Vail Backcountry Turns: Sugar snow isn’t so sweet
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL, Colorado – Call it what you will – depth hoar, faceted grains, kinetic metamorphism – the Vail area backcountry is ripe with sugar snow.
Although early season storms have laid down a deep snowpack in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado, here in the Central Rockies our snowpack is thin. Combined with long periods of clear skies and cold nights, we have the perfect formula for a weak snowpack.
What makes sugar snow more tolerable? Simple: more snow. Don’t be fooled though. This bottom layer of sugar snow is here to stay for most of the season.
Future storms will eventually bury the sugar snow deep enough so that a “supportable bridge” of denser snow develops. Plus, this “supportable bridge” will grow stronger. But again, we must always remember that our ‘sweet,’ weak culprit is still present under foot.
For the backcountry skier, sugar snow presents multiple problems aside from avalanche danger. First, breaking trail in sugar snow can be challenging. There are times when sugar snow is so deep, or the “supportable bridge” is so delicate, that a skier’s weight cannot be supported and breaking trail becomes extremely difficult. Even the slightest grade can take extreme effort (and ruthless patience). As a result, a tour can be hours longer than expected. Sticking to an already broken trail is sometimes the best option.
Second, making turns can be very difficult when you have no base to push off of. Gliding or turning in sugar snow can be a demanding process. Wider skis or snowboards can make a difference, as can skill and technique, but none of these are guarantees that you won’t be wallowing in bottomless snow.
Third, falling in sugar snow is easy and painless (except for rocks and stumps) but getting up can be exhausting. If you find yourself “belly deep” in sugar snow, relax for a few moments, organize your gear and organize yourself with a proper body position. Try making an “X” with your poles (sorry boarders, maybe a reason for poles in the backcountry?) and push off of the middle of the “X”. Or, take your pack off and use it as leverage. Better yet, get your partner to help you up.
As the “supportable bridge” begins to develop we can begin to trust that we will not break through. However, this will happen from time to time and generally results in the skier or rider falling forward (be careful tele-ers!). Doing the “ostrich” head first into powder can be fun and often brings hoots from your partner. But if you have no base to push off of, you’re left in a dire position. Snowboarders beware. Being unable to separate your feet can create a more serious problem.
Additionally, tree wells hold deep pockets of sugar snow and exacerbate the problem. In my guiding as well as with friends I will often ski last, especially if someone is struggling so that I can help out if a fall occurs. Suffocation from a fall is a real life possibility. Being just 50 vertical feet below your partner who is not able to get upright is a terrible thought. Getting to your partner by having to climb up through bottomless sugar snow could be a slow, painful reality.
Lastly, some of my friends may tell you that I don’t like dogs. I beg to differ. Keep in mind, though, that dogs on a ski tour in sugar snow without a well-defined and compacted trail – not just your ski track – can be incredibly exhausting for the dog. Do your canine friend a favor and leave him or her at home or choose an area with a packed trail.
I believe that a sugar-snow snowpack is one of the most challenging conditions we deal with in Colorado. A heightened awareness, realistic goals and a “what if” approach will help ensure a sweet tour. Now, pray for snow and lots of it.
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.