Wasatch Range, UT. FOW: Harrison Brickman // Photo: Pep Fujas (@pepfujas)
Come Thursday (March 19, 2020), we will have a change of the seasons: the occurrence of the vernal equinox, marking the official start of spring in the Northern Hemisphere and autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. In fact, it will be a rather auspicious occurrence; the earliest that the equinox has occurred nationwide in 124 years. What does that mean for us backcountry skiers? It means we're hanging at trailheads in matching party shirts, jorts, and glacier shades!
The jorts were a bit of a stretch, but you get the idea. We’re fired up for spring skiing out here in the Wasatch, and we hope you are too. High peaks, sunny skies, and corn cycles are beckoning, so without further ado, we bring you our tips for getting the most out of the remainder of the season…
Beware of Changing Hazards
The common perception of spring ski touring is that it’s generally safer than mid-winter. This is, by and large, true. Many of the most dangerous avalanche conditions you’ll encounter during the winter depend on recent snow deposition, and you’re obviously far less likely to encounter a weakly bonded storm slab if it hasn’t been snowing for a while. Late in the season, you’re far more likely to see your local avalanche bulletin "go green" on any given day.
But in an effort to get a bit more granular, it’s crucial to understand that many of the hazards that we encounter mid-Winter are simply replaced with new ones that are unique to spring. As the sun heats the snowpack, free water begins to percolate through the upper and middle snowpack, which can activate long dormant interfaces within the snow.
The spring diurnal melt-freeze cycle ignites the possibility of wet loose and wet slab avalanches, or drastic changes in snow composition. In a day or two of spring touring, one can encounter everything from wind affected cold chalk, to ice crust, to corn, to boot top hollow slush.
Specifically in this transitional time, overhead hazards become much more volatile as cornices can fail from solar input and greenhousing. Falling rock debris can also be released from thawing ice and snow. If you choose to traverse under any objective hazard, move quickly and consider traveling with head protection. As the sun beats down throughout the day, plan your exit so you’re not ascending on a slope that starts to shed rock and warming snow.
Temps are warming and corn cycles are coming! Wasatch Range, UT. FOW: Pep Fujas // Photo: Carson Meyer (@carsonmeyerphoto)
And in general, you’ll always be best served by brushing up on your knowledge and re-familiarizing yourself with these new, but manageable hazards that are unique to Spring. More experienced backcountry travelers, ski guides, avy instructors, or this book are all reasonable places to start.
Finally, as with any issue of backcountry safety, the biggest risk factor is the human one. Don’t let warm temperatures and blue skies lull you into a false sense of security. Note that safer snow conditions generally open up more consequential terrain, so consider your own aspirations, desires, and risk tolerance in your decision making, and play within your limits.
Take Care of Your Body
Longer days, more sunlight, and more stable snowpack all mean that you’re highly likely to be spending more time in harsher conditions. While none of these things alone are debilitating, the impacts of exposure can certainly add up over the course of a long tour.
Luckily, none of these things have to be a problem if you stay ahead of the game. Stay fueled and hydrated, protect yourself from the sun, and listen to your body. Push into higher elevations gently and gradually, and never try to push past symptoms of fatigue. And if you want to nerd out with the experts, Gnarly Nutrition offers lots of great insights into how to properly prepare your body, sustain your energy levels, and hydrate.
And of course, the more you can prep your body, the better. By now, you’ve hopefully gained plenty of base fitness from the beginning of the season. Now is the time to focus your workouts on maintaining and building endurance.
Refine Your Kit and Your Skillset
The new terrain that this season opens up can sometimes require unique tools to access.
Ski crampons, boot crampons, ice axes, and whippets are often on the shortlist for many spring tourers seeking out big objectives. For those pushing further into ski mountaineering territory, ropes, harnesses, and trad gear might all be on the packing list.
But at the risk of stating the obvious, note that simply having these tools is not going to keep you safe. Building and refining your skillset with any piece of equipment is absolutely necessary. If you want to push into new terrain with new equipment, we strongly recommend taking a ski mountaineering course. The American Alpine Institute, International Alpine Guides, Colorado Mountain School, and RMI Expeditions are all great places to start.
FOW's Matt Sterbenz and Tyler Miller opt for booting up south facing snowpack. Bridger Range, MT. Photo: Carson Meyer (@carsonmeyerphoto)
Wax Those Skis!
Longer approaches make for a longer ski out at the end of the day. Warm, sticky snow at lower elevations doesn’t make the situation any better.
For some of us, waxing skis is a pretty common occurrence. For others, it might fall into the once a year or less category. So do yourself a favor and take this article as a gentle reminder to wax your skis before the season is over. You’ll thank yourself next time you’re pushing out of the woods about 30 minutes after sunset. And keep in mind that a designated warm temperature wax will help you squeeze the most out of Spring snowpack.
And while we’re on the topic of wax... There’s one crucial item that usually sits quietly in your garage and in the depths of your subconscious, until you are halfway up the skin track and realize there are a few pounds of extra snow globbed onto your skins. In the stickiest of snow conditions, going without skin wax can leave you in a quandary weather or not to start bootpacking or turn around. Or, if you’re prepared, you can simply take a few minutes to apply it and move on to your objective. And for those who have the wherewithal to plan a little further ahead, you can also pick up a Mountain Flow Eco-Spray On Skin Wax that you apply the night before you head out.
Skin wax - here for when you need it the most! FOW: Pep Fujas // Photo: Carson Meyer (@carsonmeyerphoto)
Regardless of when you think spring skiing officially begins, this season is sure to offer plenty of big ascents and rewarding lines. We’ll see you out there!