Azure Blue Skies, Smiles and Technique.
Every skier – from hardcore season-pass holder to occasional weekend dabbler – looks forward to spring skiing. Who can blame them?
“Spring skiing comes with a whole new energy – warmer, sunny days, soft bumps, all-around happy skiers enjoying the end of the snow season to the fullest,” said Keri Reid, assistant director for Okemo’s Ski + Ride School in Vermont. “It also brings out all the ‘fair weather’ sliders, some with rather colorful attire and personalities to match.
“Suddenly, anything goes,” said Reid. “Out comes all the retro gear and equipment hailing from different eras. Some days, shorts, T-shirts – or no shirts – and even bikinis become the dress code. It’s just plain fun.”
That fun component – primarily fueled by warmer weather and sunshine, plus a litany of spring-themed events – is a major reason why March and April are great months to take your first turns. The allure of sunshine and mild temperatures is real. Resorts will market those bluebird days, and you can’t blame them. Beginners, and parents with newbies, are looking for the same thing.
But spring skiing can be a tricky proposition. For every pristine spring day on the hill, I’ve had challenging sessions. But these less-than-ideal circumstances often lead to epic outings, and fodder for the best après ski stories.
One of my fondest memories is having Utah’s Park City almost to myself one rainy spring day. Sure, the steady drizzle was a tad uncomfortable, especially on the lifts, but the trail conditions were outstanding. I skied until my legs were toast, and then hobbled into the base lodge. There, folks looked at me like I’d lost my mind. Yes, they were warm and dry. But I have memories of an exceptional day that I still cherish, more than a decade later.
So I continue to head to ski country after March 1, no matter what the forecast is. If you go often enough, you’re bound to hit the jackpot. A few years back, my girls and I visited Bretton Woods in New Hampshire during the resort’s Spring Fling celebration. The conditions were absolutely “mail order,” a Madison Avenue executive’s fantasy outing (which was not only appreciated by my wife and daughters, but also the pond skimmers!).
Last year, my daughter Brynne and I got a couple of days at Okemo that were equally brilliant. We had cloudless skies and temps in the low 40s, and solid snow to match. The latter was a credit not only to Mother Nature but also Okemo’s peerless commitment to snowmaking and grooming. In fact, I typically hedge my bets after February, opting for resorts with a reputation for snowmaking, which provides enough of a base to make spring turns a reality.
On the flip side, one of my most vivid spring skiing memories came during a March outing at New Hampshire’s Mount Cranmore. It was the quintessential spring session, with great conditions from top to bottom to start the day. By late morning, however, the snow near the bottom of the hill had softened considerably.
My daughter Maddi, 12 at the time, wasn’t prepared. On a long, flat run to the base area, Maddi turned to cheer us on. She didn’t account for the heavy, mashed potato snow under her skis, caught an edge, and launched. Ski poles, skis, and gloves went everywhere. Even with her helmet, Maddi suffered a mild concussion, bringing a quick close to what had been a superb day on the trails.
The lesson was that spring can bring conditions that can be every bit as unpredictable as mid-winter. And learning to deal with the endless array of conditions does pay dividends.
Steve DeBenedictis, Bretton Woods Ski and Snowboard School director for the past two decades, suggested that beginner and intermediate skiers and riders shouldn’t underestimate spring conditions, or the benefit of taking a lesson during springtime. For some odd reason, the “carefree attitude” that consumes many skiers after the calendar clicks past March 1, leads them to think that skiing somehow gets easier. That’s not always true.
“One of the statements you often hear on a day like this is ‘I am so tired of pushing this stuff around,’” said DeBenedictis. “This is a dead giveaway that a lesson would help. We’ll teach you to slice through the spring corn rather than push it around.”
That “spring corn,” or “mashed potatoes,” refers to the water-laden slush that results when temps warm up. “It’s heavy, which is why I often preferred my snowboard to skis on those days,” said DeBenedictis.
Reid agreed. “Spring can offer some warmer, sunnier weather conditions which can take away some of the ‘external’ stress factors,” she said. “Most importantly, a new skier or rider should choose a time that they feel prepared for.”
Spring skiing, said Reid, is something of “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 skills. With temperatures rising, skier traffic causes natural moguls to form in places that may typically be groomed. Bumps can be challenging even for the most advanced skiers and riders. They can be even more difficult as they set early and late in the day.”
And while we all hope for bright sun and azure blue skies, rain is always a possibility.
“Dressing right becomes quite the conundrum, what with Mother Nature throwing everything she’s got,” said Reid. “One minute you’re freezing, the next you’re sweating.
“The best advice is to purchase a high quality shell – an uninsulated jacket – that can be worn with many or few layers underneath,” she said. “Gore-Tex and similar fabrics offer breathability and waterproofness for those pesky wet days. Layers are the name of the game. As the day progressively warms, you can peel off layers to stay comfortable.”
Preparation also includes making sure your gear is ready to go. Skis and snowboards can be tuned differently to address the variable conditions you can expect to find.
“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.
“Finally, you can’t always trust the weather report,” she said. “Be prepared for any and all conditions.”
Since conditions can change drastically over the course of the day, the way you approach the trails should 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.”
Which brings us to technique. Technique is always important, but that’s even more true late in the season.
“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.”
Visual impairments are another potential problem. During one late-March morning at Sugarloaf in Maine, a group of friends and I encountered a fog was so thick that we could barely see 10 feet in front of us (it was that day when a good buddy coined the memorable phrase, “Skiing by Braille”). Likewise, flat light can prevent you from “reading” variations in the trail.
“Flat light is the same as terrain that is too steep, or too rocky, or trees. It affects your vision, instead of your fear, but it still results in fear,” said legendary “extreme” skier John Egan, chief recreation officer at Sugarbush Resort in Vermont. “Because you’re human, you’re going to do one of three things when you’re afraid. You’re going to open up, you’re going to back up, you’re going to stop moving, or you’re going to do all three.
“The same thing happens when you can’t see,” he said. “You lose part of your vision, and you don’t rely on your other senses. You’re not feeling what’s going on. It’s really important that you’re feeling what’s going on.”
To better “feel” the terrain, Egan suggests two simple remedies. The first is to breathe, which will help keep your body more pliable, and more athletic. The second is smiling. Though it sounds simple, the act of smiling has a raft of benefits. Not spontaneous smiling, but consciously smiling.
“It really does start with skiing with a smile on your face,” said Egan, noting that smiling helps us to relax. “A happy body works much better, ergonomically. The whole being just works much better, like the suspension system it should be.”
Finally, Reid suggests a couple of basic precautions that skiers and boarders ought to keep in mind during late winter and spring, including sun block and eye protection.
“It may seem obvious, but slather your face in sunscreen,” she said. “With colder temperatures, skiers and riders often forget just how strong the sun is, especially when mirrored off the snow. Remember to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. After all, skiing is a sport.”
Image: P Morning.