State of the Snowpack: 2/19/2021

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Like most of the country, Wyoming is experiencing an atypical winter. We started off with a hefty dry spell here around Pinedale, but have slowly been engulfed by a southern-trending jet stream that’s bringing lots of much-needed moisture to the mountains. If you’re looking for the snow, we have it now; but many of you are probably wondering how the summer will be shaping up. Although my focus is winter (I love skiing), I won’t lie – I’ve started to fantasize about those warmer spring days.

 

Now is a fantastic time to start thinking about your summer Wind Rivers trips and plan your accommodations accordingly. With uncertainty surrounding Covid and vaccinations, we’re all still eager to get back to “normal,” whatever that may look like. I read an interesting survey from Camping World that showed that 73% of families start planning their summer vacations four months out. The Wind River Range has certainly seen an uptick in popularity over the last few years, and a little forethought goes a long way to making a memorable trip. As always, feel free to give us a call (307) 367-2440 or email info@greatoutdoorshop.com, seven days a week, to bounce trip ideas off our staff or to ask questions. But now for the fun stuff!

 

I’ll start off with some general information about the snowpack. If this doesn’t interest you, feel free to skip to the next paragraph! Because we started off the year with a large storm followed by a long duration of high pressure, we’re still in the midst of dealing with a Persistent Weak Layer. This is making the large snow accumulations we’re getting now quite reactive and dangerous, especially at higher elevations where the variable snowpack creates more weak trigger points. A weak ground layer of facets overlaid with dense wind slabs and storm layers create a low probability/high consequence scenario; the probability of triggering these slides is getting lower, but the consequence if you were to trigger these layers is high, and would create an unsurvivable avalanche. This is especially potent information if you are planning a spring or early-summer trip into the Winds.

 

Most of the West is experiencing the southward shift of the upper air jet stream, also known as “La Nina.” For the inter-mountain west, this means slightly higher-than-average temperatures and above-average precipitation. So far this winter that’s the general pattern we’ve seen. For reference, the southern end of the Wind Rivers tends to get less snow than the northern, more glaciated half of the range. Here’s a nice interactive map that will give you an idea of the percent of average for different gauging stations in the Winds. Remember that we’re hoping to hit that 100% mark, basin-wide.

 

With an average snow year in mind, what does that look like for getting into the Winds? Typically, the Wind River high country is fully accessible by the second week in July. That means getting into places like the Cirque and Titcomb Basin snow-free. Obviously, hikers and backpackers can get into those areas earlier, just know there will be snow on the ground to contend with.

 

Now, for you data hounds out there, I’ll include the following links to the Wyoming SNOTEL data. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) sets up different gauging stations to measure snow depth, snow density, snow water accumulation, temperature, etc. At most major trailheads in the Wind River Range, these gauging stations are present. Here’s one for Big Sandy, Elkhart Park and Green River Lakes. I’m usually watching the reports from these stations daily to pick up on trends in how the snow is accumulating and settling. When the “snow depth” reads “zero” at the gauging station, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the snow is completely gone, it just means the surrounding elevation of that gauging station is mostly free of snow.

 

Also note that a couple of the stations can be faulty and don’t read true values. You can generally extrapolate an educated guess from the other stations in the same area. The gauging stations are great for getting an idea of what to expect, snow-wise, but there’s no substitute for eyes on the ground-that’s why we’re here!

 

What we generally hope for in a year like this (100% of average), is a mild spring, meaning a gradual increase in air temperature and a slow melt-off of snow. With a mild spring, the snow melts consistently, but not too fast. That way, we don’t run out of water in September and have a potentially-dangerous fire season.

 

On another important note, we’re sure you’re curious about the breadth of damage from the September wind storm. Green River Lakes and Elkhart have been mostly cleared; be aware that there will inevitably be some more trees that come down in the spring with the thaw of the snow. Big Sandy has more problems to contend with, and some more trail clearing will need to be done to fully open hiking around the area. Know that some of the “old” trails are GONE and have been re-routed to get around some of the very extensive damage. Big Sandy Lodge will reassess the scale of the damage come spring when they can get to the lodge and open things up. Be wary of routes within tree line that are not maintained by the Forest Service-these may be exceptionally bad or even inaccessible completely. Since the storm happened at the end of the season, there wasn’t time to get many boots on the ground to survey the full extent of the damage before the snow really fell in earnest.

 

Other trailheads, such as Scab Creek, Spring Creek and Boulder Lake, were affected and not given the amount of attention the more popular trailheads received. Those are expected to get more TLC once the spring weather melts the snow. Scab Creek in particular was heavily affected and needs more tree removal to be accessible. It’s impossible to know the true extent of the damage until backpackers can comb the range and relay on the ground observations back and forth with the awesome Forest Service trail crews. Should you see trail crews at work this year, remember to thank them for their diligence. The storm was horrendous and the damage was extensive, and these folks are doing HARD work to make your recreation possible. If you are utilizing stock, have a backup plan. Some of these areas have been cleared well enough for people to navigate, but will largely be difficult for stock to navigate. Stay in touch with the Forest Service and us to get updated conditions as trail crews work their way through the range.

 

We hope you’re having a great winter and are excited to get into the Winds come summer; I know we are! As always, feel free to reach out to us for any of your trip planning questions. At this point in the season, we’re open seven days a week, 8AM to 6PM, and as we get closer to sunshiny days our hours will stretch longer. Email us at info@greatoutdoorshop.com or give us a call, (307) 367-2440.