Tuolumne Meadows Winter Conditions – April 5, 2023

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Tuolumne Meadows Winter Conditions – April 5, 2023

New Snow: 29 inches
Settled Snow Depth: 140 inches
High temp: 38°F (March 27)
Low temp: -17°F (April 4)

March Weather Summary:
New Snow 170 inches (historical average 55.5 inches)
Snow Water Equivalent 13.11 inches (historical average 3.84 inches)
Average High Temperature 30.24°F (historical average 43.6°F)
Average Low Temperature 6.74°F (historical average 13.7°F)
Average Temperature 18.49°F (historical average 28.7°F)

Ski Conditions and Weather: March weather set records in all categories at our weather plot here at 8,680 feet. Weather data has been recorded at this location since 1980. Many thanks to diligent weather watcher Bob Gregg for helping to compile and summarize this data over these years! This week was more of the same: snow and cold. This morning’s low of -17°F broke last week’s record (for this season) of -15°F. Hmmm…

Rumor has it that sunshine and warming temperatures are on tap for the coming week. Could it actually hit 50°F degrees this weekend? These two winter rangers are ready for it, and anxious to find out! The April 1 snow survey window closed yesterday. It was awesome to ski to the far reaches of the Tuolumne Meadows area to our six snow courses and marvel at this landscape covered by so much snow.

How much snow has accumulated at these courses over this historic winter? The answers to this question are many depending on one’s perspective. If you asked a snow surveyor “how much snow was there?” they might rub their wrists and elbows, reach for the bottle of ibuprofen, and wax poetic about pushing the 242-inch Mt. Rose sampler (with all eight tube sections), to the ground. Perhaps they would mention the wonder and fear felt as the cutter end of the tube pierced the snow surface on the first plunge towards the ground, and the sense of victory and relief when the last plunge brought up signs of the earth. A blade of grass: dirt!! As if a human derrick, we struck ground!

The more scientific minded would simply give you the numbers. To keep it brief, here in Tuolumne Meadows we averaged the snow surveys that we just did and compared this number to the historical data which dates back to 1930 for these courses. The year with the highest snow depth and snow water content for the April 1 surveys to this point was 1983. Drum roll please….

In 1983, there was an average snow depth of 168.84 inches and 66.98 inches of SWE (snow water equivalent) measured on the April 1 snow survey. In 2023, we measured an average snow depth 177.3 inches (14.78 feet) and 79.68 inches (6.64 feet) of SWE at the same snow course locations. One weather note is that we measured three of the courses prior to a storm that brought 25 inches of new snow and 1.58 inches of SWE and measured three of the courses afterward.

Poet or scientist, this snowpack holds an impressive amount of water; the Sierra Nevada: California’s biggest natural reservoir. Ski conditions are excellent, but ever dynamic this time of year. Be prepared for changing conditions and be aware that access points to skiing in the Eastern Sierra is different due to the historic snow levels. In a year like this, even the most fit visitors will find it difficult to make it in from the Lee Vining Gate to Tuolumne Meadows in a day especially with a heavy pack. It is a tough balance between being prepared to bivy and travelling light and fast.

The Lee Vining approach to Yosemite remains a mountaineering experience. We recommend an ice axe and crampons in the kit as hard and steep snow will likely be encountered if not on the way in then on the way out. Remember snow surface conditions are variable depending on time of day, wind, aspect, and elevation. What might be a moderate boot pack or ski traverse on softer snow may turn into a fearful slide for life scenario on hard snow at another time. To elaborate, the Tioga Road grade has been replaced by steep, consequential, side hill traverses in places by the heavy snow, winds, and avalanches. There are countless alternative routes into Tuolumne, but they too require mountaineering skills. It is not just a “walk in the park” when snow blankets the ground.

Avalanche and Snowpack Conditions: Please refer to the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center (ESAC) and the Bridgeport Avalanche Center for the avalanche advisories for this part of the Sierra Nevada. With the forecast warm temperatures, there will be periods of instability and possible wet slides and/or glide avalanches especially at lower and mid elevations. Granitic domes are starting to frown with their increasingly gaping glide cracks. Depending on how suddenly this complex winter snowpack warms, there is certainly the possibility of large wet slides to occur.

Wildlife: Well, I guess the birds read our post last week and decided to show off starting with the hooting of the great horned owl in Tuolumne Meadows. Some may have gone unnoticed had we not been looking straight up our 242-inch Mt Rose sampling tube that appeared to penetrate the sky above. Flocks of violet-green swallows were performing acrobatics way up high. The flash of red underneath the northern flicker’s wing also caught our eye against the bright white snow. It could be seen and heard drumming in the vicinity of Snow Flat, Tenaya Lake, and Tuolumne Meadows. Red-breasted nuthatches were scaling the bark of the junipers on Lembert Dome. And all of the other winter resident bird and wildlife seemed to be taking advantage of the sunny days to get some much-needed Vitamin D (not sure if it penetrates their feathers and fur though). But it sure is refreshing to see the sun!

Questions: The Tuolumne Meadows Ski Hut is open. This primitive cabin is the campground reservations office in the summer and is located along the Tioga Road at the entrance to the campground. It is marked with a sign. There is firewood and 8 bunks that are available on a first-come, first-served basis. For those visiting the Tuolumne Ski Hut from the east (only) permits are self-issued at the Ski Hut. For those entering from other areas, please see Yosemite’s website: https://www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/wildpermits.htm (#3: Do I need a wilderness permit during winter?) or you may contact the wilderness office at 209/372-0740. As of this writing, there is NO electricity or phone service in Tuolumne Meadows. (L. & R. Pilewski)

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