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Vail Backcountry Turns: Tips for skiing the changing snowpack

Don Shefchik
Backcountry Turns

VAIL, Colorado – Years ago I recall hearing Knox Williams, now retired director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, say that Feb. 18 was the day that winter begins to wane and spring begins to take over.

Knox had taken into account many factors and statistics to declare that Feb. 18 was, on average, the day when the strength of winter gives way to spring. This “transitional” time presents its own set of new considerations for the backcountry skier.

Having not excelled in the sciences in school, I look to the obvious signs and effects of this “transitional” period on my backcountry skiing decisions. Here are some of the factors I take into consideration.



1. Longer days mean more sunlight. As the sun begins to pass higher in the sky it begins to affect more and more of the snowpack.

2. We know that March is statistically the biggest snow month and this is a good thing. The “sugar snow” that has been present all winter will hopefully be covered by a thicker, stronger “supportable bridge” making touring and turning better.



3. Warmer temperatures during storm cycles will promote a denser, more homogeneous snowpack. For me this is not a “green-light” for ripping the steep and deep. Lingering winter layers within the snowpack will still be present as well as weaknesses from recent storms. (Therefore, our snowpack begins to consolidate with greater efficiency and certainty.) As we move through this “transitional” period and into spring conditions, beware that our mid-winter snowpack may very well re-appear.

For me, one of the delights of mid-winter is the promise of cold, dry snow. My wax kit is simple: green, blue and a cork. Even with days of sunshine we still ski powder. Feb. 18 is a reminder to me that the influence of the sun is stronger with each passing week.

For the backcountry skier a few challenges arise as spring begins to influence the snowpack. The opportunity to ski wet snow, breakable crust or powder will depend on the aspect of your ski tour. A month or so ago, 80 percent or more of the “Compass Rose” (a tool used by avalanche forecasters to indicate degree of hazard based on aspect and elevation) assured us of dry snow. Now, moments of sunshine can drop that percentage dramatically.



If powder is your goal, search out the “shadow lines” that protect east and west aspects. Notice when and where the sun shines. If the morning is cloudy then east aspects may be spared of sun-crust effects. Vice-versa for afternoon clouds. The obvious choice: head north when you can.

Keep in mind that snow quality can also impact the performance of your gear. I’ll leave some of this to your own experimentation, but here are a couple “transitional season” insights. I carry a scraper all season long, but find a real need for it after Feb. 18 when we begin to deal with wet and dry snow conditions on each tour. Melting and freezing can affect the mechanical parts of bindings, so have a tool you can use to clean out a jammed binding.

Also, if you haven’t yet skinned from wet snow into dry snow, I invite you to give it a try. Skin wax can help but the scraper is often the right tool for the job. Resist the temptation to use your beautiful aluminum-alloy or carbon-fiber ski pole to knock the snow from your skis, whether those extra pounds of snow and ice find their way to the top or bottom of your skis. Snapping a pole in half during your tour is a real bummer.

After Feb. 18, search out the powder or try to ski the breakable crust, but arm yourself with knowledge and the right gear. Soon enough it will be spring skiing or we will enter a storm cycle with days when the sun doesn’t make it out with us.

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.


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