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Spring Snow - Henry's Avalanche Talk

Spring snow conditions: Introduction to skiing the Spring Snowpack.

Henry's Avalanche Talk

2/4/07 - This coming week is going to be clear – with very warm days and cold nights. Perfect for spring snow… if people don’t ski it too late.

Spring Skiing.

Please try and preserve it – respect the spring snow ‘melt-freeze cycles.’

Off-Piste spring skiing is one of the best things that this region has to offer and lift access to all slope orientations: north, east, south and west, can get you on it with little effort. Once the new snow melts during the day and then freezes at night, a few times in succession after a snowfall, the top snow layer begins to form a crust that gets deeper and stronger after melt, allowing free water to drip down and re-freeze during the nights. This layer therefore becomes stronger with each cycle of melting and freezing.

If untouched, this top crust, is smooth and solid first thing in the morning, then it becomes progressively softer with the warmth of the sun as the day goes on; starting on east faces, then south , then west and finally north (but, due to lack of sun, north takes a few more cycles of melting and freezing to ‘come around’ and become solid after a freeze). The trick is after a couple of good melt-freeze cycles, to get on the slopes when the snow surface is smooth and solid with only 2 or 3 cm’s of soft melted snow on top (slopes that have been in the sun only for an hour or two). Then you need to get off those slopes when the snow surface begins to get too soft and mushy.

In summary: it needs to freeze well the night before – the ideal is a cool clear night (with minimums of lower than 2 degrees at 2000 metres), which will re-freeze the melted parts of the snowpack solid (if it hasn’t melted then obviously it won’t re–freeze!) So you look to get on the east faces first thing, 9am, because the sun rises in the east and therefore the slopes get the sun first! Then you move to south facing slopes, then west. Do this right and get some of the best skiing of the season.

Aside from a night that is not cool enough, the only thing that gets in the way of great spring skiing is the nasty ruts in the snow that people leave behind because they either ski spring snow slopes (anything but north at this time of year) before they have had time to go through the melt-freeze cycles or they ski slopes that have melted too much e.g. they are too soft and mushy – for example, an east face after about 10am. In both cases frozen ruts are left for those of us who come and ski at the right time – and this makes us very sad.

If you have any questions about how to time good spring skiing, just ask any off-piste guide or instructor around town. They will be happy to explain because their quality of skiing depends on people playing the game right!

Tip of the week.

Watch out for ‘whippers’! Falling and sliding on steep, smooth snow can shake you up very badly and maybe damage you. You are very secure on those metal edges, but once you fall and start to slide, it is very hard to stop. For skiers, learn the ‘press-up self arest’ and for boarders, practice trying to get that board under control once you start sliding. Never take off your board or skis when you are on a steep, smooth slope.

Have fun and be safe!

Henry and the HAT Team.

This snowpack report was taken from the mountain echo and was written in collaboration with Andreas from HAT and Alpine Experience as well as HAT adventures.

If you’d like to learn how to use a beeper (or you’re simply looking for a local guide), you can call Jimi on 06 11 38 88 09 – he’ll let you know when the next HAT course is or he’ll be able to organise one for you. Also visit the SPOT in Tignes.

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