Prepare for Shifting Temps and Conditions.
Ah, spring. Is there any single word that evokes so much promise for skiers of every stripe. From diehard powderhounds to weekend warriors, spring conjures images of breathtaking blue skies, dazzling sunshine, and some of the best conditions of the season.
Of course, spring can have a nasty side as well. No one knows that better than New England skiers. After all, the Northeast is where skiers jokingly refer to our famous boilerplate "blue ice" as "New England powder."
Warmer temperatures also mean shifting conditions, on several fronts. We all dream of perfect surroundings, but Mother Nature doesn't always cooperate. Some years ago, at my brother Sean's early-April Sunday River bachelor weekend in Maine, the snow was in great shape, but a pelting rainfall forced us to ski with trash bags to protect ourselves, and a thick, heavy fog reduced our visibility to just a few feet.
So what's a spring skier to do? To get answers, we reached out to Keri Reid, assistant director for Okemo's Ski + Ride School in Vermont, for a better idea of how to handle any spring surprise, good and bad. Her first recommendation? Don't trust the weather report.
"Be prepared for any and all conditions," said Reid. "Dressing right becomes quite the conundrum. One minute you're freezing, the next you're sweating.”
Reid suggests getting a high-quality shell – an un-insulated jacket – that can be worn with many or a few layers underneath.
"Gore-Tex and similar fabrics offer breathability and waterproofness for those pesky wet days," she said. "Layers are the name of the game. As the day progressively warms, you can peel off fleeces and such to stay comfortable."
Proper preparation includes making sure you not only have the right clothing, but also that your gear is ready to go. Skis and snowboards can be tuned differently to address the variable conditions you should expect to find after February.
"A good tuning tech can prepare your skis to best deal with the slushy spring conditions," said Reid. "The right base structure can help to shed water and ensure maximum gliding capacity."
Regardless of your gear, spring skiing can present unique challenges for skiers unfamiliar with the impact of fluctuating temperatures. One of my most vivid spring skiing memories of recent vintage dates back about six years. My family and I were having a great March outing at New Hampshire's Mount Cranmore. It was the quintessential spring outing, with great conditions from top to bottom at the start of the day. But by late morning, the snow near the bottom of the hill had softened up considerably. My daughter Maddi, who was 12 at the time, wasn't quite prepared for it.
After a half dozen runs, we decided to head in for lunch. On a long, flat run-in to the base, Maddi turned to cheer us on. What she didn't account for was the heavy, mashed potato snow under her skis. Poor kid caught an edge, and launched. Skis, poles, goggles, and gloves went everywhere. Maddi went down hard.
Even with her helmet, Maddi suffered a mild concussion. The lesson, of course, is that spring can bring conditions that are at least every bit as unpredictable as mid-winter. According to Reid, spring skiing is a "a mixed bag. You never know what the day is going to throw at you."
"The mornings usually start out cooler and firmer, with conditions morphing throughout the day," she said. "The mountain becomes a true challenge, testing your stance and balance. With temperatures rising, skier traffic causes natural moguls to form in places that may typically be groomed. Bumps can be even more difficult as they set early and late in the day."
Since conditions can change dramatically over the course of the day, your approach to the trails needs to be flexible as well.
"Mornings in the spring should be about warming your body up, same as the snow does," said Reid. "Stick to runs that were groomed the night before and schuss out the runs that are in the sun early. Those are the ones that you'll want to hit up first."
As my Maddi learned, when that morning corn snow softens, it can be treacherous. If your legs start to tire while pushing around the afternoon mashed potato snow, don't be shy about finishing up early. Which brings us to technique.
"When going down trails that have really gotten slushy, try to look ahead and anticipate how the snow will impact your skis and, subsequently, your balance," said Reid. "If you're headed towards a mound or mogul, you'll likely be pushed to the rear. Fight back by moving your feet forwards through the snow.
"A strong, athletic stance helps to set skiers up right for these kinds of conditions," she said. "Think stacked: knees over toes, and hips over boots."
See our listing of great spring ski festivals and mountain events. Don't forget the sunscreen!
Photo Courtesy of Crystal Mountain