Routt County backcountry skiers make the most of spring season
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The snowy winter leaves behind a prolonged ski season for die-hards out in the backcountry.
This time last year, skiers were trading their skis and boots for rafting gear, but with snow still capping the mountain ranges across Northwest Colorado, spring is the best time to ski the steepest lines safely.
“The snow pack through the winter has all these layers, and those layers may or may not be bonded to each other, and that’s what slides,” Matthew Alford, a sales associate at Ski Haus, said. “In the warmer spring season, we get rain and melt, and the snowpack becomes more consolidated. It’s a really good time because you can’t knock a three-foot section of snow. It’s this nice corn snow: soft and wetter. In the morning, it’s still close to freezing at the higher elevation spots, so you can skin in, and it’s firm.”
To access the best terrain in the spring, skiers need to seek higher elevations. In Routt County, Alford said popular spots include Hahn’s Peak, Sand Mountain, Farwell Mountain, Hahn’s Peak Lake or areas in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. Rabbit Ears is also an option locally.
Not far down the road are spots like First and Second Creek off Berthoud Pass in Grand County. Loveland pass is another option accessible by car. Summit County’s Breckenridge Resort is still open until May 27, but those seeking adventure might coast down Crystal’s Peak off Peak 10. For a more adventurous experience, skiers can mountaineer through the Gore Mountain Range. Cameron Pass in Jackson County has a starting point of 10,500 feet in elevation with access to the Diamond Peaks and Nokhu Crags.
Further away are options like Torrey or Kelso Peaks, both reaching elevations up to almost 14,000 feet.
But adventures like back country skiing can be risky in many ways.
“You need anything around the same elevation as Rabbit Ears, 9,000 feet or 9,500 feet,” American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education instructor Dan Edmiston said. “Whenever you’re trying to go out, look for a night preceding where a freeze occurred for at least 5-6 hours. Temperatures in the low 20s would allow the snow to freeze solidly and then climb up the peak you’re trying to ski.”
- Hike to areas above 9,000 feet in elevation.
- Look for days that follow nights of below-freezing temperatures for ideal skinning conditions.
- Wear sunscreen.
- Get creative with access points by bringing hiking boots, skins and bikes.
- Be aware of potential hazards not covered or lightly covered by snow.
Edmiston advises skiers to time their climb, so the descent will occur when there is the best quality snow with the least potential to slide. If skiers start to sink into the snow past their ankles while hiking up, it’s time to begin a descent or to get away from warm snow.
Slopes that face east will warm up the fastest, then south and west will follow. Hazards like rocks, cliffs and creek crossings that may only be lightly covered are also things to look out for in the spring.
“Observing how the snowpack is changing is the key to having success in the backcountry,” Edmiston said.
Spring also brings more sunlight, which reflects off the surface and can blister your skin or even cause heat exhaustion.
“I’ve frequently gotten my worse sunburns of the year,” Alford said. “You can imagine skinning up for two hours, and sun coming from every direction. I’ve gotten sunburn under my chin, under my nose and sunglasses.”
Alford also notes that skinning up is different in the spring since the snow is wet and can clump under the skis without proper wax.
The most challenging part of backcountry skiing in the spring is access. Some hikes may begin in the rocks or mud. Skiers have to be prepared to get creative.
“There are roads still closed to vehicles, but for snowmobiling or skinning, there’s more dirt now,” Harry Sandler, a volunteer with Routt County Search and Rescue, said. “So, it’s harder. You can ride your bike. I’ve done that. Then start skinning from there. It makes for a multi-sport day.”
Sandler says there are more exposed skiable options in the spring than winter but to be mindful of potential avalanche danger.
The challenging access can also make for a more comprehensive adventure out in the mountains to wrap up the ski season.
“There’s really not many people out there. It’s pretty quiet, so you have the mountains to yourself,” Sandler said. “Most people are going down the desert this time of year, but there’s plenty of snowpack.”
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