The Tahoe Weather Paradox
For the uninitiated, riding a Lake Tahoe storm wave is a required rite of passage to call oneself a true blue powderhound – just don’t forget the sunblock. The region is geographically predisposed to attract massive snowstorms measured in feet rather than inches followed by predictably sunny skies – the makings of a legendary bluebird powder day.
The initial stoke ripple is set in motion by clouds gathering atop the Pacific Crest. The palpable excitement shifts into high gear once the first goose feather-sized flakes start falling from the sky. Skiers and snowboarders start checking their phone’s weather app in manic fashion, the Weather Channel replaces football games on bar TVs, and the hard-core disciples gather around radios to listen to NOAA’s computer-generated voice:
beep…beep, beep, beep…beep:
“The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration has issued a Winter Storm Warning for the Lake Tahoe Basin. A strong upper level disturbance will proceed a series of powerful winter storms slated to hit the Northern Sierra tonight with snowfall totals expected to exceed four feet by Saturday morning. Twenty-four hour accumulations could reach record levels with lake-wide clearing set to follow on Sunday morning.”
Then the true frenzy begins. Locals scramble to come up with excuses to get out of work. Vacationing skiers and snowboarders push back their flights, proudly declaring that they will be walking away from their careers to become ski bums in Tahoe. And KT Cheryl quietly dusts the snow off her bike at 4:00am to ensure she gets the first chair on her favorite lift.
Daybreak sees long-time roomies instituting their “no friends on a powder day” clause while those who stayed up for the last call rub their eyes in disbelief at the sight out their window. Looking as if a marshmallow-factory exploded, pillows of snow cover everything in view. The storm has built snowmen out of fire hydrants, mailboxes, even street signs. Hopefully, people remember where they parked the night before because the cars themselves now look like terrain park features. And each individual snowflake sparkles under the sun, beckoning visitors to join in the pilgrimage of powder-crazed revelers headed to the snow-covered slopes.
Who left the storm door open?
So just what is behind this unique weather phenomenon familiar to Lake Tahoe? For starters, the region owes its healthy winter snowpack to two distinct geographical advantages: its close proximity to the Pacific Ocean and the dramatic rise of the Sierra Nevada. During winter months, low-pressure systems spin south from the Gulf of Alaska and the subtropical jet stream (aka the Pineapple Express) regularly aims an atmospheric river at the coast of California. These powerful Pacific storms intensify as they are forced up and over the Sierra Nevada range in a cooling process known as orographic uplift.
“California’s topography is largely responsible for the Sierra’s huge snowfall totals, specifically the short distance between the coast and mountains as well as the dramatic rise of the range from sea level to summits of more than 10,000 feet surrounding Lake Tahoe,” said Bryan Allegretto, the meteorologist behind The Tahoe Daily Forecast on OpenSnow.com. “After gaining strength over the Pacific Ocean, moisture-rich clouds move east where they quickly encounter the massive mountains of the Sierra Nevada. The spine of the Sierra crest sends these clouds upward rapidly cooling them which results in heavy, continuous snowfall.”
This is the magic formula behind the inch-an-hour mega-storms that regularly blanket the region with multiple feet of snow. The largest 24-hour snowfall total ever recorded in Lake Tahoe crested six-feet back in 1952. Lake Tahoe’s biggest winter saw more than 73 feet of snow while the deepest snowpack on record is 37 and a half feet. During the last major La Niña cycle in 2010-11, the Lake Tahoe ski resorts actually surpassed the 800-inch mark with chairlifts turning over Fourth of July weekend.
Sierra Nevada: the range of light
The true beauty of a classic Sierra storm is it packs a powerful punch, but then quickly gives way to a predictable period of high pressure, an integral component in the makings of a legendary bluebird powder day. After all, it’s no fun getting first tracks if you can’t actually see your tracks.
The intense energy associated with these Pacific-generated storms serves to usher them out just as quickly as they arrived leaving deep blue skies and California sunshine in their absence. The Lake Tahoe basin itself also benefits from a storm shadow effect; the towering 10,000 foot peaks surrounding Lake Tahoe take the brunt of the storms while the neighboring cities of Truckee, Tahoe City and South Lake Tahoe sit under blue skies below at 6,000 feet. As opposed to ski resorts in the interior Rockies that see temperatures dip well below zero, Lake Tahoe benefits from a much milder weather pattern that allows guests to leave the facemask and extra layers in their ski bag on most days.
“People often ask me what time of year is best for hitting a bluebird powder day in Lake Tahoe,” said Mark McLaughlin, known as The Storm King in weather circles. “Stormchasers can sometimes luck out in December and January is statistically the snowiest month of the year. But for my money, March is typically the best bet as it averages over 21 days with precipitation and the snowpack is deepest this time of year.”
Trust your powder day to the experts
One thing is for certain, bluebird powder days are too valuable to waste. The sure way to get the most out of a day that could be talked about for decades to come is to go out with the best regional guides in the business.
Kirkwood’s next-level instructional program is designed to expand the boundaries of mountain exploration. Sign up for its daily mountain guiding service to benefit from powder-specific gear recommendations, express lift line privileges and the best approach to tackling the mountain’s legendary terrain after a two-foot-plus snowstorm. Visit www.kirkwood.com for details.
North Face Mountain Guides
Before taking on the terrain made famous in Robb Gaffney’s book Squallywood, sign up for a full day guided affair with the North Face Mountain Guides at Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows. Participants get 20% off demo gear, priority lift line privileges, a new North Face ThermoBall jacket a secret peek into the resort’s most coveted terrain and powder stashes. More information can be found at www.squawalpine.com.
Homewood Snowcat Adventures
For a truly unforgettable experience, sign up for Homewood’s new snowcat tours to the breathtaking summit of Ellis Peak. Limited to only ten lucky skiers and snowboarders each day, the guided trips access over 750 acres of reserved terrain including open bowls, perfectly spaced trees and plenty of powder stashes. The lake views alone are worth the price of admission. Get the entire lowdown at www.skihomewood.com.
Alpine Skills International
One of the original outdoor schools focused on alpine climbing and ski mountaineering, Alpine Skills International is headquartered out of the Backcountry Adventure Center at Sugar Bowl Resort during the winter months. ASI can outfit clients with the latest, most innovative backcountry gear along with some of the best guides in the business to go explore the lift-accessed powder laps accessed via the resort’s gated boundaries. Login to www.sugarbowl.com to learn more.