By the calendar, it’s spring. But it’s not quite a typical spring snowpack for backcountry skiing, says Markus Beck, mountain guide and owner of Alpine World Ascents, based in Boulder.
“It poses a bit of a problem, because most people are going with habits, and ‘this is what you do,'” Beck said. “And this spring that doesn’t work.”
May snowstorms and cool temps have fattened April’s mediocre snowpack — and provided opportunities to ski powder rather than the corn snow that’s more typical for this time of the year. But the result is a snowpack in transition for backcountry enthusiasts, Beck said.
“The snowpack is not yet this consolidated mass,” he said. “There’s still layers in it, which creates instabilities. Particularly on shaded aspects, there’s definitely not much consolidation going on.”
In the South Platte River basin — which is basically the Front Range — the snowpack is at 113 percent of average as of Tuesday, said Matthew Kelsch, a hydrometeorologist with University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.
“The storms we had last week definitely helped catch us up to average,” Kelsch said.
It was a welcome boost at higher elevations, said Dan Gottas, a Boulder meteorologist who writes the mountain forecast for climbinglife.com.
“Before the storminess set back in during late April, the snowpack water content over the higher elevations along the northern Front Range was around 75 percent of normal for that time of the year,” Gottas said.
Now, he said, snow-water content measurements at some sub-alpine locations along the Front Range are at anywhere from 100 percent to 130 percent of average for this time of the year.
The snowpack typically declines rapidly after peaking in late April, he said, but the combination of cooler temperatures preventing the spring run-off and more snow are now keeping the snowpack at or above average.
The recent storms were no surprise, Gottas said.
“May is typically one of the wettest months of the year along the northern Front Range east of the Divide,” he said.
But the frequency and magnitude of the storms was notable — the total amount of liquid precipitation over the past month has been “impressive and anomalously high,” he said.
Usually at this time of the year, high-country conditions are more stable for skiers, Beck said. Warmer spring temperatures cause snow to melt into water and percolate through the layers, consolidating the snowpack into a stable mass.
Lately, while skiing, he’s noticed that the upper part of the snowpack is OK, but the deeper in, the old unstable layers are still there.
“I think if it keeps going like this” — meaning more snow and cool temperatures — “it’s not your fun early-June skiing anymore,” he said. “There’s potential for wet slab (avalanche) activity.”
For now, though, Beck isn’t complaining about the conditions.
“I’m going to be out with some friends on Friday, and I think I will probably be skiing some powder, more likely than corn.”