One of my favorite aspects of living and playing in the mountains is orienteering. I’m not talking about full on map and compass stuff, though that is an invaluable skill set for travelling in the backcountry. I’m just talking about generally paying attention, even studying, my surroundings. This goes way beyond just the morning snow report. It requires that you keep track of the weather every day, that you find and follow weather patterns, that you compare what is happening in your own backyard to what the clouds are doing up high, what the temps and wind have been doing at different elevations over the past few days, all in addition to where you are (north, south, east and west).
For me, this stuff is really fun. I’m not a weather geek, I swear I’m not. And I don’t have some innate sense of direction. But as I love to ski, I have developed an awareness of all this, and I think it enables me to find better snow, whether that is soft and deep or carvy and firm.
So I’ll break it down into four categories for you, and you can start to play with what’s happening where in our terrain, and you can hunt out the snow that you desire. I skied some super varied terrain this morning in my explorations, and I’ll tell you every imaginable condition is up there.
1. New snow
This one is obvious. This year it is coming in fits and starts and when it comes we all rejoice, no matter the amount or quality. Important things to pay attention to especially in an unusually warm and low snow year are not just snow totals but also snow temps and differing totals at different elevations. This storm came in cold, which makes for fluffy loveliness, but it’s thin so you break through to the old snow surface really easily. With only a few inches of this light stuff, you can feel the firm hard pack of the warm weekend days underneath really easily. On days like that, flat pow is where it’s at, if you’re wanting to milk the powder. Steeper slopes require you to set your edges more firmly to make your turns and control your speed, and this recent snow isn’t enough to soften those turns. Lower-angle skiing is a totally different story. You can carry your speed and make fun little S turns that keep you in the soft and on top of the new snow. There are great, soft turns to be had in all the aspen glades surrounding Sunshine Express. Flat pow baby. Super fun.
Add this to your mental roster of what’s happening on the ski hill, wind is a big one. Sometimes a big wind on top of lots of new snow can be a disaster. It can pack it down making the snow heavy and set up. As the wind pertains to current conditions, the steady winds out of the west, south-west that we’ve had since the storm moved out yesterday have loaded some of the north and east aspects with a few extra inches, mostly on ridges and in the higher elevations. It’s not enough to make anything heavy, just enough to leave pockets of pretty deep snow that are a treat to find.
The Steamboat snow report always gives us temps at mid-mountain and at Storm Peak. These have varied greatly through these warm cycles. You have to look at past, current and forecast temps to make good decisions about where the skiing will be best. And as the temps change throughout the day, it can be a different mountain in the afternoon than in the morning. As it pertains to this most recent storm, and the skiing for the next day or two, Saturday, Feb. 14, was one of the warmest days of the year, great for goggle tans, spur of the moment Valentine’s proposals and soft, carvy groomers. This was followed by a return to single-digit temps and cold snow Monday and Tuesday, and the mornings are still cold. Lower elevations saw less snow, and therefore the terrain is the left over base that has now frozen. I’m not gonna tell you lower mountain was lovely this morning, but with a return to warm forecast today, it will soften up nicely in the sun and warm air and be really fun this afternoon. Higher elevation is probably going to be a different story, but that works great with the new cold snow up there. The wind is still pretty chilly, and even in the warm days of last week the higher elevations stayed fairly cool, so the base surface is still fairly soft.
4. Directions of the Compass
My favorite., and sort of a tricky, one in Steamboat. I grew up on the Front Range, where everything is nicely lined up north to south and east to west. Steamboat Resort is situated on a mostly south to southwest facing aspect. As I don’t often ski with a compass in hand, I have had some very fun debates regarding the directional aspect of any given slope with my like-minded orienteering ski pals. In sun-kissed Steamboat, and in this largely sunny winter, paying attention to the direction of the slope where you are skiing is going to give you the best ability to find snow conditions that you like. I could talk all day about all my favs, and which direction they are facing, but here’s the abridged version for mid-February:
All aspects except true north have got some sun effect on them prior to this storm, meaning a melting effect from sun exposure that is now frozen under a few new inches. Our mountain doesn’t have abundant true north, but when you find it (Look for slopes with heavier stands of evergreen. On clear days, you should be looking at Hahn’s Peak.) the skiing there is worlds different. If you are up for a hike to the tip top off Morningside, runs including North St. Pats, No Names and parts of Christmas Tree Bowl are steep and deep. You won’t feel that lower layer at all. East Face (looking at the Never Summer range and Rocky Mountain National Park) has morning sun on it, so the lower layer is pretty firm, but it has a little extra wind-loaded snow, so you’ve got more cushion before you feel that firm layer. Later in the day, the southwest facing slopes (looking out at the Flat Tops) will start to really soften up. And if the winds die down at lower elevations, both the warm air and the direct sun exposure could make for full-on soft spring conditions, with slushy bumps being akin to powder turns in my book.
Isn’t orienteering fun? Play around on the mountain today, and see what you can find. Ski runs that you never ski, or ski one side of a run and then ski it again on the other side to see how it changes in terms directional aspect, wind load and sun exposure. And then talk up your discoveries to your lift mate or your ski buddy. If they zone out, shoot me a message. I love this stuff.
But I’m not a geek. I swear. I’m just in it for the good skiing.
Ali Givnish, Alpine skier