Late winter skiing has its rewards, hazards

By Dick Mason, The Observer March 11, 2011 03:24 pm
Late winter skiing can be a jewel-like experience.

But it also presents serious potential hazards.

Mike Gooderham of La Grande, a member of the Anthony Lakes Ski Patrol since 1962, understands the pluses and minuses better than most.

On the plus side Gooderham points out there now is a much greater chance of hoar frost developing on snow. There is nothing quite like skiing on this ice crystal-filled snow.

“It is like skiing on diamonds,’’ Gooderham said. “It is a unique sensation.’’

Hoar frost develops when moisture is frozen out of the air and snow. It is often seen on fence rows and power lines and occasionally on snow.

“It is like ball bearings on snow,’’ Gooderham said.

A minus of late winter skiing is an elevated avalanche risk caused by changing environmental conditions. This is not a concern at Anthony Lakes for those staying within the designated ski area. Gooderham explained that the patrol does extensive avalanche mitigation work at the ski area each morning.

No mitigation work is done outside the ski area. This means those venturing beyond the ski area do so at their own risk. Gooderham urges those going outside the ski area to learn how to identify avalanche-prone snow conditions so they can better protect themselves.

Skiers going into unmanaged areas also need to be wary of crust snow. This is formed when snow melts and refreezes, transforming it into a hard crusty material. Such snow is common now at the Meacham Divide Ski Area, which has 25 kilometers of groomed Nordic trails. Crust snow is easier to ski quickly over but it provides a potential trap for skiers off groomed trails. Such snow can quickly melt by midday during late winter, creating a slush skiers sink into in ungroomed areas. It’s hard to ski far in such conditions, said Bruce Johnson, a member of Blue Mountain Nordic Club, which operates Meacham Divide.

Skiers who had been sailing along for an hour on crust snow in an ungroomed area may suddenly find themselves miles from their vehicle with not enough time to get back before dark.

“You could be in real trouble. It is not a trivial concern,’’ Johnson said.

Only skiers who stray off marked trails are at risk at Meacham Divide. The reason is that the snow on Meacham Divide’s trails has been compacted by a groomer. This means that when crust snow melts there is still a solid base underneath to support skiers.

Meacham Divide is expected to have “skiable’’ snow through the end of the month.

Anthony Lakes will be open for skiing four days a week, Thursday to Sunday through April 10. It will not close for lack of snow. Gooderham said people could ski much longer at Anthony Lakes. To make his point he noted that from 1963 until about the mid-1980s Anthony Lakes was open until the first or second weekend of May. Fewer skiers were coming by the 1980s because many were involved in an expanding array of spring activities.

Meacham Divide is about 17 miles northwest of La Grande. Anthony Lakes is about 40 miles from La Grande. Reaching both sites is much easier this time of year because of better driving conditions.

“You do not have the super slick roads you have earlier in the winter,’’ said Anne March of the Blue Mountain Nordic Club.

One place winter recreationists are not heading now is Spout Springs Ski Resort, which closed earlier this month. Spout Springs owner John Murray said the ski area enjoyed a successful season.

Throughout the winter, whether at Spout Springs, Meacham Divide or Anthony Lakes, skiers need to protect themselves from the sun. This is particularly true in late winter and early spring when the sun is at a higher angle, Gooderham said.

The ski patroller encourages people to wear more sun screen and to wear goggles and sunglasses to protect their eyes from the more intense ultraviolet rays reflecting off the snow.