Spring Conditions, Form and Gear Tips.
Ah, spring. It is the bittersweet season, when we begin bidding winter our long, sad adieu, while simultaneously planning to enjoy some of the best conditions of the year.
I try not to dwell on the pending snowmelt especially since many hills are still deep in the goods. However, winter will surely return in seven or eight months. More important, there’s plenty of good skiing left.
“The biggest attraction to spring skiing is the intangibles,” said Ben Brosseau, a ski instructor and guide at Big Sky Resort in Montana. “It’s the atmosphere created by the longer days and warmer temperatures. There’s a rather primal intuition for us to emerge from the colder months and start soaking up the day with fewer layers, sunglasses and a cold beverage.”
That certainly explains all the spring festivals that ski country is known for.
“It’s the time to ditch the ‘no friends on a powder day’ mentality, and share the enthusiasm with family and like-minded companions,” said Brosseau. “There’s something about a warm, sunny day that naturally generates an energetic and social environment – parties in the base plaza, outdoor live music, and don’t forget the pond skims.”
But you’ve got to know how to handle spring conditions. Despite Madison Avenue’s predictable depiction of bluebird skies and soft, buttery snow, skiing in March and April can be rife with challenges. And yes, challenges can lead to trouble, if you’re not well equipped.
“Spring can see a wide spectrum of conditions, anywhere from firm or ‘bulletproof’ to late season powder,” said Brosseau. “Spring skiing is at its finest with a melting surface layer on a well-established base.
“Corn snow is associated with spring skiing and usually the most desirable. It’s smooth, forgiving, and predictable,” he said. “However, oftentimes there are less appealing conditions we must inevitably navigate. Icy. Chunky. Heavy and dense snow that resembles mashed potatoes or wet cement. Not to mention, obstacles and thin cover that has been exposed from the melting snow.”
What’s more, you can experience many of those varying conditions over the course of a single outing.
“An important thing to remember in the spring is if it softens during the day and temps drop at night, it’s going to be really firm in the morning,” said Terry Barbour, Ski & Ride director at Sugarbush Resort in Vermont.
Brosseau agrees. “Snow conditions will change and change rapidly throughout the day,” he said. “Icy and firm to wet and slushy and back again, in a matter of hours. Prime spring skiing is mid-day, after conditions have softened but before it gets too sloppy or before the re-freeze sets in.”
With an ever-changing canvas, it’s smart to have a game plan, said our instructors.
“In the spring, it’s smart to take a leisurely breakfast and then head to the mountain,” said Barbour. “Give the sun a chance to soften the snow. Go for those East-facing trails first and then follow the sun around the mountain.
“The groomers are your best bet first thing,” he said. “Then, as the sun does it’s magic, start playing in the cream-cheese conditions it creates. Cream cheese is when the top 2 inches of snow softens and it can be amazing skiing. Pure silk.”
Similarly, Brosseau said it’s important to understand Mother Nature’s “freeze-thaw cycle” during the springtime, and to know that “south-facing slopes are the most impacted.”
“Ideal spring skiing conditions may have a smaller window of time throughout the day, typically 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.,” he said. “East-facing aspects will catch the morning warmth first, and soften the surface from the overnight freeze. Then continue onto south- and west-facing runs. South-facing slopes can be overly affected by intense sunshine later in the day.”
What’s the best plan of attack to deal with those unpredictable conditions, from a ski-technique perspective? Brosseau recommends a “stacked and centered body position.”
“Shoulders over the hips, hips over the feet, preferably, balance over the arch of the foot,” he said. “Give yourself room to shift and absorb through the front of the boot without over-compensating with the upper body. A stacked position over the feet can also allow for edge angle management, rather than being stuck on an over-edged ski.
“A tightened core equals a strong upper body position,” said Brosseau. “Combine that with hands up and elbows in front of the torso, and you’ve got a quiet and stable upper body while most of the activity is efficiently taking place in the legs. Be adaptable, not defensive.”
There are a number of names for morning ice – Frozen granular, death cookies, frozen chicken heads. All require a strong, straightforward approach.
“Be very deliberate with both feet,” Barbour said. “Steer and aim both feet where you want to go. A lazy foot or ski will get yanked around and knock you off balance. Enter the turn tips first – do not shove your tails.”
Mashed potatoes, he said, “is thick snow that is so much fun if you ski it smart.” To do that, “enter the turn tips first.”
“Be patient with your turn initiation and let gravity help start the turn,” said Barbour. “Save your energy and effort for the turn finish where speed control happens. My spring mantra is ‘Patient turn entry, then power the turn finish.'”
When it comes to thin patches, apply an avoidance strategy. Another well-worn spring saying, said Barbour, is: “If it’s white, it’s right. If it’s brown, go around!”
And don’t forget to properly prep your boards. Brosseau suggested “giving your skis a base grind with a spring structure at the ski shop.”
“This is effective, but honestly not that common. Why? Because, you’ll have to restructure the base again in the fall, and a ski’s life just isn’t designed for a base grind twice a year,” said Brosseau. “Instead, stick with the all-season or factory structure and use a warm weather, softer wax. Apply more frequently to ensure a smooth glide across sticky snow. Lastly, keep the edges sharp, because that’s always a good idea no matter what time of year.
“Occasionally, frozen or firm conditions may not get a chance to soften at all due to cold temps and weather patterns,” he said. “Sharp edges are beneficial, or steer clear of those areas all together. However, northerly aspects and higher elevations can hold consistent and cold snow well into late spring. If access and skier ability allow, go explore for some hero snow that may not see the sun at all.”
Finally, spring skiing requirements clothing adjustments as well as adjustments in technique.
“Base layers are still important,” said Brosseau. “Lighten the R-value (insulation) with a thinner performance layer. The bulky, mid-winter down coat can go back in the closet.
“Instead, use a light insulator layer that you can easily shed and store away mid-day,” he said. “Use a hard shell jacket over the insulator layer to start the morning. Wind-breaker material and a hood that fits over the helmet goes along way during the breezy days.”
Ventilation also becomes increasingly important as the temps begin to rise.
“Recreational ski helmets have vents that open and close,” said Brossseau. “Most outerwear jackets have vents in the armpits and ski pants have them along the inner or outer thigh that zip open and close. That’s an extremely helpful feature for the warmest days.
“Sweaty hands in thick gloves are never comfortable, and that just feels gross,” he said. “Get some spring gloves, preferably waterproof.” More tips to stay comfortable.
Remember, skiing is still work. Combined with warmer temperatures, it’s easy to overheat. So Barbour recommends drinking plenty of water.
“Beer and coffee do not count as hydration,” Barbour said. “Use sunscreen liberally, applying several times a day.”
Sunglasses are a must. Goggles can get hot and uncomfortable for some skiers. Polarized sunglasses are a terrific lightweight option.
“I simply cannot ski with sunglasses, always goggles,” said Brosseau. “It’s a personal preference, just due to the air flow (that sunglasses) allow. It makes my eyes water.
“But I always have a pair of sunglasses in my pack or jacket pocket in the spring,” he said. “They come in handy while on the deck of the mid-mountain lodge, après in the base, or hiking to ski terrain on a calm, sunny day.”
Just the way Madison Avenue would draw it up.