February 5, 2003
Best Times For Riding
It’s hard to beat spring snow conditions
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. No, this isn’t A Tale of Two Cities, it’s a tale of two seasons—snowmobile seasons. Actually, it’s the tale of one season—spring—that can represent the best of riding…and the worst of riding.
For years we’ve talked about spring riding. If you live out West, you can’t help but notice snowmobiles on back of trailers heading out on those bright sunny April and May mornings. And you wonder, are they really going snowmobiling…this is a perfect day for golfing. But for those diehards, spring represents long days of shirtsleeve riding and being able to go places where you normally can’t get to during the winter’s rides in deep, bottomless fluff.
It’s the best of times. You can go about anywhere you want. The snow base is firm. Traction is at its best (except first thing in the morning when the snow is rock hard and you feel like you’re riding on a sheet of ice—two-inch paddles don’t do a thing in these conditions). As the sun warms up the slopes, the snow softens, almost to the density of mashed potatoes, allowing your paddles to sink in and propel you up the slope.
It’s the worst of times. What goes up must come down. And as you start to descend a steep slope you suddenly realize that mashed potatoes can be pretty slippery when you’re riding a 500-pound bobsled. (Remember, the only anti-lock brakes you have are in the pumping of your grip.)
It’s the best of times. You can climb to the top of long bowls capped by rolling cornices. Each climb takes you to the shadows of the cornice and to the crest of the mountaintop where you can decide if you want to venture up the last 10 feet of vertical wall to the top.
It’s the worst of times. Sometimes you get into that “no man’s land” where you have to make a split decision as to whether you need to turn down or go over the top. Once you make your choice, there’s no turning back, no forgiveness. You either make it or you’re going to be rolling your sled down 1,000 feet of slope. Choose wisely. This is where most sled damage occurs. And it doesn’t help that once you make your decision, chances are the snow conditions are going to change dramatically in the last 10 feet. It could be soft and fluffy, robbing you of all that power you thought you still had left in your machine, or it could be rock hard, stealing that much-needed traction you thought you had and causing your track to spin out just before cresting the top. (That’s why so many slopes across the West are called “Windshield Hill.”)
It’s the best of times. There is still a lot of snow sticking on the steep slopes.
It’s the worst of times. That snow eventually has to come down. And during this time of year, snow slides (or avalanches) can really leave a mark. You better have an understanding of snow conditions and avalanche conditions. And you better pay attention to the various facing slopes. If a northwest facing slope slides, chances are very great that all northwest facing slopes are about ready to give up their snow. It’s not uncommon to see more than a dozen slides on similar facing slopes during the day’s ride. Usually, when the conditions are optimal for those slopes, they all slide in a matter of a short period of time. And these aren’t fluffy powder slides. These are the kinds of slides that change the rocky face of mountain slopes. (Have your avalanche gear handy.)
It’s the best of times. You can ride all day in t-shirts, basking into the spring sun.
It’s the worst of times. You’re at 8,000-10,000 feet elevation. That’s basically like being in a microwave for sun burns. Before you know it, you’re red as a beet and on the fast track to a severe case of melanoma. (So don’t forget your sun screen.)
It’s the best of times. You’re invincible. You can carve your way up and down drainages and explore areas you have never been able to get to during the winter season.
It’s the worst of times. Sudden changes in the temperatures change the texture of the snow. Suddenly, what seemed like a solid snow base magically changes to a crust on top and corn snow underneath. There is no traction. And regardless of how easy it was to get into this predicament, it’s going to take a lot of work to fight your way out of it. (Don’t worry, as soon as the sun goes down the temperatures drop and the snow hardens up.)
It’s the best of times. There’s just barely enough snow on the low-lying trails to get you from the parking area up the mountain to where the deep snow is.
It’s the worst of times. Having all that fun playing on the mountain during the beautiful sunny day distracted you from realizing that the sun was cutting the low-lying snow down to nothing. When you decide it’s time to head for home, you suddenly realize that the last couple of miles to the parking area is no longer over a thin layer of snow, but rather rock and dirt. So much for the hifax. (But seriously, after a great day of riding, who cares about a hifax?)
So what was it—the best of times or the worst of times?
Hey, let’s face it. Anytime you can ride your snowmobile, it’s the best of times.