Many people would like to forget about the year 2020 altogether, or at least put it well behind us. From a skier’s perspective, here in the Fraser Valley, it wasn’t the greatest of years, nor was it the worst. Snows in the fall were not unusually early, late, large or small, after all, most long time residents seem to agree that there is not much that is typical to our mountain weather, except that it can snow pretty much any month of the year. Those fall snows were most welcome as they snuffed out the fires that were degrading the very air that we were breathing. With the air nicely filtered by the cottony snow falling through it, we were left wondering what kind of season we might have with the other airborne threat circulating around us in the form of an airborne virus. Fortunately, as skiing is an outdoor sport, usually done without close contact to other participants, except perhaps when riding lifts, we were able to get out and take advantage of the sport that so many of us enjoy.
The above average warmth of the fall left the earth uncooled heading into the season when she dons her winter blanket of white. This is one of the reasons that Colorado has an infamously unstable snowpack. With that warmness in the rocks and ground insulated by snow, the deeper layers of snow transform into larger crystals that are not very cohesive with one another. As more weight in the form of later snowfalls weights the snowpack down, those deep layers can’t hold on as well. The resulting instability took many skiers, even those purported to have had a good deal of experience by surprise.
Perhaps mercifully, our drought carried into the early winter months, and thicker heavier layers did not continue to weight down the early unstable layers excessively. Throughout the early season and into mid-winter we were having to tread carefully through minefields of rocks, roots or stumps just poking up or just beneath the snow’s surface. The winds that seem to be ever increasing these past few years, after the beetle kill had its way with the forest, didn’t help and left exposed areas windswept. One particular storm left us with a band-aid brown layer of dust in the snow, just as the dirt from the ground that would occasionally get kicked up was getting buried. Darker layers like this amidst the pure white snows, can have a significant impact on the rate of melting when the sun shines on them with what also seems to be an ever-increasing intensity.
Like the cavalry, March came to the rescue with some long awaited and very much welcomed larger snowfalls. Just as we were getting used to the idea of winter settling in, however, the inevitable increase in the solar azimuth angle gave us some denser layers that would begin to settle the snowpack and lead us into the crust season before die-hard skiers were ready to say good-bye to cold dry powder. The crust could not be delayed for long, and once again warmer than average spells of heat affected our season. Short but sweet, the crust season started out with the smoothest and sweetest skiing that one could hope for, but sun-cups soon pocked the way, especially where that brown layer was exposed, and little bits of vegetation such as grasses or sagebrush tips poking through the snow forewarned of trap-doors lurking below. One had to venture further up the drainages or to higher elevations to stay ahead of the big melt.
It is Cinque de Mayo, and as so often is the case, we are still waiting for snow to say goodbye. Flurries remind us of how Winter Park earned its name. The snowpack slowly recedes away, up the valley tributaries, while above tree-line, the snowpack remains about as consolidated as it ever gets in Colorado. Most people are ready to move onto the next chapter, be it biking, hiking or other summery adventures, but for those who yearn for the sensation of sliding over the earth on a magical carpet of white, there are still morning-ski memories to be made in the mountains.