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A snow season like no other

Tom Wiesen
Photo by Tanya Wiesen
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It is a snow season like none I have witnessed. The regularity of the storm and the depth of the snowpacks are unparalleled, so I’ve been trying to take stock in just how are things different this season?For a comparison, let’s take a look at an ordinary season. Early snows come in October and November. Then comes the December dry spell with clear skies, intense sun and cold starry nights that eats away at the snowpack. That first foot or two of snow sits on the surface and soon morphs into layers of sugar snow and BB-sized ball bearings of ice. This sketchy, un-cohesive mass is the foundation upon which all the layers above supposedly “connect” the snow to the ground. It’s no wonder that it is possible to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and unintentionally set off an avalanche. This winter started off so much like all the others: a wave of early season storms followed by a warm spell that nearly melted all of our snow. Then, starting on Nov. 10 we started getting hammered. Really deep snow accumulated quickly over a course of a couple of weeks, and fresh snowfall has continually graced us most days ever since.The thick layers of snow quickly insulated the ground and the snowpack has felt firm underfoot for the whole season. More typically, our local snowpack is hollow underfoot caused by shallow early-season snow coupled with the interplay between the temperatures of the relatively warm ground on the bottom, and the cold temperatures of the night air on the top. This energy exchange between earth and sky is what “rots out” the snow.

Natural archesBecause this year’s snow is deep and firm it’s a great year for making fresh tracks, and getting off of the beaten path. As always, stick to milder terrain until you’ve gained some expertise on avalanche assessment. Although there are lots of firm layers within our deep snowpack, down at the ground layer the ball bearing ice crystals are what the whole hillside of snow rides on.I’ve also noticed this year an unbelievable number of bent over tops of spruce, fir, pine and aspen forming graceful archways over the trails. This is one of those banner years that can change a tree for the rest of its life. For instance, if the top of a tree snaps off, usually two or more shoots of new growth come up out. This can lead to double or triple trees that sprout from a single massive trunk.Snapped off trees may also spend the rest of their lives as broad-crowned flat topped trees that have stout branches acting as shelves which cradle huge blobs of snow overhead. These trees’ trunks continually rot from the top if new growth doesn’t sprout from the broken trunk to form a roof of fresh limbs and needles.

Because of the amount of moisture that the trees will absorb from all of the melting snow this spring, this summer will mark a banner year for tree growth. A combination of regular moisture, sunshine, and warm temperatures will lead to the most prolific growth during the summer. You can read the rings on the end of a sawn tree trunk and find the fattest spacing between the dark rings that evidence the years of biggest growth.Count Dracula!And how about this year’s incredible sculpture-like snow blobs hanging off of trees and stumps? I’ve seen 3-D life-sized images of the Pillsbury doughboy, Count Dracula, and even a gila monster. Some north-facing areas that are protected from the wind are rich in these magnificent formations. This is a season for spotting the otherwise elusive “snowsnakes” dangling from horizontal limbs. The melt-freeze cycle coupled with wind and sun sculpts the snow as it slowly morphs in a plastic state to leave a snake-like body draped lazily over its perch. I find that taking the time to check out unique snow shapes is akin to reading the passing puffy clouds. Just let your mind wander and see what you see. It’s sort of like visiting an art gallery or a sculpture garden.

Expect some way-out stuff in this year’s sculpture garden. Is it intelligent design, is it purely random, or are we simply fallout recipients from the butterfly effect? These questions might just come to the forefront of your mind if you look deeply into the magic of this year’s record snow.Tom Wiesen and his wife Tanya are the owners and lead guides of Trailwise Guides, a year-round Vail Valley guide service specializing in providing quality experiences. Private snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and wildlife-watching outings are offered daily. Contact Trailwise Guides at 827-5363.Vail, Colorado


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