avalanche in the John Muir Wilderness has killed a 25-year-old UCLA graduate student who set out alone to hike Mount Russell in the Inyo National Forest in mid-November. His body was found weeks later by a search-and-rescue team.
Thrill at the powder, exult in the beauty, but remember that people, like snowflakes, are miraculous and fragile.
In the backcountry near Mammoth Mountain, skiers who had trespassed onto a steep, pristine slope that the ski patrol closed because it was unstable triggered another terrifying snow slide. The 50-foot-wide avalanche didn’t hurt the people who set it off, but it roared down onto an unsuspecting skier further downhill, ripping off one of his skis, carrying him for several hundred feet and leaving him badly shaken. That was on Dec. 14.
These perils do not seem particularly connected to global warming. In fact, scientists say warmer air may, over time, make snow adhere better and make slopes more stable. But in recent years, hikers, snowboarders and skiers have been increasingly bold in venturing into snow-covered wilderness, and too many rush out into the elements, unprepared.
It has been a while since California has had much of a winter, and in the months to come, El Niño conditions are expected to dump a lot more precipitation. Though that won’t cure the drought, it could expose winter adventurers to risk, and generate calls for help to search-and-rescue workers.
So from resort slopes to the California Highway Patrol, authorities are urging caution. Learn the terrain. Know the conditions. Don’t hike or ski or snowboard alone, and don’t go into the wilderness without the proper safety equipment.
Thrill at the powder, exult in the beauty, but remember that people, like snowflakes, are miraculous and fragile, no two alike, each irreplaceable.