Ski touring in the Carson Pass back country

Nate Davis breaks trail on the ridge toward Elephants Back. | Sean McAlindin

The forecast was not promising. We’d received more than 6 feet of fresh snow that came in three waves over the last four days. Major avalanches had occurred in the back country of Negro Canyon and Schallenberger Ridge, as well as in bounds at Squaw Valley that buried five people.

  • WATCH the author drop into untouched powder in the northeast bowl of Elephants Back.
  • READ the author’s story on avalanche education.

Danger was still listed as considerable when Nate Davis and I left Kings Beach for Carson Pass at 5:30 a.m. on a Monday morning in early March. Our plan was to get there early, play it conservatively, make observations and be OK with an out-and-back exploratory ridge tour if conditions weren’t lining up — easier said than done when we were looking at the first significant powder of the season.

We soon reached the saddle where the northeast bowl of Elephants Back opened wide before us. No one else had been here since the blizzard. We were the first to enter this vast back-country oasis.

We arrived at the pass at 7 a.m. with no one else in sight. It was a chilly 5 degrees F as we packed up and strapped on our skins for the approach to Elephants Back. After cresting a couple of knolls, we came upon a large crack that had split from a convex rollover. Although I warned Nate about it from in front, it still caught him off guard. His right leg fell in up to his hip and in the process, he tweaked his bad knee This wasn’t an encouraging start, but we decided to gain the ridge to at least make some observations.

When we reached the first viewpoint, Elephants Back and the valley of Round Top Mountain sprawled magnificently before us. We followed the track toward a snow pit that had been recently dug at the edge of Frog Pond by Sierra Avalanche Center forecasters. What we found there confirmed our worst suspicions.

Nate Davis absolutely killing it on his transitions. | Sean McAlindin

There were 2-cm-inch, sun-crust layers about 6 feet down with a 10-cm seam of loose, granular, faceted snow in between. Two of the three necessary ingredients for an avalanche were present: a bed surface and a weak layer. All it needed was a trigger and sufficient slope to slide. It was this deep persistent slab that had led to several significant avalanches in Tahoe over the weekend.

The skin tracks did not continue past this point, but we continued to forge ahead as we worked our way slowly up the rolling ridge. We soon reached the saddle where the northeast bowl of Elephants Back opened wide before us. No one else had been here since the blizzard. We were the first to enter this vast back-country oasis.

I led the way cautiously into the bowl. Large cornices hung overhead of the ever-steepening gradient above us. We worked our way slowly up under the ridge to dig another snow pit in an area that would be indicative of the skiable terrain below. After excavating about 8 feet down, we were pleased to find no weak layers. The snow in this area was right side up, meaning it went from loose to consistently more consolidated as we dug deeper. Using my probe, I ascertained that this trend continued the full 15 feet down to the rocks below.

Nate Davis glides into the bottom of the northeast bowl of Elephants Back. | Sean McAlindin

As we were finishing up these observations, another group of two emerged over the saddle with a couple of dogs. We chatted a bit as they worked their way below us and into the bowl. Without making too many observations, they deskinned and dropped in making sweet turns all the way down into the valley floor.

“Oh man,” said Nate. “I think they just snaked our lines.”

“I’m pretty sure there’s enough for all of us,” I replied, looking over the vast expanse of virgin snow.

This faceted snow 7 feet down has created a dangerous weak layer. | Sean McAlindin

We decided to go for it. I went first and to my delight I found stable snow and perfect lower-angle powder turns all the way down. A closer look back at the top of Elephants Back from below revealed a large crown above the cliff line. The majority of the bowl had already slid probably sometime over the weekend. That accounted for the better conditions than what we had expected.

From the bottom of the basin, we skinned up a small hill to the west and back onto the ridge, which we followed out to a point. We dropped in for what ended up being the best run of the day down a steeper, north-facing bowl and through the rolling forests toward Red Lake. Another short slog through now-warm, sticky snow led us back to the parking lot and home to live to ski another day.