Sunday, April 25, 2010

Harvesting The Spring Goods: Corn-Snow Skiing

Thanks to fresh snow in the weekend forecast, Saturday's Corn Harvest at Loveland Ski Area might be a powder harvest rather than the usual corn-snow shred-fest.
"Not that I'm complaining," said John Snook, an avalanche forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which is based in Boulder.

The Corn Harvest, a corn-skiing event and a fundraiser for the CAIC, is usually well-timed for taking advantage of spring ski conditions at Loveland. Rogue snowstorms aside, this is the time of year when skiers and riders start getting hungry for the silky goodness of corn snow.
"There are people that would much rather ski corn than powder," said Colorado Mountain School guide Andrew Councell. "It's fast, it's predictable, it's a really uniform snow surface."
It's fun.

Corn snow occurs in the spring, when there's a constant melt-freeze cycle, Snook said.
"During the day when it gets above freezing, you get liquid water on the snowpack," Snook said. At night, it re-freezes on the individual grains of snow and creates a larger frozen grain. With repeated freeze-thaw cycles, the grains get a little bigger each day, he said, until they're the size of a corn kernel.
In Colorado, skiers can often enjoy corn snow from late April through early June, said meteorologist Joel Gratz, of the Colorado Powder Forecast.

"The sweet spot is cold nights -- below freezing -- and warm enough days that go above freezing around mid-morning to mid-day," Gratz said.

"Timing the skiing is not the simplest thing. You want to skin or hike up while the snow is still cold, and then be ready to ski just as the snow is warming up."

Councell said corn snow can occur on any aspect in the spring.

South and east aspects tend to corn-up early, he said, around 8 to 10 a.m. If you drift into northerly aspects, you can often find good corn until 1 p.m.

"Ski at any ski area in the spring and you'll find that the best skiing is from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., when the snow is in that transition from ice to slop," Councell said.

But those are all just guidelines -- it all depends on temperature.

You want to ski during that first hour or two of the transition from frozen to melting, Gratz said.

Snook said to get off the slopes when the snow gets too warm and slushy, though, to avoid wet avalanche danger. One rule of thumb is to stand in the snow without your skis or snowboard and see how far you sink.

"If you're able to penetrate in the snow above your boots, you need to get out of there," Snook said.

"The other thing is, if you're in steeper terrain, look for what we call wet roller balls," he said. Those are balls of snow that literally snowball and build on themselves as they fall, he said, like if you were rolling up a ball to make a snowman.

And during corn season, you'll want to head into the steeper terrain.

"You can ski really steep stuff," Councell said. "If you're hitting it just right, your skis get really good purchase."

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