If you love skiing, like me, then refuse to put your skis away when the lifts shut down!
As winter ends and spring begins, the snowpack changes rapidly. During this time there is often a short but exciting period of stability—a window of opportunity for us to get high, climb peaks and ski bigger lines, all with bountiful daylight hours!
The definition of a spring snowpack means that the snow has “transitioned.” It has become a consistent temperature and homogeneous mass from top to bottom.
Here’s a more technical explanation:
In the spring as the sun moves higher in the sky it brings warmer daytime temperatures. This increased daytime warmth reduces the temperature gradient between the surface layer and the ground layer and the snow starts to melt. Eventually, the snow pack transitions to isothermal. This means it’s 32 degrees and wet from top to bottom. Low nighttime temperatures freeze the homogeneous snowpack into a solid, stable mass. Then, during the day, warm temperatures deteriorate the ice bonds and the snow starts to melt and become less stable again.
1. Timing and melt-freeze is everything when it comes to spring skiing.
2. A spring snowpack needs solid, consistent overnight freezes to maintain its integrity.
3. Avalanche hazard continues to exist in the form of wet slab and wet loose avalanches. Even though these are more predictable and avoidable, they can occur on very low-angled terrain and can be extremely destructive. You and your partners should have avalanche training under your belt and be honed in companion rescue skills.
4. Study your local avalanche forecast to know when the snowpack has transitioned. Pay particular attention to conditions on different aspects and elevations. You can have a fully transitioned snowpack on a southern aspect, but full winter conditions on a higher, northern aspect.
5. Travel only when the snow surface is supportable, dry, or frozen. Good turns happen when the snow’s surface warms up just enough to be soft and forgiving but not too slushy. This kind of snow is called corn. Good corn conditions will often present only during a short timeframe.
6. Maximize travel time when the snowpack is frozen solid. Play it safe, get up early and skin by the light of a headlamp or the moon.
7. Pay attention to what’s going on underfoot and be ready to adjust your plan depending on how fast the day warms up, or does not warm up. You may need to wait on top of a summit for the snow to soften into corn (Where else would you rather be?). If the snow gets punchy, get off it quickly. Scoot around to a shady aspect and always have an escape plan.
8. Aspect, aspect, aspect. Think of the mountain like a compass. The sun hits east aspects first, then south, then west. With some experience you can time all day spring skiing by positioning yourself so that if you don’t like the conditions on one aspect you can quickly ski off to another. Carry a compass and know how to use it.
9. Ski crampons are essential. Ski crampons enable you to ascend steep, frozen snow slopes securely and efficiently. Get them, don’t forget them, and always put them on before your skins start loosing traction.
10. Boot crampons that fit your ski boots securely give you access to more options and thus more summits. Boot crampons also offer increased security if the upper reaches of the mountain don’t warm up and you want to climb back down rather than ski icy, exposed pitches.
11. A lightweight ice axe gives you added security in firm, steep conditions. Put the poles away as soon as a slip could become a fall and make sure you have self-arrest skills with your ice axe to back up that plan.
12. Weather telemetry and forecasts are your best friends. Know how to access local remote measures of current and past weather data like temperatures, and use point forecasts to get temperatures at different elevations.
Keep an eye out for future spring and ski mountaineering opportunities with us if you love skiing and want to enjoy your turns as long as there’s snow in the hills. We hope to see you out there!
Co-owner Chicks Climbing and Skiing, IFMGA Mountain Guide