Nate Greenberg scopes out Z Couloir, Mt. Wood. Photo: Brett Lotz.
Nate Greenberg is the current president and one of the founders of the Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center (ESAC), an online resource that reports snowpack and forecasts avalanche conditions in the Eastern Sierra. The site also serves as an online community where people share their experiences and insight. The mission? Create a community of responsible backcountry enthusiasts equipped with up to-date information to encourage safe exploration of the backcountry.
Nate is also the co-author of “Backcountry Skiing: California's Eastern Sierra,” the authoritative resource on every major peak and canyon in the range, featuring more than 200 descents, from Bridgeport to Lone Pine, Calif. The book is written entirely from first-hand experience: either Nate or co-author Dan Mingori skied every route. A digital version is also available for download through rakkup.com.
Nate is American Avalanche Institute (AAI) Level 3-trained and worked as a climbing and mountaineering instructor for NOLS. He is also actively involved with Winter Wildlands Alliance, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and preserving winter wildlands and a quality human-powered snowsports experience on public lands.
A former competitive telemark skier and avid cyclist (he wrote a book on that too), he has called Mammoth Lakes home since 2000. He now enjoys venturing into the backcountry and exploring the vast terrain of the Eastern Sierra.
We caught up with Nate to see how this year's increased snowpack has affected conditions, his tips for getting started in backcountry exploration and the best ways to mitigate risk.
1. This winter has broken the record for the wettest winter in 50 years and, currently with more than 500”, Mammoth may be on pace to break the snowfall totals as well. In a normal year, the Eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range has some of the world’s best backcountry skiing and snowboarding. With storm after storm hammering the area in recent months, the backcountry is more accessible now than it has been in years. How has this season’s record snowpack changed your approach to exploration?
It’s been great to see a ‘real winter’ again in the Sierra – especially after the past several dry years. It has also been interesting to see how the backcountry community has emerged and is embracing the long anticipated snow. A few things really stick out to me so far this season:
Overall, this is exciting to me. I love seeing snow on the mountains and being out in it. The biggest difference between this year and previous is the amount of storm skiing that I have done, relative to the amount of peak bagging or skiing in the alpine. Hopefully that will change as we get into spring.
"There are more people out skiing in the backcountry than I have personally seen in the 16 years I’ve lived here. It’s great to see excitement and traffic out there."
2. What’s on your hit list this year? Anything that you can access now that you haven’t been able to ski before or in a long time?
Oh man, the list is long. Skiing in the Southern Sierra is pretty special. Big lines off tall peaks and the ability to ski all the way down to the valley floor (well almost) make for some great adventures, and those types of trips are high on my list for this spring. It is impressive to see how filled in so many lines are. If only there was more time… ;)
3. You literally wrote the book on Eastern Sierra backcountry skiing. What is one piece of advice you would give to anyone venturing out?
The biggest thing is that people think skiing in the backcountry is the same as skiing in bounds. It isn’t - not even close. The most novice of runs in the backcountry would be considered to be an advanced run at a resort – just in terms of slope angle. Add in funky snow, no avalanche mitigation, and no immediate rescue/medical support and everything is different. Even if you are a ripping skier in bounds, the terrain evaluation and decision making aspects of skiing in the backcountry should not be overlooked.
I wrote the book with the intention of highlighting the most classic lines in the Sierra – both as an inspiration, and a resource. My goal with both the book and ESAC is to breed better backcountry skiers. A big part of that is decision making, and equipping people with information to make good decisions is a critical component of the puzzle. My hope is that the book provides new skiers, or those new to the range, with a resource that allows them to make good terrain choices based on conditions, group needs, and ability levels.
The other mistake that I see people making is a general lack of emphasis on education. There is no substitute for taking an avalanche course from a certified professional – it provides the foundation for decision making. I see a lot of people spending thousands of dollars on the latest gear to allow them to get out there, but not being willing to spend $400 on an avalanche course. I can’t emphasize the importance of that enough.
4. How has the backcountry skiing (or the community) in the Eastern Sierra changed since ESAC was founded in 2006? What’s next for ESAC and what can be done to help?
It has been so amazing to see the outpouring of support for ESAC and the amount of involvement in the Center’s operations this year. In 2006 when we formed the Center there was a loose band of committed backcountry skiers who really cared about putting a resource together for the community. The backcountry community that existed at that time was a bit smaller and more ‘core.' As interest in backcountry skiing grows and more people discover the magic of skiing in the Sierra Nevada, the value of ESAC increases. I feel like we hit critical mass this year and people are really engaged and looking to the Center as a resource.
ESAC is continuing to grow. This year marks the first time in our history that we have three forecasters on staff, and are issuing avalanche advisories five days a week. We hope to increase that frequency to seven days before season end. The biggest reason this is happening and is possible is because of community support. At the most basic level, we need money – we are 100% community funded (through direct contributions and locally funded grants). All of the money we raise goes to operations - forecaster salaries, education and outreach programs, on-ground services, etc. Beyond the financial support, engagement in the Center is paramount. I like to say to the community ‘this is YOUR avalanche center’ because I believe that we exist for the community – not to serve our own mission. By having the community read the bulletins and observations, contribute information back to the Center, and participate in education and outreach events, we all improve. That’s a big goal for us – constant improvement.
5. What do you have planned next?
Beyond a bunch of personal skiing?
I have several different projects in the works that are geared at improving access to information for improved decision making and communication in backcountry/avalanche terrain. I’m keenly interested in how we can effectively use technology to better engage our users and really raise knowledge and skill levels.
Folks can see evidence of some of these efforts currently. On the ESAC end, we have a new observations platform that is out in a beta version now on our site, which will see continual improvement throughout the rest of this season. We are also actively working on a Season History project which will provide some useful tools for folks to get a picture of weather and snowfall for the season – hopefully a first cut of that will be available for public consumption later this spring. And my work with rakkup continues with the goal of maturing the platform and better integrating the guidebook content with the avalanche center, and other digital resources/platforms like MountainHub for next season.
"My goal with both the book and ESAC is to breed better backcountry skiers."
Outside McGee Creek. Photo: Christian Pondella
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