Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Greatest Corn on Earth?

Note: Post updated 7/27/2011 to replace photos that were accidentally deleted.

After a couple of cloudy drippy days in the Cascades last week, my son and I hit the mother lode on July 1 when the day dawned crystal clear with perfect conditions for a spring tour.

We opted to hit the Muir Snowfield, which isn't very steep, but provides crevasse-free skiing to an elevation of just over 10,000 feet. 

The Muir Snowfield from near the Paradise Ranger Station
The climb up the snowfield is a long slog, but the views are great.

Eventually, we were able to sample some of the best corn snow I have skied in many years.  Carving turn after turn down a Cascade volcano in snow like this is pretty much as good as it gets without face shots.

Why is the corn in the Cascades so good?

First, the snow that falls in the Cascades is quite dense.  It doesn't take long to setup in the spring after a few melt-freeze cycles.

Second, thanks to the strong maritime influence, the spring and summer climate of the Cascades is quite cool compared to the Wasatch.  For example, Paradise Ranger Station on Mount Rainier has similar average maximum and minimum temperatures in April (42 and 26 F) compared to Alta (41 and 23 F) but is much cooler in June (53/36 vs. 63/41).   Thus, the Cascades sit in the sweet spot for corn skiing for a longer stretch of the spring and summer, and the snow doesn't turn as readily into mashed potatoes in May and June like it does in Utah.

Third, the daily sweet spot for corn skiing is a bit longer in the Cascades than in Utah.  For example, the diurnal temperature range at Paradise (17F) is smaller than at Alta (22 F), which means a slower daytime temperature rise and a longer period during which the corn skiing is optimal.  There is also less dust loading in the Cascades than the Wasatch (check out how white the snow is in the pictures above) and a lower sun angle.  Both of these factors result in less solar energy absorption by the snow, which helps preserve the snow once the free-air temperature is above the melting point.  

Finally, the Cascades frequently have deep snow cover over a much bigger chunk of vertical relief than the Wasatch in the spring.  In the Wasatch right now, you can ski between about 8500 and 11500 feet, but in the Cascades, you can ski between 4500 and 10,000 feet.  That's a much greater range of vertical, which increases the likelihood of finding a band of great corn skiing on any given day.

In summary, I don't know if it is the "Greatest Corn on Earth," but the Cascades are certainly home to some great spring and summer skiing. 

BTW, Lou Dawson and family were also on the Muir snowfield last week and he also has a post on the great skiing.  Although I haven't met Lou, I'm a regular reader of his wildsnow blog, which has inspired me to get my son out ski touring at an early age.

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