Heavy snowfall brings great skiing to the backcountry | VailDaily.com

Heavy snowfall brings great skiing to the backcountry

Ben Markhart
Special to the Daily
Vail ski instructor Nate Mitchell works the trench uphill in fresh snow.
Ben Markhart | Special to the Daily |

VAIL — The winter season is off to a good start with several large storms bringing unusually heavy snowfall to much of the state.

“It’s been a great start to the season,” said Nate Mitchell, a Vail ski instructor and backcountry enthusiast. “We’ve been getting in reliable turns for a couple weeks now. The trick is to know where to look.”

In the same way ski resorts can only open some of their terrain early in the year, backcountry riders have to sniff out where the best snow is.

“You have to be careful with these early season snows,” Mitchell said. “It’s hard to find good lines. With such a thin base, the sun can easily melt out areas or the wind can scour slopes to the ground.”

“It’s a double edged sword — some of the aspects that now have upwards of 2 to 3 feet of soft snow may be prone to more avy danger.”Scott SmithApex Mountain School director

“We’ve had a lot of success on more northerly slopes in sparse trees where the wind is less of a factor,” Mitchell said.

After a big storm like the one early this week, areas above tree line or southerly slopes can look like great runs but under the new snow there still isn’t enough of a base to keep you off the rocks.

“You want to ski the north and east aspects that tend to hold the most snow,” said Scott Smith, the director of the Apex Mountain School in Eagle-Vail and an AIARE level one and two lead avalanche safety educator.

“But they also tend to hold the persistent weak layers that are now getting stressed by even more snow,” Smith said.

Persistent weak layers like surface hoar are one of the major causes of avalanches in Colorado. They tend to linger in the snowpack until enough stress is added for them to collapse and release a slide — usually by new snow or a rider looking for the perfect turn.

“It’s a double edged sword — some of the aspects that now have upwards of 2 to 3 feet of soft snow may be prone to more avy danger,” Smith said. “It’s wise to educate yourself so you can manage the terrain that skis well with a better margin of safety.”

“I would be happy to ski anything under 30 degrees (slope angle),” Smith said. “Thirty degrees with a coat of powder is super nice, but everyone has their own level of risk tolerance.”

However, it is impossible to use rules of thumb like avoiding certain slope angles, Smith warned. The snowpack is just too complicated to boil down into a couple rules.

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 at Ben Markhart Photography.




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