Backcountry skiers taking advantage of the stable spring snowpack | VailDaily.com
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Backcountry skiers taking advantage of the stable spring snowpack

Ben Markhart
Special to the Daily
Haskell nearing the top of the Grand Traverse on April 11. They climbed a different route than they skied to avoid a difficult-to-climb icefall.
Ben Markhart | Special to the Daily |

VAIL — Melting snow isn’t always a bad thing for a ski town.

While ski resorts have bemoaned the unseasonably warm temperatures and dirt-covered slopes, backcountry enthusiasts have taken advantage of the stable snowpack.

Come spring and warm temperatures, the unpredictable winter snow avalanches tend to disappear, meaning it’s time to get after the dream line.

Colorado is notorious for its dangerous snow. High avalanche risk throughout the winter months means venturing into the backcountry can be a dangerous proposition, even for those with experience and training.

“Assessing the stability of the snow is an uncertain science during the winter,” said Eric Haskell, an AIARE avalanche education instructor and mountain guide with the Apex Mountain School in Eagle-Vail. “It makes skiing big lines mid-season like playing Russian roulette.”

This past week, Haskell’s and another party both skied lines down Vail’s most iconic mountain scape: The west face of the Grand Traverse in the Gore Range.

“Our line was in pretty good shape,” Haskell said. “Although we did have to rappel a 20-foot ice fall that probably fills in during a bigger year.”

The spring poses its own set of challenges when it comes to finding that perfect line. It becomes a matter of finding the snow’s sweet spot: Too early and you face winter avy danger, too late and there isn’t enough snow left to ski.

A few days after Haskell, local photographer Bjorn Bauer and athlete Logan Jauernigg were also making turns down their own 1,500-foot line.

There can be a narrow time window to find good skiing, especially with a snowpack at 65 percent of average. Even four days after Haskell, it was becoming challenging for Bauer to find a runnable line.

“We picked (our line) because it was the one that seemed to have the best coverage to the ridge,” Bauer said. “Everything else was melted well below it.”

But the spring isn’t just for getting after steep and dangerous lines like the Traverse. It also means the high alpine becomes much more accessible for anyone wanting to get out and explore.

“I know many people ski the east face of the traverse down to Deluge Lake, which looks really fun and is a lower angle and lower consequence,” Bauer said.

“Of course you still need to know what you’re doing. An avy course is still a good idea,” Haskell said. “But in the spring, the dangers are much more predictable.”

Ben Markhart is a local photographer and guide. You can see more of this trip and others at http://www.benmarkhart.com or on Facebook.


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