Spring skiing, like a turbulent relationship, can be wonderful or terrible—all depending on the day or even the hour. Temperature fluctuations greatly affect the snowpack—and with it, your skiing or riding experience. Thanks to factors like the sun and air temperatures, a slope that skied well one run ago may change by the time you ride the lift and return to it. But, when it’s good it’s “oh, so” good.
As director of the ski patrol at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area in Colorado, which often stays open through June, Tony Cammarata is an expert on assessing and negotiating changing snow conditions that persist during the springtime. “I love this time of year when areas like our Montezuma Bowl go isothermic [meaning equal or constant temperature] and corn up to the consistency of creamed corn,” he says. “It’s also fun to see people with shorts and sunglasses at the end of the day.”
Here Cammarata advises skiers and riders on how to craft a spring ski day strategy to optimize the best ski conditions and avoid the bone-rattling, breakable crust.
Know Your Snow Conditions
As we head out of deep winter and toward the equinox (equal day and night), the angle at which the sun hits the slopes changes and intensifies. In addition, as the days get longer, there’s more sunlight hitting the snow. However, after the sun goes down, mountain temps often dip below freezing. All this creates a melt-freeze cycle where snow melts mid-morning through the afternoon and freezes after sundown. Skier or rider translation: Early-morning runs may feel like the surface of a coral reef.
“If you take the wrong turn on a North-facing slope too early, you can loose a filling,” says Cammarata. “If you know that temperatures are going to freeze overnight after being warm, you might delay your morning until the frozen chicken heads start to unlock. These globs of snow were corn snow the day before, but when the temps dip below freezing, they petrify.”
Play the Aspect & Elevation
The direction a slope faces in respect to the sun is extremely important in finding good springtime snow. Knowing that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west can help you orient yourself as you approach a mountain. Think about following the sun—start on east- or south-facing slopes and move clockwise to the west and lastly to north-facing slopes.
“Play the aspect,” suggests Cammarata. “East-facing slopes see the sun first. If there’s no fresh snow in the morning, look to the southerly aspects and groomed surfaces to get unlocked by the sun. By the end of the day, play your way back around toward North aspects.”
At larger resorts, you can play the elevation as well the aspect since the lower mountain warms up quicker than the upper mountain. But if the weather changes, as it often does in the spring when clouds cover the sun or the wind blows, head back to the groomers as the snow firms up.
If you’re too busy to keep up with the forecast or just plain directionally challenged, don’t be embarrassed to use some tools. “Everyone has a smartphone on them, so you can use your cell phone for points on a compass. There’s also a slope angle feature,” says Cammarata of the compass that comes stock on some iPhones. Plenty of free, popular compass apps for Android exist as well.
Websites with weather reports and forecasts are also invaluable when planning a spring ski day, and you can also look at regional sites including the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (avalanche.state.co.us) for mountain weather and avalanche hazardous weather information that’s useful even if you’re skiing within a ski resort boundary.
Watch out for changing situations
Skiing or riding at a resort usually entails a high-alpine environment, so remember to be aware of changing conditions. “Take the same precautions skiing as driving a car,” advises Cammarata. “For example, there could be a rock in the road. In the high alpine environment, loose rock has the ability to roll out. When you see snow start to pinwheel or form roller balls that come from a point release, you know that the snow is rapidly warming up. Ski patrol highly monitors solar radiation and temperature in the snowpack and makes terrain decisions based on that information.”
So when you see a closed sign or rope closing the run you skied the day or even hours before, know that patrol has closed the area after serious observation and intimate knowledge of the slope and snow conditions.
When the sun is shining and the snow sufficiently softens up, it’s easy to get caught up in spring ski fever—a case of forgetting to stop for water or of peeling off layers as the temps climb, exposing skin and eyes to solar radiation. Ski patrollers, accordingly, often treat many skiers and riders for common springtime maladies.
“Stay hydrated, multiple applications of sunscreen and use eye protection,” recommends Cammarata. “The sun is strong this time of year, and the glare off the snow can cause really bad eye irritation or ultraviolet keratitis (sunburn of the cornea), not to mention burning your skin.”
Take Care of Your Gear
Once March hits, you might be tired of tuning your skis, but dull edges on spring-morning boilerplate make you feel like a goat on ice. Keep your skis tuned so that you have sharp enough edges to handle the hardpack. Also, savvy skiers and riders carry rub-on wax to help thwart that teenager learning to drive a stuck feeling when the snow warms up. “The right type of wax helps you glide around a lot better,” says Cammarata. “A warm wax keeps the gloppy snow away by essentially waterproofing the ski.”
In terms of springtime skis of choice, versatile all-mountain skis provide enough waist width to “slarve” through corn snow while also possessing the ability to carve on groomed snow. Spring skiing means taking extra care of your equipment. Keep a wax handy that’s made for corn snow.
Where to head for spring skiing:
Look for a resort that is above the treelike or has few trees (unless you enjoy skiing the tree chutes). the debris or pine sap from trees can cause your boards to stick. But the biggest tip is being sure the temperatures drop below freezing at night. If you choose a resort relatively closer to the ocean (think California, British Columbia and into Utah) because the extra moisture in the snow will last longer.
Some good reasons to ski in the spring:
We can think of lots of them. Try these: Corn snow –formed by consistent melt-freeze cycles is a fun surface to ski. The days are much longer now than they were in December and that translates to more turns. Some of the best snowpacks of the season exist in March and into April. Skiing in a T-shirt? You bet (but be sure and bring layers as things can change on the mountain fast). And, oh, those spring powder days.