Stay in the mud, or make a run to the sun
By Molly Absolon, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: March 28, 2012
I can see the grass in my yard for the first time since early November. It’s brown and flat, and the remnants of snow surrounding it are dirty, icy and ugly. The melt has begun, even as the snow clings to the high peaks. Down here in the valley, I am suddenly ready for sun, heat, shorts, bare skin, warmth and flowing water.
I skied today, but as I climbed Glory for a quick run before going to work, I felt uninspired. I was tired of the giant stairmaster. Tired of the tunes on my iPod. Tired of that strange chase to keep ahead of those behind and catch up to those ahead. The skiing was actually pretty good for most of the way down, but then I hit the slush and began to dislodge giant pinwheels of snow with each turn and my grumpiness returned. I need a change.
Spring is in the air, but as we all know around here that really means mud season. Sure, you can still find fun skiing — and will be able to well into June if you are willing to hike — so I’m not hanging my boards up yet. But it’s more of an effort to find good turns, and it takes some dedication to endure the varied conditions, which can mean everything from slush to boiler-plate crusts depending on your aspect.
What else do you do in the Tetons at this time of year? I started asking around and discovered some of the secrets that help people get through these weeks of in-between.
1. Crust cruising: Like corn skiing, crust cruising requires very specific conditions to be fun: You need it to freeze overnight and you have to finish before the sun transforms the snow into a slushy mess, but in that magic window of time in between, you can skate ski just about anywhere, leaving behind the groomed trails that normally dictate your route. One of the local favorites is to head into Grand Teton National Park and ski out across the wide-open spaces along the Snake River. Just be careful not to be too far from your car when the temperatures rise and the snow begins to soften, or you may find yourself with a long slog back.
2. Biking: Grand Teton National Park has plowed its roads, and from April 1 until May 1, they’re open for nonmotorized use. It’s a perfect time to ride from Moose out toward Jackson Lake and back. The road is rolling and gentle, so it’s fun with the family, or you can push yourself and get those biking legs back in gear (that is, of course, if you haven’t already been riding a fat bike all winter). You won’t find any facilities open along the way, so be sure to bring food and water and layers to stay warm and dry should the weather change.
3. Fishing: OK, I don’t fish, but I talked to my neighbor and he said the fishing is good right now. The runoff hasn’t begun, so the water is clear and low, and the fish are hungry. It’s probably best to be out in a boat or waders, since shorelines are slick and there’s still ice along the water edge that could be precarious, but with temperatures as warm as they’ve been, it’s probably pretty darn nice out on the water. Check out the Snake or the Teton River over in Idaho.
4. Hit the gym. Attendance in my exercise class jumped last week when it started raining. Now that the sun has back come out, it may drop again because you can run on pavement without too much slipping and sliding. But my guess is that until the ground dries up and we can get back into the mountains, there will be a lot of us inside in some kind of class. It’s a fun way to see friends, get into shape for summer activities and stay active when it’s tricky to do much outside.
5. Escape. To be honest, this is what I’m doing next week, and I know I’m not alone. At the gym the other day, we shared our spring break plans, and 90 percent of us are heading someplace where the sun is guaranteed to be shining. The most distant travelers are heading to Florida, Hawaii and Mexico, but most of us are going to Utah.
Warm is not that far
Seems like the red rock starts beckoning us all at this time of year. But I remember my first canyon visit back in 1991. I thought I’d be lying on warm slickrock, swimming in azure pools, stemming down slot canyons, checking out Anasazi ruins and sleeping out under the stars. Instead, I ended up postholing. Our backpacking route took us up over some high points that were still covered in snow, and we spent several days groveling through it. Literally, in places it was easier to crawl than to attempt to walk because you’d break through the crust with every other step. I may as well have stayed in Wyoming. But the weather report this spring is better. Temperatures are supposed to hit 75, plus I’m car camping, so if there’s snow, we’ll move south.
You don’t really have to travel that far for some sun, however. Wyoming’s banana belt is just three hours away in Lander, where the sun-soaked cliffs of Sinks Canyon are in perfect condition for some sport climbing at this time of year.
When I lived in Lander, we knew mud season had arrived in the Tetons when the parking lot at Sinks started filling up with county 22 plates. Understandably. It actually can be below freezing in Lander, while up at the crag, you’ll be climbing in your T-shirt.
Spring in Sinks Canyon brings climbers to scale the cream-colored cliffs, road bikers grunting their way up the steady grade from town, and, often, snowmobilers zipping along the switchbacks on the shady, south side of the canyon. It’s a perfect illustration of the in-between season in Wyoming, where you can do a little bit of everything with some creativity and, perhaps more importantly, good timing.
Molly Absolon, a News&Guide copy editor, started backcountry skiing 20 years ago. This is her last column of the 2011-2012 season.