As I followed my children by ski through the woods last weekend, I gave thanks to the snow gods and the spring sunshine. The former had left more than a foot of snow in the mountains heading into the weekend. The latter had provided blue sky, perfect early spring temperatures, and a solid start on our goggle tans.
This, I thought as my skis carved through buttery-soft snow, is what we wait for all ski season.
I’ve heard that the Inuit people have 100 words for snow. I have no idea if there’s any truth to that claim, but I do know that skiers have lots of words we assign to the different phases and forms of what we ski upon. There’s pond ice and boiler plate, champagne powder and Sierra cement, firm snow and grippy snow.
This time of year, if we’re lucky, we get corn snow and mashed potatoes. Spring snow is good. It’s even better when you know how to handle it — from ski prep to ski type to ski form.
Corn snow is what forms during those warm spring days that follow chilly nights. The regular thaw-freeze-thaw cycle causes bits of snow to freeze together overnight, then loosen and soften on sunny days, forming corn-sized snow kernels that are just the right softness for carving.
Almost everybody loves corn, although some skiers are not fans of mashed potatoes. Mashed potato snow is that heavy, wet stuff that sets up as the temps rise higher.
“It’s all about timing to harvest the corn,” said Tyler Ray of the Granite Backcountry Alliance (GBA), which celebrates spring snow and skiing with next weekend’s Wild Corn Shindig. “You only have a small window of time before that corn turns to mashed potatoes.”
While corn snow is considered “hero snow” — because skiers feel like heroes as they carve through it — mashed potatoes can be a little tricky to ski if you’ve never done it before.
“Don’t be intimidated by it. Just make up your mind to ski through it,” said Peter Holland, a longtime ski instructor and coach. “As in powder skiing, you may want to point your skis downhill a little more. The more you traverse, the harder it is to initiate a turn.”
Holland recommends a wider ski during spring conditions and said springtime schussers should allow the skis to float over the snow — whether corn, mashed potatoes, or spring powder — rather than setting a hard edge and trying to carve through the softer, heavier snow.
That doesn’t mean you won’t need sharp edges, though — especially on those chilly early morning runs, before the snow has softened.
While maintaining ski edges is important for spring skiing conditions, Andy Campbell, a ski technician at Sport Thoma in Lincoln, said waxing the bases is the key component to ski prep this time of year.
“Wax is more important now than at the beginning of the season for protection and glide,” he said. “If you don’t have a waxed base, the bases are going to get all scraped up.”
That soft spring snow can be a bit less pure than the stuff you’ll find mid-winter. Dust and dirt get mixed in as the season progresses, and wax can help protect the bases. For those with a tuning bench at home, Campbell suggests hot scraping — waxing skis, then scraping them before the wax cools and hardens — to help remove any grit that’s worked its way into the bases.
For the super-savvy home tuners, he suggests a fluorocarbon wax to allow good glide over snow, with a bit of graphite wax mixed in to reduce the friction caused by the ski sliding on the snow. Regardless of whether you wax your skis at home or bring them to the shop, tossing a rub-on wax into the ski bag is a good idea for springtime.
“When you go in for any kind of break, you can throw that on and let it soak in a bit,” he said.
For those cross-country gliders, spring snow can sometimes be a bit sticky. Howie Wemyss at Great Glen Trails suggests hitting the trails in the morning, before the snow gets too soft, and using waxless classic skis or skin skis during spring so you can ski throughout the day — and changing conditions — without having to switch up the wax.
Whatever your skiing pleasure — alpine or cross-country, resort or backcountry, corn or mashed potatoes — it’s time to celebrate the season of soft snow and hero turns.