The local mountains received several inches of snow over the weekend. Amazingly, the wind has been nearly non-existent for the past several days, allowing for some incredibly smooth skiing above treeline. Here are a couple shots from yesterday.
Six days ago it was a different world in the mountains of Colorado. An upper-level ridge of high pressure had been moving back and forth between the intermountain west and the West Coast. The few disturbances that made it through or around the ridge delivered mostly rain and high elevation dustings with little wind. At the resorts, snowmaking efforts were hindered by warm nights and cloudless, dry days. Most south faces melted out all the way up to 14,000', while north faces above and slightly below treeline retained 3-6" of faceted "junk" snow that fell during the late days of September and through the entire month of October.
Despite the lean "low-tide" snow conditions, there was some skiing to be had. Arapahoe Basin opened on October 17, and the usual early season spots along the Continental Divide were good for some cheap thrills. One particular spot gave us some beautiful scenery and tricky skiing in early November.
On November 10th, a blocking pattern in the form of an "omega block" over western Canada drove cold, polar air southward across the great plains and up against the Front Range mountains. A quick 6-12" fell during the afternoon on Monday, causing numerous road closures as temperatures dropped as much as 30 degrees in less than an hour. This was just the beginning of a prolonged period of snowfall across the state. Record lows were set along the plains adjacent to the Front Range from the WY border to Pueblo. On Wednesday a cold front stalled in an W-E line along the I-70 corridor. Heavy snow fell across Summit County. The town of Silverthorne received over a foot of fluffy snow during the day. After a short break in the snowfall, a vigorous "short-wave" moved in from the northwest dropping an additional foot over the higher terrain across the entire state.
The week-long storm left cold temperatures and 3-5 feet of snow in the mountains of Summit, Clear Creek, and Eagle Counties. I was able to get out in the Loveland Pass area shortly after the road opened this morning. Trevor, Casey, Scott and I were greeted with subzero temperatures, making for fun but somewhat slow snow conditions. The surface was surprisingly unaffected by the wind.
It's imposing north face is hard to ignore if you're a skier. It's visible from one spot along the road to Jones and Butler. The 13,600' peak's scoured summit is flanked by a series of gullies and couloirs. Prevailing west and northwest winds load these gullies with thick wind-packed snow. The last time I skied this face was in May of 1012. That season we experienced one of the worst winters in 20 years.
In the week leading up to the 11th the area had received an inch of liquid precipitation and the woods were unusually wet and lush. Once I was above treeline, the moisture took on a more frozen form. A quick climb up the tundra and I was at the top of the ridge. After making a few turns in a smaller gully to the west to get a feel for the snow, I descended the larger line closer to the summit. I was able to make careful, continuous turns for about 700 feet. The snow varied from creamy windpack to breakable crust ending in a narrow rocky drift of slushy corn snow.
There's something calming about skiing this time of year. The weather is rather benign, and predictable, absent from lightning laden thunderstorms that seem to appear from nowhere. As for the snow, it is made up of one or two, again, predictable layers. You know where the rocks are. They're everywhere, and one should ski as if you will hit one on every turn. It's usually warm enough to wear a t-shirt on the way up and not too hot to wear your jacket on the way down.
It's been 4 to 5 weeks since we started seeing the first signs of the impending winter at higher elevations, mere dustings of sleet and snow left behind by passing afternoon thunderstorms. The "monsoon" winds of late August and September bring moisture originating in the Sea of Cortez to the northwest over the desert and into the higher terrain of Colorado. The atmosphere cools as the length of solar daytime heating diminishes toward the solstice, and the snow level begins to drop.
The first accumulating snows are typically not the right type of snow to make early-season turns on. These first events tend to be unaccompanied by any wind. These storms blanket the mountains in a beautiful layer of white that gives skiers a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, but doesn't offer much support support to a pair of skis. As September rolls on, the polar jet stream begins to push small bits of energy southward along the Rockies. Just a few inches with some moderate winds can drift this snow into piles that line the ridges and fill the gullies.
The utmost care must be taken when skiing this time of year. The snow is incredibly thin and the surface is usually crusty, thick, and grabby. It's skiing nonetheless. These early days build character, and if you respect the gravity of the consequences surrounding you, and ski accordingly, they can be overwhelmingly fun. The feeling you get clicking into your skis and sliding down a cold drift of snow after a long summer of sweaty, dirty work is nearly unmatched.
The storms that come in October tend to be colder. The sun-baked snow surface freezes solid and fluffy snow drifts on top of it. This crusty layer can offer support and protection from the sharp rocks below. The first faceshots of the season are produced by a quick slash of the skis. The first taste of winter has been savored.
Eventually, the snow stops falling and the dry October days and cold, crisp nights take over and promise to turn this first coating of snow to an unsupportive base layer that will inevitably come back to haunt us. All we can do now is enjoy the anticipation of what's to come and hope for the best.