The beautiful days of spring have arrived! The famous Colorado Blue Bird Days are back after a cold, but perhaps thankfully short, winter…at least for a little while. Spring in the Rockies can be fickle and I don’t want to jinx it…even though a town with a name like Winter Park and a nearby mountain range called The Never-Summers are expected to have long winters.
Temperatures have been climbing above and dropping below zero with some regularity, but not yet far enough to develop a good crust for skiing. The snowpack surface remains somewhat soft and we have had enough precipitation to form an occasional insulating blanket on top, preventing cold air from sinking deep into the upper snow surface and re-establishing a new surface that will have to go through its own freeze-thaw cycle. A semi-supportive crust (in this case a soft, brittle crust) has developed, but not enough to reliably support a skier on the surface. Not every year has a good crust season, and this may be one of those years, but there’s still time for one to grow. The near future does not look likely to favor conditions for this as overnight lows are expected to be too close to freezing to create a truly hard supporting layer. Daytime highs will climb enough to saturate sun-exposed, south-facing snow surfaces with enough moisture to establish a firm surface if temperatures are only low enough long enough into the night to set it firmly.
Respect for groomed trails will soon come to an end, with local cross-country centers aiming for a closing date around the first or second weekend in April. We will no doubt run out of staff before we run out of snow as the transient recreational workforce moves on or simply takes spring break.
Without groomed options, serious cross-country skiers will have to turn to off-trail options to keep skis slippery in the spring. Hopefully the crust will firm up. Even if not, spring skiing is something to look forward to, like the warmth of the sun on your face, being able to ski in a T-shirt, corn season above the treeline , the consolidation of the snowpack and a reduced avalanche risk make it super fun.
If you happen to venture into the mountains to harvest some of the corn crop, make sure you are accompanied by someone familiar with the local snowpack and knowledgeable about identifying terrain avalanche and the factors that increase the risk. Corn in the mountains is like crust in the valleys. It settles hard in the cold, dry night air, having been soaked in the sun and wrung out during the day. As long as the snowpack is frozen, the risk of snowslides is minimal. As daily temperatures rise, at least on sunny days, the surface of the snowpack softens first. If you catch it at the right time, you’ll find 1-2 inches of large, loose granular snow crystals on a firm, solid base. This gives sublime skiing conditions. But make sure you do it early enough before the snowpack gets so hot and wet that you sink completely, even on your skis or board, and before the whole snowpack becomes unstable enough to succumb to gravity. . As always in spring skiing, timing is everything.