Early-Season Skiing Considerations
Updated: Nov 8, 2022
This is the time of year in which the stoke runs high, but the tide is low. It has been a long, hot summer, and what seems like many months since we last strapped on our boards. We all long to feel that incredible sensation of sliding effortlessly across the surface of the earth. However conditions on the ground should dictate that we should manage our expectations when it comes to early-season skiing.
Rarely does winter arrive with such force that it provides an immediately adequate base for great downhill skiing. That doesn’t mean that we should sit inside and pine away as those lovely first flakes float down onto the ground. Instead we should look for ways to make those first tours as safe and fun as those carefree mid-March powder days.
Thin Snowpack Hazards
While getting out during the first season storms can be exciting, it is important to remember there are dangers lurking at low tide. Slightly buried obstacles, known as ‘sharks’ are almost certain to found on the first tours of the season. Prominent rocks and stumps, which are likely to be buried in a few weeks, can now present significant peril to the over-eager skier jonesing for their first turns.
Any repair shop tech will tell you that core-shots and blown out edges are most common in November and December. However the risk is much greater than potential damage to your equipment. Personal injury should be of paramount concern.
A common mechanism of injury is hitting a rock, which sends the skier faceplanting into another rock. The consequences can be severe. Almost exactly ten years ago, an experienced skier was killed on an in-bounds pre-season tour at Alpine Meadows by such a head trauma. She was wearing a helmet.
Also, It might be easy to guess that avalanche dangers are reduced if there is not much snow on the ground. However even a small amount of snow can accumulate into a dangerous slide, and this may be even more likely on an loose, unconsolidated early-season snowpack.
Worse, such low-tide slides can break all the way to the ground surface. Instead of the avalanche victim sliding on a smooth surface bed, they can be dragged across jagged rocks, logs and stumps, adding to the likelihood of severe trauma. A Colorado skier experienced the first hand just a few weeks ago.
Precautions for Low Tide
Fortunately there are few steps that skiers can take to mitigate some of the risks of early-season skiing. The first step is to manage expectations. Though it seems like the snowless summer lasted an eternity, remember that it is a long season. Late-season sunny corn skiing is often way better than hacking out turns in November. Though it might seem counter to the ‘go get it’ spirit of skiing, dialing back the stoke can be beneficial this time of year.
We also advise against downhill skiing when there is low snowpack. Cross-country touring can provide great rewards of freedom and exercise, with less risk. Wisely choosing routes that are mostly flat and smooth can ensure a safer excursion. Skiers can even get in a few ‘meadow-skipping’ turns by seeking out places where the summer surface was smooth dirt or grass instead of gravel or rocks.
Some skiers might be attracted to the in-bounds runs at closed ski resorts. While these slopes might be more manicured and free of obstacles, remember that these areas are gearing up for the season, and may have equipment such as snowmaking guns and hoses on the slopes. Always check for the uphill rules at your local mountain.
We are lucky in the Sierra to enjoy a maritime snowpack. Our ‘Sierra cement’ snow tends to do a better job at effectively coating every rock and log with just a few inches of snow. However, early-season storms can often come in cold, with more powdery snow, leading to the skis submerging right down on to hidden obstacles.
A good rule of thumb is to never ski the first storm. That just puts down a base layer, so that the next storm provides a potential chance to explore. Letting that first snow consolidate for a few days can vastly improve the base, which will help save your ski bases, and protect your body.
Let it snow!