Would you rather always ski low-coverage, unpredictable early season ski conditions or the sun-cupped, often-firm snow that’s left over at the tail end of the season? That’s the question we’re posing in this Topic of the Week.
For the sake of this debate, we’re going to classify “early season conditions” as the first few weeks after it has snowed maybe a couple feet where you’re skiing. Think faceted snow, semi-buried logs and rocks, and the “white ribbon of death” at most resorts. For Colorado, this is typically late October or early November.
“Late season conditions” are a bit harder to classify, but for this article, we’re referring to when the spring snow has started to decompose and the snow has become sun cupped, runnels have formed, and you likely can’t skin straight from the typical winter trailheads. For Colorado, this is typically around the end of May or into July, depending on the snow year.
For either choice, you can earn your turns in the backcountry or access them via a resort’s lifts, but if you’re skiing in a resort, you’ll only be able to go to the ones that are open at that time of year (and only ski the terrain that’s still open at that point).
Here’s what a few of our reviewers think, but what about you? Let us know in the comments.
This is a pretty easy call for me — I’m definitely taking the late season option. For one thing, at least around here in the Pacific Northwest, there’s just way more terrain that stays skiable for a long time after snow conditions have ceased to be good. I like lapping groomers plenty, but my home mountain frankly doesn’t have very good ones, and I’d much rather be doing long touring missions on volcanoes and the like. And the longer spring days do a lot to facilitate those big days, too. If I’m going to do some mediocre-at-best skiing, I’d at least like to do a whole bunch of it, get a ton of exercise, and go stand on top of something tall. That’s a lot more viable in the spring. There’s also typically a deeper, more stable snowpack that time of year — and even if it’s a big refrozen brick that doesn’t ski well, it at least helps fill in all the terrible, bushwhack-y approaches in much of Western Washington, and it’s a whole lot safer to step out in than many early season conditions. So for all those reasons, I’ll take the spring skiing.
Early season skiing definitely has its perks here in Crested Butte. Plenty of lines are more accessible because most of the mountain roads around the valley are still open and driveable. The snowpack is generally safer than it is mid winter, and avalanches smaller.
I’m definitely taking the spring season, though. It sucks that lifts would not be running at Mt. Crested Butte for this, but there are plenty of awesome lines in the backcountry to keep me occupied during this time. I’d usually rather ski in the spring because you do have the opportunity for late-season storms that fall on good coverage underneath, rather than having to worry about hitting a rock or a log all the time. There is also the chance of finding some perfectly slushy spring corn, so long as it is cold enough to re-freeze.
I would also drive a few hours to go ski somewhere that is still open than ski the monotonous white ribbon of death over and over again. There’s something about skiing in a T-shirt that is very liberating, and I’d rather take slushy spring snow over icy early season man-made snow.
As the person who posed the topic for this debate, I’m frankly now wondering if the answer is too easy. Cause, like Dylan and David, I’m also opting for late season conditions. That said, I’m even more interested to hear from anyone who does prefer early season conditions, cause I feel like there could be some points that we’re missing.
I spent about five years stringing together ski seasons by skiing at least once every month, so I have a fair bit of experience skiing the worst of the worst. But I think late season conditions are generally more reliable than early season ones. At the end of spring / early summer, you typically have safe avalanche conditions that you can manage by getting up early, and the result is that you can get into some steeper and more consequential lines. You also don’t have to haul around a ton of gear — my summer skiing kit usually consists of just a base layer and an emergency shell or puffy, rather than a whole bunch of layers, goggles, extra gloves, etc.
Of course, there are those special early season days where you luck out and are able to ski deep pow with decent coverage. And I enjoy those days a whole lot more than survival-skiing down some steep couloir with suncups the size of garbage can lids. But I think, on average, I usually end up having a better time skiing at the end of the season than at the beginning. In particular, I have a preference for lines / conditions that let me string many turns together, rather than having to frequently stop, traverse, turn around, etc. because of lack of snow or obstacles in the way. I find those sort of lines are more common in the summer than in the fall.
Plus, there are all the other aspects surrounding these times of year that help make the decision for me. It’s hard to beat building and sessioning a jump when it’s 60°F and sunny, or being able to both ski a line and fish the lake at the bottom in one day, or combine biking and skiing, etc. At the beginning of the season, I’ve usually put the bike away and most of the high-altitude lakes and streams are either already frozen over or it’s so cold that I’ve given up on casting for fear of losing my fingers (a decision I think I finally made yesterday). The end of spring / early summer is a special time when my car usually has a set of skis, my bike, and all my fishing gear in it at the same time (plus a ton of mud), and I like having options.
So, what do you think? Was I dumb for even posing this question? Or are there other aspects of these two sub-par times of the year for sliding on snow that we’re forgetting?