Having worked in the mountain guiding industry for nearly 20 years, Mike Alkaitis is an experienced mountaineer. Not only is he the general manager and senior guide at the Colorado Mountain School, a professional mountain guide service, he is also a certified Wilderness First Responder, the former Executive Director for the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA), and an AMGA-certified rock and ski mountaineering guide. We figured that he is the perfect person to give us some guidance on finding the best backcountry skiing when the weather turns warm.
Spring is upon us and the best big line skiing time is here. It’s the perfect time of year: You can skin in the morning, climb and golf in the afternoon, and barbecue in the evening. What could be better? But, there are many decisions to be made when spring arrives and you have chosen your desired descents. What gear should I bring? What gear should I leave behind? What is the snowpack like? What is the avalanche danger? What types of avalanche should I be concerned with?
The difference in gear between spring and winter outings can be dramatic at times. If it is nuking snow and you’re skiing pow, the spring check list is the same as winter’s. If you’re skiing Rocky Mountain National Park’s Dragon Tail Couloir or Notchtop’s East Face Couloir in spring conditions, you will need to bring some extra gear.
On those warm days, I trade my BCA Float Airbag for a lighter stash pack and add a light 30-meter rope, harness, ski crampons, ice axe, whippet (ski poles with a built in ice pick), cordelette, a belay device with locking carabineer, and a baseball hat. I can leave some less technical gear behind, but I always research the descent enough to know what to bring and what I can leave. If there is no avalanche danger, or I am skiing solo, then I may choose to leave my beacon, shovel and probe behind. If it’s a hiking day with heavy snow, I may grab a lighter pair of skis with a slimmer profile, and my less hefty boots.
I always check the CAIC (Colorado Avalanche Information Center) to see what the forecast is, and call any friends who may have been in the area recently. Spring does not always mean low avalanche danger, as we can easily have a mid-winter snow pack in April, but a wet slide cycle is fine – I’m always off the objective before the snow heats up too much. I also look for a sunny day above freezing (I don’t like skiing ice) and little-to-no wind.
I want to be standing on top of the ski descent ready to go when the conditions are prime. If I am too late, the snow will be mashed potatoes or turn back into ice. If I am too early, the snow will not have softened enough for me to enjoy the skiing. Thus, I start super early for east or south aspects, whereas I have a leisurely start for west or north faces.
Sharing a spring outing is amazing, but there are also nice objectives for a solo outing. Whatever you choose, remember to have a blast and be safe.