Positioned along the Western US and the Pacific Ocean, the Sierra-Nevada Mountain Range boasts a maritime snowpack rich with moisture. Even without recent snowfall, there are often still moments of smooth skiing perfection to be found in the spring, as the snow is softened by the warm daytime temperatures. Following the sun-softened snow from aspect to aspect as the day progresses is truly an art as well as a science. I have highlighted five great options that we have learned through experience are prime tours for these spring conditions.
What is “Corn” skiing?
Here in the Sierra, when we get the perfect combination of snow with lots of water in it, a deep snowpack, nighttime freezing, and warm sunny daytime temperatures, it comes together to create springtime corn snow. As the grains of snow go through melting and refreezing, they take on the appearance of tiny cobs of corn. You don’t have to understand the snow science to appreciate how much fun it can be to let your skis run down the consistent smooth surface, turning off-piste mountains into groomers. The trick is timing and location, it’s all about being in the right spot at the right time.
Spring Skiing Hazards
Since we want to be dropping into runs as the snow softens from the sun, we are often climbing or skinning up on firm icy snow. Good skinning technique, ski crampons, or even sometimes using boot crampons and an ice axe, all prevent sliding in the event of falling on the firm morning snow. Be aware of what’s above and below as you move through the changing terrain. Watch for warming debris falling from a cornice or rock fall. One of the most predictable hazards of spring skiing is the sun! Don’t forget your sunblock and sun hat to protect against all the solar radiation. Julbo Sunglasses are also the perfect way to protect your eyes from the sun and reflection off the snow. As with any time one ventures into the backcountry, make sure to bring the right gear and to properly educate yourself with avalanche training classes and or a local guide. Be sure to always check the local avalanche report with Sierra Avalanche Center.
Local Classic Spring Ski Touring
Skiing on nearly all aspects Castle Peak is always a great place to check the snow conditions. With West, Southwest, and Southeast slopes, try to time the softening snow perfectly as the sun hits it each morning. Don’t forget your California SnoPark pass for parking on Donner Summit. Pick one up at Tahoe Mountain Sports today!
A West shore favorite all season long, Jake’s also offers some great spring skiing. The avalanche path that runs down towards the Emerald Bay closure gate gets the most sun and will attract the most late-season skiers. This long smooth run offers epic views of Lake Tahoe and faces East / Southeast, softening with the sunrise each morning.
Check out the best of both worlds with optional side country access to Grouse Rock in Ward Canyon. Access can be obtained by skiing out from Alpine Meadow’s High Traverse, from the Summit chair or by skinning up from Ward Canyon. Hike or skin out the ridge until reaching the prominent colorful rock feature. The run off of Grouse’s southern slope bears the name Mr. Ed’s and can be skied while traversing hard left back to Sherwood chair, or continuing down the fall line then using climbing skins to ascend back to the rock.
Positioned between Relay and Rifle Peaks along the Tahoe Rim Trail is Rose Knob. This picturesque slope rises out of the neighborhoods of Incline Village and offers unbeatable Lake Tahoe views. While this spot gets some of the first of the morning’s sunlight, it can also be a bit of a steeper and icier climb, so be sure to plan ahead.
A Donner Summit classic ski, Mt Judah offers a primarily East facing ski slope from the summit. Park on the summit at the ASI/Sugar Bowl Academy parking lot. Gain the ridge skinning past the old radio repeaters on the summit affectionately known as the “billboards”. Those East faces will start softening as soon as the sun hits them, so plan your descent timing accordingly.
Cal Topo Pro Tip
You can use Cal Topo to shade slopes by sun exposure throughout the day. While using Cal Topo on your desktop, check the “Sun Exposure” in the right side menu. It can be found under “Map Overlays”. You can use this to check routes to find out when the intended descent receives the most solar input. Use this tool to plan to get the best spring corn in the backcountry.