Backcountry spring ripe for the picking | VailDaily.com
Shauna Farnell

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Backcountry spring ripe for the picking

Special to the DailyAndy Linger makes his way down Uneva Bowl. Uneva, located to the north of Vail Pass, is a locals' favorite for spring backcountry turns.

As the fresh tracks on the slopes of Vail and Beaver Creek might indicate, for some people, the ski season isn’t over.Take Andy Linger, for instance. Linger, who works with Vail Mountain Rescue, has his own private snow cave built in the woods at Beaver Creek. When his May schedule permits, Linger will take his tarp up to his cave and camp out for a night or two, spending the days skinning up to the Bald Spot and other backcountry-access terrain for some well-earned turns.In addition to hiking up the closed terrain of the local ski areas, the plowed service roads on which make it impossible to have a clean run down without removing one’s skis, backcountry spots are at their prime, although spring skiers, riders and snowmobilers should beware of potential wet slides, and should be sure they travel with proper avalanche equipment. “There’s definitely still avalanche danger,” said Linger. “Generally, you’ve got to know where you’re going. If you go to the wrong place, you could get into trouble. The snow we had (last weekend) wasn’t the best bonding. When we get a heavy snow like that, it’s still going to be unstable.”Linger typically hits Uneva Bowl this time of year, which is one of the local hot spots for spring backcountry. He has also been known to ski on Castle Peak, Green Mountain and just about anywhere else he can find snow throughout the non-winter months.Even when he goes to Beaver Creek for some in-bounds turns, Linger tests the snowpack. The walls of snow pushed off of the service roads at Vail and Beaver Creek make this convenient.

“You can see the layers right there,” he said. “I was concerned about the top 2-and-a half-feet. The depth hoar (loose, powdery snow crystals) is really deep in the snowpack right now. I did Peregrine, but anything steeper would have been shaky.”Watch out if it’s wetSnowpack specialists say that during spring when the snowpack is wet and heavy, if you are preparing to tackle terrain with an angle of 30 degrees or more and are sinking higher than your ankles, you should probably turn back.”It’s always good to be conservative if you are out there,” said Joe Forish, who also works with Mountain Rescue and does a bit of spring backcountry skiing.”Definitely bring your shovel, probe pole and make sure everyone in the group knows how to use their avalanche beacons.”

Forish pointed out that wind, wind loading, temperate and time all are factors that cause avalanches. Because the spring snowpack is so wet, the physiology of snow becoming unstable enough to slide can be caused by the melting that occurs throughout the day.”It’s better to have a snowpack closer to 32 degrees. That’s what the ground temperature is,” Forish said. “If the snow’s getting warmer and warmer, it’s becoming slushier and the water changes the crystals enough so now it’s lubricated enough to slide.”As far as avalanche dangers go, experts say that the spring snowpack from May onwards is much more predictable than mid-winter conditions, and that backcountry travelers should follow a few simple rules.Respecting the weather”You have to get an early start and get on the snow before it’s too soft,” said Mike Duffy, who teaches avalanche snow safety certification courses at Colorado Mountain College. “You also want to make sure the snow freezes overnight. If there’s cold temperatures like we’ve had recently, we can still get mid-winter conditions in the springtime. It’s a freeze-thaw cycle, and it has to stay warm for a while to get real spring snowpack conditions. You don’t want to get on it when it’s super slick, you want it to soften up enough to get a good edge, when it’s not turning to mush.”

Uneva Bowl, Vail Pass and areas around Red Cliff are the most popular for easy-access spring backcountry.In addition to heeding avalanche dangers and taking the proper equipment, backcountry users should also make sure they pack proper attire for unpredictable spring weather. When it’s 60 degrees and sunny, one might be tempted to hike or skin up the mountain in a T-shirt, but extra layers are often needed, as well as dry footwear.”The biggest danger I think is people who go out unprepared,” said George Feinman of Mountain Rescue, who answered a call a few days ago from a man who was attempting to hike Booth Falls in East Vail in tennis shoes and claimed he couldnt’ get back down once he reached the snow and his feet were wet and frozen.”People get caught by the weather,” Feinman said. “They start out on a trail that has no snow and then get trapped out without any gear at all. It starts out a beautiful day, but then it gets cloudy and it turns to snow. It’s a very common occurrence this time of year. We always have several rescues. People are in shorts and a T-shirt, they’re out there with their tennis shoes on and they just keep going when there’s snow.”Sports Writer Shauna Farnell can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 610, or sfarnell@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado