Skier, educator, writer, mountaineer and mountain-sport philosopher, Lito Tejada-Flores nailed it when in a blog post he paraphrased the opening to Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” to describe spring skiing: “It’s the best of snow, it’s the worst of snow.”
If you’ve ventured out skiing over the past month you know exactly what Tejada-Flores means. In the span of a day’s excursion you’re likely to experience snow that ranges from bulletproof to frozen chunder to slush to that elusive spring dream: corn.
The conditions that create perfect corn include long stretches of clear weather when temperatures drop below freezing at night and warm up above freezing during the day, transforming snow crystals into thumbnail-size ice granules that lie on a firm base. When you find snow like this and you’re a skier you feel like a super hero. Every turn is perfect. Every run your favorite. On top of that, the sun is shining, the sky is blue, and the temperatures are warm. It’s a pretty amazing combination that can be as addictive as powder skiing.
The Tetons aren’t known for spring skiing. Our weather is too variable, and we usually don’t see extended windows of clear, cold temperatures and warm sunny days, but we get enough corn to tease those of us who have an appetite for it. And while a lot of people have put their skis or boards away for the summer, there are still a number of die-hard fans out searching for corn. Sometimes we find it; a lot of times we don’t.
Spring skiing is fickle. The sun can be shining and the temperature 40, but a north wind will keep the snow surface below freezing, meaning that instead of soft, yielding snow on which you can flow from turn to turn in a great arcing serpentine, you’ll find yourself hanging on to your edges as you descend a rock-hard incline that threatens to turn into a slide for life. Or maybe things warmed up more quickly than anticipated, and the perfect corn has turned into suctiony slush that you are sure is going to cause you to tweak your knee as you make your way down. If you are lucky — I’d say my average is 1 out of 3 ventures — you’ll actually find what everyone is talking about when they wax poetic about the joys of spring skiing.
So to get the goods you have to be ready and patient. True corn connoisseurs head out early, climb up bulletproof slopes carrying ice axes and wearing some kind of crampons, and wait until the snow has warmed and melted to the perfect consistency before they start down. They play the aspect game: starting on east-facing slopes, moving toward the south and finishing on slopes that face west, timing their runs with the sun. And they check the weather. If there’s even the slightest cloud cover or a little breeze, if it didn’t freeze overnight or it snowed slightly, corn skiers aren’t going out. They know to wait. But not everyone seems to know this about corn skiing. Not everyone seems to know that you can trash a slope by skiing it at the wrong time.
Just like you shouldn’t ride your bike on a muddy trail early in the season, it’s bad form to ski a run late in the day when your tracks leave giant ruts in the slope that then freeze overnight, transforming what should be a beautiful corn run into a minefield of chunder, or as I like to think of it, a frozen coral reef. Not fun. If you’ve looked up Second Turn on Teton Pass lately, you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. Second Turn is beyond redemption, I’m afraid. The slope is so chopped up, not even the best cycle of freeze-thaw can bring it back to the smoothness that makes spring skiing so heavenly. That slope has been ruined for the year, and I’m left wondering: Do people simply not know any better? Do they not realize that skiing a slope when it is too soft is akin to riding a muddy bike trail? That your ruts ruin things for the next person?
We all know, winter’s cold powder is hard to share. Once someone tracks up a slope it’s not going to be the same until the next storm fills it in again. So if we are considerate of others we try to conserve a slope by nesting our turns as closely as we can. But corn skiing is different. Corn gets recycled overnight. As long as the snow surface stays smooth and the temperatures are cold, the slope can be like new the next day. That also means that spring snow should be easy to share, at least it can be if we refrain from tearing things up by skiing too late in the day.
My guess is people aren’t intentionally heading out to wreck the skiing conditions. I truly think most just don’t know any better. But given the fact that these days there are a lot of us trying to share a limited resource, it’s important that everyone have an understanding of what is OK and what is not OK, or you are likely to get a nasty glare from some old-timer passing by.
If you are new to backcountry skiing, or to using the backcountry in any way, I recommend approaching the sport with humility. Not all old ideas are good ideas, but there are certain protocols in place after years of practice that help us all get along, stay safe and protect the resource we all treasure. These protocols become increasingly important as our numbers continue to climb. So for a start: Don’t ski the slush. Don’t bike the mud. And if you don’t know what’s what, ask someone with more experience. I know crusty old locals can be sanctimonious at times, but they’ve been out there a long time, and often that experience translates into some very useful insights, especially for newbies.