Route Finder: Corn snow, freeze-thaw and other vitals for Colorado backcountry skiing in spring
April 7, 2017
My favorite time of year has returned once again. This year, spring in Summit County and across Colorado arrived a little earlier than usual. This should come as no surprise, since the whole season has been unusual. We had a late start in November, enormous avy hazard in December, and then the onslaught that was January, followed by a February thaw and mild March. Nothing should come as a surprise this year, though it is shocking to get up high on local peaks so early in the spring.
Know your weather
So let us talk about spring travel. When I refer to spring, I'm referring to snow conditions — not a date on the calendar that falls between March 21-ish and June 21-ish. What I mean is a general stabilization of the snowpack due to nightly melting and re-freezing. Timing and sun-hit become integral to success. Aspect can be everything. Corn snow is the ultimate goal of spring missions, as are the high peaks on which the corn fields reside.
Before leaving on a trip, check those overnight temps to make sure there actually was a freeze. Clear nights can offer a better freeze than cloudy nights, and this is due to evaporative cooling — clouds insulate against this effect. Timing for your descent should be based on how fast the snow on the slopes is melting and not on some preconceived notion of when to ski. In general, you want to start early for easterly slopes and later for south-through-west-facing slopes. Ski corn snow, not ice.
The days are longer now and the approaches can be easier, even if they're muddy. The temps can be warmer or you can find two feet of new snow when you arrive, which leaves you singing Trenchtown Rock on the ascent through the trees and choking on spring cold smoke on the descent. Two inches in town leads to 20 inches (or more) near treeline — not bad at all. You can find yourself cold and shivering in wet clothes, waiting for hot cocoa and a shower when the day is finished, or you can be in shorts, a t-shirt and flip flops, wishing you had a frosty beverage and more sunscreen.
Know your options
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Options for a backcountry trip keep your success rate high. I like to venture into basins with many choices — options on easterly, northerly, southerly and westerly aspects. Clouds can obscure the sun's softening effects on easterly slopes early in the day, only to come out later in the day when it's game on for southerly aspects. Sometimes, you arrive too late and find the southerly and easterly aspects are cooked, so you head for the chilly north side for stable wind-buff conditions. Having options boosts the quality of your experience.
Last week (March 27 to April 2), the weather forecast was anything but great and we had plans to ski a zone from my first book. It was snowing fairly hard when I woke up and I was quick to hit the snooze bar. You never know until you go, though, so our group headed up to the trailhead with low expectations.
On the way up, the skies cleared and, as we neared the parking zone, we were astonished to see the guardian of the zone getting decent sun and softening solar radiation. We headed right for it and were rewarded with a great descent of a couloir with a decent helping of creamed corn.
The next day, the weather in the same zone was less cooperative, but we still had fun on smaller features. The final day in the zone we wanted to ski a cliff-guarded south face. The clouds never parted enough to allow for a good view, and so we went with Plan B. That route was well east of the divide and stayed partly sunny for most of the morning. The steep climb and ski were really fun, and we got another helping of corn.
Life has a way of being awesome when you show up for it.
For me, spring is a time of objectives. I make a list (actually a spreadsheet) of what I want to accomplish. I add dates to it, and then I try figuring out the best way to get it done. It becomes a chess match, as I move the pieces almost weekly.
Knowing all of my options helps: the weather in the San Juan or Sangre de Cristo ranges might be different than Summit or the Front Range, so it becomes a game of switchamaroo. But being flexible to the reality of the mountains can yield success. We, as skiers, can't dictate our terms to the peaks and expect good results — we must recognize their whims and mold ourselves to them. Only a fool thinks he or she can conquer a mountain. The mountains allow you to pass, and if you don't realize this, then you just got lucky.
Why tempt the unknown? We look to the summits because they inspire us. Nothing beats topping out on a peak that has captured your imagination throughout the season or throughout the years. (Well, skiing from the summit of that peak beats topping out.)
Now is the time to make those peak dreams a reality, but be warned: When you reach the summit, you will see 10 more lines that you must ski. And so begins the never-ending journey to reach the sky — and then ski there too.
Fritz Sperry is a skier, author, photographer and artist who has skied extensively in the Colorado backcountry. He's the author of: "Makingturns in the Tenmile-Mosquito Range," and "Makingturns in Colorado's Front Range, Vol. 1," both available from his company, Giterdun Publishing.
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