WITH SPRING COMES UNICORNS: AN ODE TO BACKCOUNTRY SKIING’S BRIGHTEST SEASON
Words and Photos from HMG Friends and Contributors: Shaun Mittwollen, Taylor Bracher, Ian Provo, Brett Davis, and Kaitlyn Boyle
Spring just hits different on the slopes! We reached out to friends to get their take on what makes this time of year so special for backcountry skiing, and the following love fest spells out all their reasons why Spring just cannot be topped for one of their favorite pursuits.
To me spring skiing is like an afternoon at the beach.
The sun's warming rays have returned after a long winter and the atmosphere smells alive with humidity and fresh plant growth awakening in the still air. Gone are the heavy winter layers to be replaced with sunscreen and t shirts. The snow is forgiving and welcoming, everything is just plain less harsh. While mid winter it feels like we are enduring and battling the elements, in spring there is time to ease and enjoy.
An essence of regularity and no rush to time a narrow weather window or manic preparations to make first lifts. Some of my best skiing memories are in spring. Trading skis for snowboards with friends and goofing around. Slashing natural walls as if they are a wave, watching slushy snow fling off the lip as if fanned by a stiff offshore. Long cruisy days touring and never ending golden sunsets. In Japan it would be 25c and full coverage of snow. A salty seabreeze would waft over low hills from the nearby ocean. In spring there is time. Time to spend with friends. Time to get out in the mountains. Time to have fun. To me spring is low key and relaxed.
Move over handwarmers, headlamps, frosty beards, and screaming barfies! Outta my way fleece buff, “oh shit mitts,” and the cold toes dance. It’s time to make way for goggle tans, sun hoodies, and tailgate bevvies!
The first day I put on sunscreen each spring is something I look forward to as if it’s a holiday. Like the smell of pumpkin spice in November and evergreen in December, the scent of coconuts and zinc oxide mixes in my nostrils with the cool spring air and I just know the season is here! After the hardships of a long and dark winter, I engage in a practically instantaneous act of forgiveness with Mother Nature. This holy day usually happens sometime around the second week of March in Alaska, and I know I will experience the trinity of warmth on my skin, sun in my eyes, and glide under my feet. In fact, I’m lucky enough where I live that the holiday is more like a festival, and all my friends emerge from their winter hibernation to join in on the activities until late April or even May. We spend weeks celebrating the return of the sun and honoring its relationship to the snow by switching to appropriate attire (sunglasses, brimmed hats, and softshell pants), bringing offerings in the form of “yippees!” and “yahoos!” that reverberate across the soundscape, and matching our skis to the conditions, sometimes choosing multiples from the quiver all in the same day.
My favorite spring day is the one that starts with a five a.m. alarm, so at first light we can skate ski on the glorious crust that froze overnight. On these mornings we eat miles for breakfast and savor an after-ski brunch and nap. Around midday, we don our lightweight touring setups and head for the southerlies just as they hit the perfect corn window. We lap the corn until it turns to mashed potatoes or our legs turn to jello (yes skiers are very food motivated), when we retire to our porches for barbecue, sparkling beverages, and comparison of our face tans. We go to bed early like children waiting for a saint to bring us gifts in the night. And if we were good, in the morning the crust is firm and we do it all over again. We celebrate our riches. There’s never enough sunscreen.
It is the fourteenth day of spring in the year of twenty three, and as I look out the window, fat snowflakes continue to fall at a rate of two inches per hour. The weather guessers say this storm will add another forty to sixty inches of snow to the already historic snowpack.
As it stands, spring skiing has been canceled for the mountains of Utah. After nearly six months of nonstop snowfall, I long for the pleasant weather and warm sun and the renewal of outdoor pursuits that don't require mittens and goggles.
To ski a big line in the sun followed by a day of biking singletrack, or a leisurely outing on the river. A morning corn session right into a round of golf. Slushy spring turns at Snowbird and a couple of ales on the sundeck. Gardening. I am ready for spring. But today is a powder day. And tomorrow will be too. And for that I am willing to sacrifice a traditional season of spring skiing. Long live winter!!!
By the time April arrives in southwest Colorado, the phrase, “I’m over it,” is the opening to nearly every conversation. The conversationalist is indicating that they are done with winter and all that it brings to the Rockies—frigid temperatures, icy roads, slow to start vehicles, weather delays, road closures, the landscape covered all in white. With the first sporadic warm days the exodus begins, and the green license plates of Colorado begin migrating to the deserts of Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. Roof top ski racks are replaced with bike racks and long dormant rafting gear begins to appear in driveways. After several months of chasing the elusive “face shot” and seeking to visit the “white room,” the ski gear is abandoned to accumulate dust in a back corner of the garage until the first flakes reappear in late fall. These are the signs of a change in season in the mountain west and an indicator that the real skiing of the year is about to begin. Have fun in the desert, y’all! For us diehard aficionados in the snow tribe, springtime is when the skiing gets good.
