Catching Colorado Spring Backcountry Skiing — Before the Snirt


This post by WildSnow.com blogger  
Spring in the Colorado Rockies.

Early spring ski touring in the Colorado Rockies. Click images to enlarge.

We get out on our backcountry skis whenever we can, and lucky for us, that’s quite often. Years ago we were able to ski tour spring corn-snow for weeks in our home mountains, the Elk range of the Colorado Rockies. Now a dirt layer usually blows in during April. The “snirt” causes lots of problems — weak layers in the snowpack, destruction of our corn cycle and accelerated spring runoff. This year we were hoping it wouldn’t happen but sadly it has. The snirt creates a grabby snow surface that’s no fun to ski. So when a spring storm deposits a few inches of fresh snow over the muck layer, we check avalanche conditions and if it’s safe, we get out to ski before it melts down to the dirt. Recently we were able to catch it. Snowpack was surprisingly solid and we enjoyed every turn. Check out our photo essay on some of our better backcountry days all year.

Patrick, visiting from Montana, enjoying what Colorado has to offer.

Patrick, visiting from Montana, enjoys what Colorado has to offer.

Beautiful vistas come in and out of view as the storm moves through the valley.

Beautiful vistas in the West Elk Mountains come in and out of view as the storm moves through the valley.

Blase Reardon, Aspen zone forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, enjoying his day off.

Blase Reardon, Aspen zone forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, joined us on his day off.

Finding fluff in the forest.

Finding fluff in the forest.

View of our tracks at the end of the day.  Yes, it was good.

View of our tracks at the end of the day. Yes, it was good.

Comments

13 Responses to “Catching Colorado Spring Backcountry Skiing — Before the Snirt”

  1. Mike Marolt April 14th, 2014 9:48 am

    very nice lisa!!

  2. Joe John April 14th, 2014 11:49 am

    Looks awesome! Thank you for sharing.

  3. Joe K April 14th, 2014 1:49 pm

    Where’s that dirt coming from?

  4. Lou Dawson April 14th, 2014 2:34 pm

    Usually from 4-Corners area, is what I recall seeing in reports, including some satellite views of the actual dust plumes racing our direction.

    https://www.google.com/search?q=dust+from+4+corners&oq=dust+from+4+corners&aqs=chrome..69i57.4383j0j7&sourceid=chrome&es_sm=93&ie=UTF-8

    Navajo and Hopi lands are where it appears to get picked up from. I’ve heard a combination of over-grazing and drought has made those lands more sensitive to dust pickup, but I’d imagine that land outside the Native American lands contributes as well. I’ve spoken with a few environmentalists who just knee-jerk and say it’s from “off roading” or “ATVs” but this is way more dust than what some dusty roads would contribute.

    Lou

  5. Mark Donohoe April 14th, 2014 3:36 pm

    Hey sorta related to brown stuff…. my dynafit mercury boots (white). The plastic is turning brown in the toe area. One foot more than the other. I searched the site, but didn’t find it. I thought I saw something on this site about this. Is this an issue that needs attention? Should I contact Dynafit?

    Another question. I have speed radikals that say ‘turn this direction’ which I do. While sking this past weekend, both of my heel units would rotate to the outside edge of the boot. This was on the first riser of the back. Both would rotate to the point of my boot being flat on the ski. It was really a problem while skining uphill. Is this supposed to happen? My FT’s don’t display this issue. I was not impressed and was glad it was only a day tour. Having to deal with this with a full pack on would be a pain!

  6. kyle tyler April 14th, 2014 4:47 pm

    Hello Blase, do a lap for me. We just closed today for the season—days off in my future. You guys have a nice looking snow surface—kyle

  7. mtnrunner2 April 14th, 2014 9:56 pm

    Given the pink color of the dust, I’ve always assumed it’s because of ALL OF UTAH. Heh. But seriously, the state has huge areas of red rock desert, after all. Right?

    Love the second-to-last pic in particular.

  8. Lou Dawson April 15th, 2014 5:10 am

    Mtnrunner, perhaps, but the storms that bring it in seem to usually be the ones picking it up from 4-Corners area. I have a theory that folks would make a bigger deal out of it if it came from BLM lands, but since it’s coming from Native American lands, we don’t want to touch the issue, understandably. If it’s any fault of land management, that’s Native American land and they should do what they want with it (assuming they have any influence on the situation, regarding how livestock is managed, etc.).

