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Spring Skiing Tips from Mark Elling

Making the Most of Late Season Skiing

By R. Mark Elling

Spring Skiing Tips from Mark Elling

Mark Elling at Mt. Bachelor

Copyright Kirk DeVoll
I asked Mark Elling, author of The All-Mountain Skier: The Way to Expert Skiing (McGraw-Hill) for some tips on how to more efficiently ski the corn and slushy wet stuff we find in the spring.

Follow Mark's advice and you'll be spending more time skiing on the snow than on sunning on the deck.

Spring Skiing

Spring is a great time to be on the hill — the days are longer, the prices are better, and crowds begin to thin. Spring skiing conditions can be a mixed bag though, and having a few specific strategies for dealing with what you get from late March to May can make or break your late season vacation.

While spring skiing is known for its carvable “corn” snow, you might easily tap into fresh powder (especially in the northwest) all the way through May. However, to fully realize their spring skiing potential skiers need to know something about corn itself. Corn is so-named because of the large, rounded-off snow crystal structure that results from an ongoing melt-freeze cycle. Warm days melt the snowpack, allowing small cold grains to merge together, forming larger crystals. Clear, cold nights in the spring re-freeze these wet, larger crystals and they become slightly more angular (squarish, like a kernel of baby corn). The longer the melt-freeze cycle continues, the larger these grains become. It may take many days of melt-freeze cycling to produce ideal corn skiing conditions. The morning following a freeze this corn layer at the top of the snowpack is solid as a rock—boilerplate, but hopefully not for long.

At some point during the day either the sun’s radiation or the day’s rising ambient air temperature (or both) begins to soften the top layer of this solid melt-freeze “corn crust” and velvety, highly-edgeable corn skiing is born. But if the day breaks cloudy and cool (or too windy) after a clear, cold night and then remains so, you don’t have corn, you’ve got a problem. If the air temp doesn’t come up or sun come out, your May Day ski experience could be every bit as firm as January in the East.

Spring Skiing Strategy

Strategy is as much a part of spring skiing success as solid carving skills are. Know the weather forecast and be on the hill for the ideal corn skiing window—don’t ski when conditions are solid as a rock, and avoid the late day melt-down when the ski experience becomes more like the one you’d find behind a boat. Use your head and follow the sun, skiing east-facing slopes at the start of the day, then move to south slopes, then ultimately west- and north-facing slopes later in the day. This is one of the reasons I think Mount Bachelor in Bend, Oregon has some of the best spring skiing anywhere on the planet—it’s a volcano, allowing you to “sun dial” your way around the mountain, skiing aspects where the corn is “going off.”

Deep, dense snowpacks of the Sierra and Cascades tend to handle the spring meltdown better than the light, dry snowpacks of the Rockies or the typically shallower snowpack of the East. The deeper, denser pack provides corn skiing conditions that remain “just right” for a longer window during the day. Light, dry snow that enters a corn cycle is often stickier earlier in the day and will tend to go “rotten” sooner and begin to collapse in grabby trenches beneath your feet.

The Problem of Powder

This also points to the “problem” of powder in late April and May—it’s great skiing for about a day, and then it enters the melt-freeze cycle when temperatures invariably rise back to seasonal norms. Until this powder gets melted down, re-frozen at night, and then again and again for several days, you’re dealing with transitional muck which is tough skiing no matter who you are. Consider golf or a movie if this hacked-up, tracked-up peanut butter pile threatens to lock up your skis. Hurting yourself is never good, but blowing your knee just a couple weeks before your summer begins would be a huge bummer.

Next in importance to understanding corn’s changing characteristics is knowing what kind of gear you need and how to prep it properly. Corn skiing is much like carving turns on perfect, soft groomed snow, with perhaps a little more noise and warmer temps. This is not powder skiing. The surface is relatively firm, and so there is less call for very fat skis. But when corn gets really wet and piles up thick, it doesn’t do you any favors to be running very short and narrow-waisted carve-specific skis. A well-tuned and stable hybrid between width and shape seems ideal for the variable demands of a day’s corn skiing. Ski waists hovering in the 75-85 mm. range with newer all-mountain-carver sidecuts are a blast in corn—enough edge grip and shape to enjoy ripping arcs on very firm corn but enough width to plow over slush piles and drive through rotten or sticky conditions later in the day.

The Importance of Tuning

And what about that tune? Edges, structure, and wax. A good edge tune is critical for the early morning firm snow surface, but more importantly the ski tune must deal with the wet snow that’s to come later in the day. Wax essentially waterproofs a ski so that it glides along on small ball-bearing-like beads of water, and so for wet snow a “warmer,” softer wax is the key. Base structure is the pattern of fine grooves ground into the base material (usually by a stone grinder) that serve to allow an avenue of escape for these tiny water droplets. If this water can’t escape in bead form out from under the ski this water will “sheet” rather than remain beaded, and this creates suction. This is what happens when the skis lurch to a halt or slow intermittently as you ski between shade and sun in the late spring. The amount of water in the sunny patch overloads your skis’ wax and structure capacity and you almost go over the bars.

Next Page: Read on for how to make the most out of spring skiing.

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