A fond look back to the plentiful snowpack of Winter-Spring of 2017. It is already sorely missed.
The comment “snow’s too deep” was overheard from skiers (in Norwegian accent, it was reported) on 2017 New Years Day as they were passing by the Tilly Jane Guard Station way up on Mount Hood. Now, saying that any snow is “too deep” may sound ironic or illogical to a skier, but I found that truly to be the case that alpine weekend on Mount Hood.
December storms had rushed the Cascade Range without interlude of warm or wet weather to thaw then stiffen up the freshly laid snow pack. We anticipated deeper than normal pack and great conditions. Plus, the near tree-line elevation of the Tilly Jane area often hosts the best of snow conditions in Oregon’s northern Cascades. Our energized group included two split-board snowboarders, two AT (all terrain) skiers and me on my telemark skis and boots. However, launching off into the fresh, untracked snowpack was “weird”.
Skis sunk nearly two-foot below the crystalline white surface and ski tips remained hidden from view. Moving across or up terrain on skis was more like plodding as if on invisible snow shoes: no glide or tracking. After so much extra work ascending in the morning light and “earning our turns”, we were eagerly pointing our skis down to enjoy the day’s first glide through the trees in nearly knee-deep “powder”.
To our amazement – and disappointment – each of us struggled to gain momentum down every slope. Pushing off into a descent was followed by snow piling deep atop our boots, then packing so much that a dense wall of snow formed on our skis before and between our legs, thereby stopping our descent.
We were stuck! The day’s downhill excursion was foiled by snow that was “too deep”. Our ski party gave up as we learned the amount of work it took simply to go down hill by stepping – versus skiing – back to the cabin and then to our cars. Chances for gliding improved once we were lucky to find and align on other skier’s tracks.
Lesson learned? That a packed base of hardened snow (post thaw-freeze cycle, or even wind pack or ice) is better for backcountry skiing and for maneuvering skis for direction and control than a very deep, “base-less” powdery snow profile. Preferred: A few inches of fresh snow atop a packed base provides a skier perhaps the best conditions for hilly terrain in the back country.
This lesson was reinforced on a second trip to the same area of Tilly Jane. During the early March ONC weekend at the cabin we had a good six inches of fresh snow on a firm base. Backcountry skiers descending the slopes were grinning ear to ear. “I can make no wrong moves in this stuff!” cheered one skier.
But that night and all of the next day brought a blizzard. By the time I headed down another 24-inch of fresh snow had accumulated. I encountered – again – snow that was “too deep”. Exerting so much energy to simply head down the trail to my snow-buried car, I became exhausted then extremely relieved to get on the road and away from where the “snow’s too deep”.