Vail Backcountry Turns: Spring touring requires spring mentality
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL, Colorado –Longer days in the Vail Valley with more sun-affected snow demands that we adjust our touring mentality to spring conditions.
Gone are the continuous days of dry snow and powder skiing. Our mindset moves to melt/freeze crusts on many aspects as we search for the varying conditions of spring skiing.
Our sense of where the good snow is needs to be more calculated – our choices may depend on recent weather patterns or where the sun hits early or late in the day. A storm cycle that lasts for days brings back memories of the earlier season when cold dry snow was the norm. Now with warmer temperatures and more influence from the sun, we must move to the places that offer powder or that wonderful combination of conditions that present us with good spring snow.
Although I often yearn for the consistency of mid-winter, I have begun to notice and adjust to spring. My awareness of avalanche conditions begins to be more defined as melt/freeze crusts provide a safer snowpack, provided I know when the crust is no longer supportable. Point-release slides become indications that it is time to leave or change aspects.
I am always aware that spring comes to the higher elevations much later, and so make my decisions based on where I am. There is always the hope that a recent storm cycle will leave stable snow on top of the crust and make for good powder skiing. My route selection also takes into consideration an awareness of avoiding constant sun and shadow transitions so that my climbing skins don’t become frozen snow weights making progress difficult.
While out touring, I look for what I consider a few environmental benefits of spring conditions, like open water on small creeks that had been hidden all winter – a symbol for me of the awakening from a long winter. I like to spy small signs of new growth from plants that have waited patiently for and adore the sun and warmth even more than I do.
Animal tracks that I had been identifying in soft snow are now often seen well-defined on a sun crust. Icicles hanging from once snow-laden evergreen trees remind me of the tinsel that hung from the Christmas trees of my youth. All of these things help take me a little deeper into the natural world and into myself.
Admittedly, I am a skier and spring conditions can be wonderful. I revel in corn snow when the time is right or powder when a spring storm stays cold. I search most often for good skiing. Sometimes I’m right on, sometimes I miscalculate and sometimes I just go with what is there. The joy is not only the reward of beautiful conditions but the search for them.
Although I often say that I like the winter part of winter, I always adjust to spring. It’s when I begin to look at steeper terrain, longer tours and perhaps a beer with friends at the trailhead after a good day. Embrace the spring as it evolves, enjoy the day solo or with friends and be assured that it will once again be winter.
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.