Squeeze the Season: Tips for Spring Skiing
I’ve got a dirty little secret: I’ll take a laid-back day of spring skiing over post-storm fresh powder any day, hands-down. I know, sunshine can cause the snow to go through that slush/ice cycle, and the relative silence and solitude of a backcountry run is the perfect antidote to the raucous mid-winter holiday season. But, when the temperature rises and the clouds break, lift prices drop.
Etiquette tips for the vernal…uh, I mean vertical equinox
Towards the end of winter, cabin fever flips my switch from solo-skiing introvert to ski lift social butterfly. It’s a lot easier to interact with people when every square inch of your being isn’t covered three inches deep with fabric, down, fleece, and reflective goggles. Sunlight’s a mood lifter, they say, and I’m pretty sure friendliness is a symptom of spring fever.
Stuck for conversation starters? Here are some standbys:
- Is the IPA still flat down at the lodge?
- How do you like those (insert gear brand name here)?
- Did your parents disown you when you turned to the Dark Side? (Applies only to snowboarders older than 40.)
- Wanna sip?
Avoid these at all costs:
- Can I borrow your lip balm?
- Thanks for sharing your gondola with us! Mind if we eat our chili?
Now, while it’s all but de rigueur to strip down to base layers or even short-sleeved tees on a particularly warm day, it’s poor form to go shirtless… especially if you’re a guy, and your body hair is your base layer.
Lighten up the layers
When I was a kid in the late ’80s, we didn’t have to ski uphill both directions, but we were stuck with relatively primitive fabric technology. Ski clothes were bulky then, and spring skiing meant shorts, your favorite concert tee shirt, and maybe a hoodie. Now, we’ve got wind-resistant, breathable fabric with better range of motion, and a better understanding of the need for UV-resistant clothing. Here’s a good wardrobe for the spring fashion season; you can always sew on patches to show off your allegiance to Morrissey, Duran Duran, or (cringe) Winger.
- Merino wool or medium-weight synthetic socks. Excessively thick socks cut off circulation, causing cold feet any time of the year.
- Lightweight, wind-resistant shell or jacket. Your outer layer should be roomy enough so it doesn’t compress the layers beneath, but light enough to ditch when the sun raises the temps late in the morning.
- Durable, water-resistant, lightweight pants. I love KÜHL’s extremely versatile DESTROYR PANT. It’s solid enough for snowboarding, but my lifetime-pass ski partner prefers KÜHL’s more tailored women’s FROST SOFTSHELL PANT.
- Long-sleeved shirt. Whether it’s form-fitting or a breezy button-down, it’s important to keep the intense sunlight off your skin. Skip the tanks and tees, even if your hair-shirt prompts a spike in Sasquatch sighting reports among the backcountry skiing set.
- Zip up fleece sweater. The front-zip feature lets you cool off when you need to, and zip up on windy lift rides.
- Polarized, UV-protective eyewear. You don’t need to go full-gog, but you do want to make sure you don’t burn your eyes.
- Warm hat. Even if you have a full head of hair, your scalp’s vulnerable to sun damage and, of course, is where heat escapes from when the sun dips behind the mountain. Always keep an insulating hat with you whenever there’s a risk of being stuck on a mountain. Trucker caps are a start, but wool beanies are better.
- Mid-weight gloves. Even if it’s warm, you’ll still want to protect against sun, wind, and snow… especially if you’re a knuckle-dragging boarder.
- Daypack: These are handy for holding extra layers and for transporting stuff to and from locker cubbies, but be sure there aren’t any loose straps to catch on chairlifts.
You’ll probably do fine without thermal underwear, AKA base layers, if you have the right pants and wind-stopping mid- and outer layers. Be sure that the fabric closest to your body wicks moisture away from the skin, which means skipping anything with a high cotton content. You’re more likely to break a sweat on an active, sunny day, so if you get caught in the cold, hypothermia is a very real possibility.
Indoctrinate the uninitiated
Spring’s a great time to set up your own personal ski school for your friends and family. Weather conditions and groomed runs are easier on beginners, especially kids. As I mentioned, discounts on lift tickets and gear rentals kick in late in the season. Most beginners don’t have dedicated hard-core ski clothes, and can usually get by on what they already have though all new boarders should have plenty of padding and the right gloves.
If you want to find out how compatible you are with a new squeeze, one day learning to ski or ride together equals a year of dating. Or so I hear.
Kick off the bindings and kick back a while
With (usually) shorter lift lines in spring, we tend to pack in more runs and burn more fuel. This is a good excuse to spend some extra time lounging on the deck at the mid-mountain grill or tailgate in the parking lot. Resorts often have coin-operated cubby lockers where you can stash pre-packed meals and snacks, or those extra clothing layers.
Most resorts throw end-of-season celebrations to keep ticket sales strong until the bitter end. Utah’s Beaver Mountain hosts the “Beaver Bash” with a costumed pond skim, in which skiiers dress up in costume and compete for the greatest distance skiing across the surface of a long pool. Alpine Meadows in Tahoe hosts its 35th Annual Snow Golf Tournament this year; tee off at the top of their Summit Express chair and complete the nine hole course to the bottom.
Grab your duct tape and dumpster dive for packing material! Steamboat Resort in Colorado hosts the long-running Cardboard Classic downhill derby as part of the town’s two-week Springalicious Festival. These are just a few raucous yet family-friendly season-closers. Chances are, one of your favorite local spots has something similar (or hysterically unique) in the works, too.
Find the best resorts for late-season skiing
When most North American ski hills are mothballing their grooming equipment, and freshly-unemployed staff are scrounging for dropped change, Blenders shades, and iPhones, these three resorts are nowhere near packing it in:
- Oregon’s Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood shuts down most of its lifts in late spring, but opens up its Palmer lift in June for die-hard, all-summer-long, above-the-treeline skiing. Timberline boasts the longest ski season in North America, and serves as a summer training facility for world-class pros.
- Colorado’s Arapaho Basin is sometimes open through Independence Day weekend, tempting the devil through late May with scheduled events and spring conditions that won’t de-laminate your boards and skis.
- California’s Mammoth Mountain tends to get a huge snow pack every winter and plenty of late-season powder, allowing them to stay open at least through the end of June and often well into July.
One final run…
Wherever you ski this spring, check the weather and road reports before you set out, and keep an eye on the horizon. Spring storms can roll in with little warning, and daytime highs and nighttime lows coat mountain roads with ice. The the same conditions that keep your favorite lifts in operation can shut you down lickety split if you’re not prepared. Don’t ditch your tire chains and emergency road kit just yet, either.
Be sure to check out other area attractions and pack accordingly! As ski season tapers off, some resorts open some lifts to mountain biking activities, and local hiking trails reappear under patches of white. Fishing’s also great this time of year, especially if you’re anywhere close to a good spring steelhead stream. And then, of course, there’s cold-season paddling.
This kind of recreation overlap, as well as the affordability of gap season deals, is one of the reasons spring is the best time to visit mountain resort towns. And if you’re lucky, you won’t have to give up fresh powder in the morning to enjoy a deck barbecue in the afternoon.