For some, when ski areas start closing down in the spring it signals the end of the season, but backcountry users know that spring skiing can provide some of the best days of the year. In Colorado, we have some of the most rugged mountains in the country—58 peaks above 14,000 feet, stunning views, and world-class terrain featuring big, steep ski lines. Those dream worthy lines are often off-limits in the winter, due to avalanche hazard. Come springtime however, typically, these zones are accessible, as the snowpack becomes more stable and conditions become less hazardous. What’s more, as the snow melts, access to roads that are closed in winter start to open up, which can mean shorter approaches. Perhaps the crown jewel of spring is corn skiing. Corn skiing is the closest thing you can get to powder skiing when it hasn’t snowed in a while.
I often refer to the springtime as “corn season”. Corn is a type of snow which gets its name because the individual snow grains are about the size of a corn kernel. Corn snow typically develops in the spring when a melt-freeze process occurs, or when there’s a consistent temperature swing between freezing at night and rewarming during the day. When it comes to skiing corn, it’s all about the timing. Corn skiing happens in a special window of opportunity, after the sun breaks down the frozen crust from the night before and loosens the bonds between the snow grains, but you have to get to it before it gets too warm, and the snow turns to mush.
Sure, it snows in the springtime, and springtime powder skiing is great! But new snow is often accompanied by more avalanche hazard and a higher level of uncertainty. Corn skiing is desirable because it behaves a lot like powder snow. It’s soft, playful, and super fun, but it’s also associated with more predictable avalanche conditions, which allows us to ski powder-esque snow on steeper ski lines without as much worry about dangerous avalanche conditions.
Here we’ll discuss some tips for accessing the mountains in the spring, and finding corn-snow conditions so you can start ticking off your bigger, backcountry objectives.
Check the Avalanche Forecast
Just because the snowpack is generally more stable in the spring doesn’t mean that there is no avalanche hazard, or that there’s no risks associated with backcountry skiing. Before heading into the backcountry, or into avalanche terrain, make sure to check the local avalanche forecast from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC). No matter the conditions you should always carry appropriate safety equipment (beacon, probe, shovel), and have formal avalanche education under your belt. If you’re not confident you have the skills, consider investing in backcountry ski training by hiring a professional guide.
Get an Alpine Start
Starting early will help you avoid the wet avalanche problems. These problems are relatively easy to avoid by staying out of avalanche terrain during the warmer parts of the day. It’s important to pay attention to the snowpack saturation, and to check the recent temperature history of local weather stations. Make sure the area you’re traveling in actually re-froze overnight, and look out for roller balls, pinwheels, and punchy or saturated snow––those are all signs of a potentially dangerous slope and wet avalanche activity.
That being said, finding corn snow often means that you ride the line between temperatures that are warm enough to break down the melt-freeze crust (making the top couple inches of snow soft), but not so warm that a slope can’t be skied or ridden safely. By starting early in the day you can give yourself more wiggle room with conditions. It’s also easier to ascend a slope that’s not punchy, which is often the case early in the day. Plus, you can always wait at the top of a line for things to warm up, and the snow to turn to corn, but once it gets too warm you’ll have missed your window that day.
Weather Resources and Route Planning
Finding corn snow is all about timing. To be able to nail the timing, you need to get pretty good at reading the weather and making a good route plan.
The NWS forecast (weather.gov) is a good weather resource. It’s easy to use and interpret. There are a ton of resources out there so find one that works well for you. The point forecasts on NWS are pretty accurate—just type in the mountain, or near-by zone you’re headed to for a more detailed look at what you can expect. You can also access weather forecasts on the CAIC website by clicking on the forecast tab at the top of the page, or scrolling to the bottom of a particular zone’s page.
It’s also important to look at weather history when attempting to anticipate spring snow and avalanche conditions. For example, if you are unsure if the elevation you want to visit has frozen the night before, you can check the weather stations on the CAIC website, click the observations tab at the top of the screen, and scroll down to weather stations. This will display all of the weather stations in Colorado. By clicking on a specific station, you can see what the low temperature was for that area, as well as how long that temperature was maintained. If a certain elevation remained above freezing all night, it is possible to trigger wet slabs at any time.
To plan your route, check out the free website Caltopo. You can customize maps, see slope angles, draw routes, place waypoints, export maps to other devices, and much more. When using Caltopo to draw a route on your map it will tell you your mileage, average slope angle, max slope angle, elevation gained and lost, and you can even see what time the sun will hit a specific slope any day of the year. This is extremely useful when you’re trying to ski corn snow or avoid sloppy conditions. You can also utilize Caltopo for weather point forecasts via NOAA.
When anticipating the development of corn snow, I pay attention to the aspect of the slope, air temperature, cloud coverage, and wind speed. For example, an east aspect will generally corn-up before a west aspect. If you have above freezing air temperatures, along with wind and cloud coverage, it might not ever corn-up that day. It takes some experience to nail conditions, but just make sure you pay attention to the warning signs for wet avalanche activity.
A special thing about springtime skiing is the increased access. Some roads that are closed in the winter will start to be plowed come spring. You can utilize roads and mountain passes that are typically closed in the winter, like Trail Ridge Road, Guanella Pass, Independence Pass, and Mount Evans Highway, to increase your springtime access to the mountains. These roads all provide access to remote areas that are typically tough to get to during the winter due to the longer approach. You can check if certain roads are open or have been plowed through the National Forest Service and the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Important Gear for Springtime Skiing
Spring skiing may require some additional tools than your normal backcountry ski kit, especially if you’re skiing big lines that you’ve got to climb to the top of. I appreciate lightweight gear because if I’m hemming and hawing over whether or not to bring something along, I’m more likely to throw it in the pack if it’s lightweight. Some items that are useful to add to the kit include a lightweight helmet for skiing, lightweight crampons for hiking up firm snow, a lightweight ice axe, ski crampons for skinning on firm snow, skin wax to keep your skins from glopping up with snow, a head lamp for early morning alpine-starts, and extra sunscreen for those warm sunny spring days.