Living in the intermountain west is a dangerous and complicated endeavor when it comes to the state of the snow. For most of the winter, we are dealing with a snowpack that is temperamental at best and outright scary most of the time. Comprised of a series of strong over weak layers, the avalanche dragon is always on the verge of being stirred from its uneasy rest with each ski turn through the sought-after light, blower powder. One miscalculation or poor terrain choice can have devastating consequences, bringing the entire mountain down. Hence, my search for face shots is on low angle terrain that is near and below tree line. You gotta love that pow!
With the arrival of warmer days and our grey world beginning to come to life with ever budding color, our white lurking dragon begins to transition into something tamer and more playful—perhaps unicorn like. With the sun climbing higher in the sky each day, the snowpack undergoes a constant freeze thaw cycle that overtime transforms the strong and weak layers into one homogenous layer of snow from its top to its bottom. When that happens, the “harvest” is on! Those of us who are early risers rejoice and take full advantage of our superpower to take in glorious sunrises from an icy skin track.
Moving early is the key, for no longer our we worried about the mid-winter sleeping dragon coming alive, but rather the unicorn getting rambunctious as it gets too warm and thus wet, under the hot afternoon sun. Our avalanche problems are no longer sneaky and hard to manage, but rather, are more identifiable and predictable. If you start sinking below your boot tops, then there is too much moisture traveling through the snowpack and stability is an issue. It is time to get back in town and join the masses mountain biking, rock climbing or boating the river. Spring easily allows for multi-sport days!
If one goes early and can remember not to dally as the day heats up, then the mountains will be one’s playground of solitude (remember, the I’m over it conversation from above). Gone will be the glory of skiing soft powder, but in its place will be the elation of standing on lofty summits followed by the inner butterflies of making those first turns down the steep, exposed couloir you looked at and dreamed about all season. The early morning frozen terrain will soften from the sun’s rays by late morning providing a surface of mashed potatoes or corn in which to descend your long-awaited prize—all without the fear of waking the dragon. The unicorn is ready to be ridden.
Every year the Scandinavian countries of Norway and Finland are deemed the “happiest” on the planet. After a recent visit with a dear Norwegian friend, I think I may have figured out their secret. While sitting in a Colorado backcountry hut after playing cat and mouse with the dragon for the day, Sjur looked at me and said, “You know in Norway, the best time to ski is in the spring. The days are warm, the snow is stable, and all our friends are in the mountains. We have no worries other than containing our joy enough to pick a line to ski.” Hmmm…
Photos by Will Stubb
Spring skiing can be hit or miss in an Intermountain West snowpack. Our good winters are characterized by moderately deep snowpack and cold temperatures, so in most winters, we are often managing persistent weak layers through the winter season. Spring is when our snowpack is usually deep enough, temperatures enable the snowpack to heal, and bigger objectives are possible. So I think the most compelling part of spring skiing in the Tetons is being able to "step out" into bigger terrain.
That said, on the heels of a very cold and snowy winter (and the beginning of spring) in the Tetons, the joy of Spring skiing is simpler for me–it's just sunshine and longer days! I joke that I spend more time waking up early in the winter and skiing before dawn than I do in the summer to ride bikes before it's hot. Days are short in northern winters, and alarms usually go off hours before sunrise to get out before work or for the best conditions. Spring brings earlier morning light and later sunsets, and that transition feels like the sun is infusing energy and warmth into our bones.
While early mornings are about beating the thaw, it feels amazing to see the sun earlier and be at trailheads without managing frozen fingers, electric socks, and frosty breath. Spring feels like an emergence from a hibernation period of early bedtimes, headlamp-lit ski tours, all the puffy layers, and chilly powder skiing into a period of more daytime, more energy, bigger views, and more possibilities. I really love deep winter. But when the days start to get warmer, and the sun starts to come out, I start to get really excited for summer. The best thing about spring skiing is it's a fleeting moment to enjoy the in-between.
As a professional cyclist, spring is also when the roads to trailheads thaw out, and one of my favorite multi-sport activities becomes possible - bike-to-ski missions! For some reason, after living with snow-covered roads all winter, there just isn't anything more inspiring to me than pedaling from home with my skis to make some turns and then pedaling home.