Vail Backcountry Turns: Spring time brings quality spring skiing
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL, Colorado –Lately, my thoughts have begun to drift to summer activities. I’ve caught myself looking at my bicycle or fly rod, thinking about those things I do when the ski season is over.
But mostly I have focused on the weeks ahead of me that can provide excellent spring skiing. Areas that I felt were too risky for mid-winter skiing now holds the promise of safe travel and good corn snow.
“Timing is everything.” A phrase that was most likely not first spoken by a skier, this adage is crucial for experiencing quality spring skiing. Although some of my friends will tell you that I am not always anxious to rise early for a ski tour, I usually catch myself this time of year hitting the alarm and stepping outside for a gaze at the pre-dawn sky where I hope to catch a glimpse of Venus, the morning star (planet actually). Viewing Venus offers satisfaction as well as a very likely chance that our tour day will be bright and sunny.
Late April, most of May and sometimes a little of early June holds promise for cold nights and the all-important freezing temperatures in the “high alpine.” This frozen bridge of isothermic snow is our barometer for how safe the skiing could be.
If our timing is right and our choice of aspect is good we can expect to drop into “buttery” corn snow or even a north facing slope of powder from a recent storm. If you rise early enough and can find the time and the button for turning on your computer look up the CAIC Observations web page: http://avalanche.state.co.us/obs_stns/stns.php. This page gives overnight maximum and minimum temperatures, wind speed and direction and precipitation amounts for many locations throughout Colorado.
In the field there are many aspects to a safe and enjoyable tour. Climbing often involves hard-packed conditions in the morning. Good technique with climbing skins is critical – wide skins can help but do not always replace technique and route choices.
The spring may be a time to leave the fat skis at home. Not only is edge setting an often used technique but I have seen the wider skis with climbing skins not hold well on climbing traverses and holding that edge on a “kick turn” appears more difficult.
For those who seek the steep, ski crampons may be appropriate. They are not only for climbing steeply but offer an extra degree of safety when traversing steep terrain.
Always investigate where you are in relation to cliff bands, talus fields, and all the other places you could fall into, get slammed against or just scraped across if you slipped. Self-arrest on hard spring conditions is a wonderful thought, but may not prove so effective in some situations. If your timing is good and you are off the steeper terrain before the bridge begins to weaken, your efforts for an early start have paid off.
Signs of being where you shouldn’t be are breaking through the bridge, point-release slides, “snow-wheels” that form and grow as they descend. If these wheels begin to “step down” into deeper snow it is past the time to move to safer terrain. Many skiers don’t associate slab avalanche conditions with spring skiing, but I have on numerous occasions seen conditions that rival any mid-winter avalanche alert.
Know when to leave rather than push higher or get in another run. There will be another day and another opportunity to ski some of the great conditions that exist in spring. Just like mid-winter, when not every day or every run is perfect powder. Spring conditions can make you want to be back home in bed. But when the timing is right you’ll know it and look forward to doing it again.
Donny Shefchik is a Senior Guide and Field Director for Paragon Guides. He has spent nearly 30 years earning his turns in the Vail backcountry and Tenth Mountain Hut System