    Another interesting aspect of this is that of any one thing that’s perhaps caused by anthropomorphic climate change, this Colorado dust is wrecking our ski industry. It is really really bad. Can you imagine if you’d paid for an Aspen ski vacation and you arrived to find the ski hill covered with red mud? Aspen Skiing Company does a lot of talking about global warming, but I’ve not heard them say much about the red mud. You’d think they’d be down there negotiating with the Navajo, perhaps splitting their profits with them or something in return for some mitigation.

    Perhaps I should mention for those of you outside Colorado and following this thread, that these dust events used to be very rare. I remember perhaps one or two minor ones in the 1960s into 1980s, now we can pretty much count on several rather scary ones every spring once the desert soil is available (not snow covered or crusted over) for the wind to blow up, enough to ruin the snowpack for much spring skiing.

    Further reading (Thanks Chris Landry for the excellent pop-press bibliography):

    http://www.snowstudies.org/press1.html

    Following article is especially good, tending to not be politically correct but rather realistic (even pointing finger at renewable energy development!), though it of course just assumes that GW causes the problem, with not citing of any true science to back that up. The problem is real, probably caused by drought, but whether that’s caused by global warming or not is a whole other question, and one that’s so politically sensitive it probably will never be adequately answered.

    http://www.nytimes.com/gwire/2009/05/14/14greenwire-climate-change-water-shortages-conspire-to-cre-12208.html?pagewanted=all

    Lou

  9. brian h April 15th, 2014 8:07 am

    Living down this way, I’d say drought is the biggest culprit. I would think that if the 4 Corners region had any amount of ground moisture, the dust events wouldn’t be as severe. We’re into our second year of true drought without any major winters since 2010 (?) Poorly managed livestock grazing on tribal lands, private property and public grounds has contributed I’m sure, but that ‘industry’ is dying out here or changing anyway. Another issue might be the loss of native grasses to invasive weeds (and over grazing). It’s a bitches brew for sure that hopefully the talked about El Nino will help contain. But, that means less snow for you northern folk!

  10. Mike Marolt April 15th, 2014 2:22 pm

    I can’t find the article, but it said that the amount of dirt relates directly to drought conditions which have not subsided for the past 20 years in the west It said most of the dust is from the Utah desert which has really suffered in the drought the most. The oil / gas platforms def contribute, but it’s primarily the drought conditions which are part of the climate change in general according to this article. It did not talk about the causes of climate change, only that it has changed over the past couple of decades and has changed over time. It did talk about the same dust being found in other parts of the country east from various periods sometimes thick layers, suggesting that while we haven’t seen it in our lifetime until recent years, it’s been happening for thousands of years at various times. Said the components from the area that make up the dust are fairly unique to that part of the west so it’s not difficult to trace it. Interesting article.

  11. Craig Steury April 15th, 2014 4:20 pm

    The “Snirt” event(s) has made me nervous about renting any of the Braun huts in April and May, given the inflexibility in cancelling reservations, etc.

    I don’t know if you saw the Ken Burns documentary on the Dust Bowl (a little slow but some impressive pictures of the *huge* dust clouds of that day – some of which blew all the way to the East Coast! (see http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl/)

    They think it was caused by a combination of drought, disappearance of native grasses and bad farming practices. My take-away message from that program was that although they put in place many better farming practices recommended by soil scientists of the time, it was really the end of the drought that stopped the dust-clouds. When the price of wheat went up, they pretty much went back to the farming practices of before, ie there doesn’t seem to be any reason it couldn’t happen again given a long-enough drought.

  12. Lou Dawson April 15th, 2014 5:35 pm

    Craig, I’d indeed suggest that renting Braun Huts near Aspen, Colorado could be iffy. We just did an out-and-back to Opah, today. Judging from what I saw, it’ll get really snirty just as soon as things warm up, as the snirt layer is already at the surface in many places above timberline due to wind. Remember also that in terms of Colorado spring skiing, April is the new May. Lou

  13. Greg April 28th, 2014 6:46 pm

    The pictures are really stunnig. These mountains gave me a great occasion to impress my girlfriend. W love skiing.

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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information opinion website and e magazine. Lou's passion for the past 45 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about backcountry skiing and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free back country news and information here, and tons of Randonnee rando telemark info.

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