Follow the sun |

Follow the sun

Elizabeth Eber

If you’ve spent at least one spring season on Vail Mountain, you know it’s not enough just to know how to ski. To survive springtime in the Rockies, you also have to know where to go when.It’s always entertaining to hear one spring skier complain bitterly about the firm and icy conditions, while another finds the snow soft and easy. Usually, both are right; even the same run can be boilerplate one hour and slush the next.Your best chance for knowing when requires more than keeping track of the mountain temperature. You also have to be able to analyze the direction and intensity of the sun and the wind, and realize that these factors, like temperature, change throughout the ski day.

Meteorology degree?Before you decide you need a degree in meteorology to get it right (although that definitely would help), the following are some general ways to chart your spring tracks.On east, south and west faces of the mountain, the sun is the major determinant of when the snow starts to soften. On a clear day, all you have to do is follow the path of the sun as it travels from shining directly on east-facing runs, to south-facing runs, and finally to west-facing runs.Examples of east-facing runs are Morningside, Milt’s Face and Genghis Khan. Examples of south-facing runs are Apres Vous, Chicken Yard, Emperor’s Choice and Headwall. Examples of west-facing runs are Forever, Yonder and Poppyfields East.North-facing terrain, which includes most of the front of the mountain, never gets the direct sun, so these runs are not as affected by it. Their firmness and softness are determined more by the ambient temperature and the wind and, of course, the grooming.

Look to the skyCloud cover also obviously negates the sun factor, so on that kind of spring day, even the conditions on east, south and west-facing slopes are also determined mainly by the ambient temperature and wind.Sometimes, however, the interaction between the sun, temperature and wind can get complicated. For example, on a day when the temperature is only in the teens, direct sunlight and the absence of wind will make a run soft. Conversely, on a sunny day when the temperature is in the 30s, a high wind of, say, over 30 mph, will make even a run with direct sun stay icy.In addition, the temperature of the night before adds to this interaction, so it helps to check the ski report (476-4888) which gives the temperature for 5:30 a.m. of each day. If the temperature has gone down into the single digits, it takes higher temperatures, less wind, and more direct sunlight to make a run soft. Thus, even on a sunny morning, this makes east-facing runs take longer to soften.

It only takes a few turns on spring boilerplate to help you remember where not to go. But even if you’re not into analyzing why, your best chance for knowing where it is best to go, is to follow the sun.Vail, Colorado

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