Spring corn ripe for picking
With stable snow, backcountry skiers carve best conditions in years.
By Jim Stanford, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
April 18, 2012
In the span of a week, Brenton Reagan hiked and skied three of the jewel peaks in the region: Ferry Peak, the most prominent crag in the Snake River canyon; the knife-edged Haystack Peak in the Salt River Range; and Buck Mountain, pre-eminent massif of the southern Tetons.
“It’s one of the better spring skiing seasons I’ve had, already,” he said. “I’ve probably done more than I did all winter.”
Lifts may be closed — this weekend, Targhee will be the last of the area resorts to halt operations — but skiers willing to work for their turns have been enjoying prime conditions. Freezing nights and warm, sunny days have made for perfect “corn” snow that can be carved nearly as smoothly as powder.
Ironically, after a season in which many riders bemoaned the lack of snowfall, spring is shaping up to be one of the best for skiing in years. Although nearly twice as much snow fell last year, very little corn snow developed until late in the spring, and by that point the snow line had receded high into the mountains.
“We got into a spring snowpack earlier than we have the last couple of years, when we’ve had continual loading at this time of year,” said Mike Rheam, forecaster for the Bridger-Teton Avalanche Center.
Before Tuesday’s snowfall, Rheam characterized the snowpack as “very stable” and “mostly homogenous,” owing to record-high temperatures that approached 70 degrees in the valley last week. Freezing nights solidified the snow after it became warm and wet by day.
“It’s been pretty darn good skiing out there,” Rheam said.
Corn snow is named for the kernels that form when the sun softens the surface of the snowpack. When a skier or snowboarder carves a turn on a steep slope, the crystals are cut loose and slide downhill in a silky cascade.
Riders don’t have to go far to enjoy this phenomenon. Snow King and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort have been dotted with hikers using climbing skins on the bottom of their boards.
The parking area was nearly full Sunday on Teton Pass as a string of skiers — some as young as 10 years old, accompanying their dads — hiked Mount Glory. Teton Pass Ambassador Jay Pistono left a note at the popular trailhead thanking riders for another “safe, sustainable” season.
The best part about spring, say backcountry veterans, is that the stable snowpack allows skiers to range farther beyond the heavily trodden routes on the pass.
“This is my favorite time because so much more terrain opens up,” said Tom Turiano, author of “Teton Skiing: A History and Guide” and “Select Peaks of Greater Yellowstone.”
“That’s when you get out and really see the place,” he said. Skiers can move a lot faster because “you don’t have to break trail, and the surface is slick and icy.”
Turiano is working on another book about skiing in the region, a large-format guide covering everything from Sylvan Pass in Yellowstone National Park to the Big Holes in Idaho and Wind River Range to the south and east.
“I’d like to see more skiers get out at this time of year and take advantage of these alternative locations,” Turiano said. “Spring is the time you can do that.”
Reagan and Turiano guide for Exum Mountain Guides, which offers ski and snowboard mountaineering camps. In June, the company will host the annual Hans Saari memorial youth camp (www.hansfund.org), for which participants must be recommended by their ski coach or a professional skier. If approved, kids take the camp for free.
Exum also offers customized camps for groups, depending on ability level and objectives. The guide service can place interested individuals in groups.
“It looks like it might be a busy spring of skiing for us, which is what we’re hoping for,” Reagan said.
Turiano and avalanche forecaster Rheam cautioned that riders should plan to leave early on spring ascents and be out of the mountains before the day warms too much.
“The key is getting up early enough that you’re not dealing with wet, punchy snow,” Turiano said.
Rheam added, “If we get into cold nights and clear days, get the skiing done early. Get it done when the snowpack has no chance of being rotten. Get out there early when corn skiing is at its prime conditions, before it gets too hot and the snowpack gets too weak and unsupportable.”
Ski patroller and avid mountaineer Reed Finlay returned Sunday to the scene of the avalanche on Ranger Peak that killed his friends Steve Romeo and Chris Onufer last month. Romeo published the ski blog Teton AT and was particularly fond of spring touring.
Finlay and his ski partners skinned across Jackson Lake and up the face where the slide broke loose.
The lake likely won’t remain frozen for much longer, he said. What remains of the ice is blue, and his party hurried across and back.
“I’ve never been on the lake when it’s like that,” he said.
The group recovered six items from the deceased skiers, including a pole. Recent melting exposed and dislodged one of Onufer’s skis, which slid down the slope on an S-shaped trajectory.
“It was almost like the ski made its own turn,” Finlay said.