One Fun, The Other Not So Much.

Spring brings corn for a few precious hours. Credit: Jans

We’re nearing that time of year in New England and the upper Midwest where the snow melts a little during the day and freezes at night. The repetitive process creates tiny balls of ice. In the morning, they’re rock hard but as the sun comes up, they melt a little and turn into ball bearings lubricated by water. The condition is known as “corn snow.”

The skis carve when rolled on their edges, a platform builds up under the bottom making it easy to unweight, if you are old-fashioned like me, or roll your knees in the direction you want to go.

The day starts with rock-hard, frozen granular until the melting starts. Then for the next three or four hours, the skiing is divine. Depending on the temperature and the slope’s exposure to the sun, by mid-afternoon, the snow becomes sloppy. That’s when it is time to quit and start early again the next day.

Corn snow: Coarse, granular, and wet. Credit: FIS

In the Rockies, the drier snow doesn’t “corn up” as well as it does in the east. Until late in the spring, the conditions are packed powder at the top and soft and mushy as you come down in altitude.

Late spring snows in the Far West and east of the Mississippi are often full of moisture. The snow is heavy. Gloppy is an appropriate term. Way back when, we called the conditions mashed potatoes.

Venture into mashed potatoes, and you’ll find that turning requires effort and strength. Unless you have your weight equally balanced throughout the turn, the heavy wet snow grabs your skis, making turns hard to make.

Lose your balance in mashed potatoes, and you are in what we used to call a “slow, twisting fall.” If you are lucky, you get up, wetter than when you went down and keep skiing.

Mashed potatoes? Go home.

However, if you are a subscriber of SeniorsSkiing.com, danger lurks in the mashed potato fall. Even with modern bindings and shorter skis that reduce the torque on the leg, your bindings may not release immediately. Why? Because the initial torque may be below the threshold needed to free your boot. Then as you “slowly” fall, torque is slowly applied to the leg that might result in a nasty spiral fracture. The break could take weeks, even months to heal.

So how do you ski corn snow? The answer is simple. In the morning when it is hard and rutty, ski the same way one would hard, frozen granular. Then, as the snow softens, ski the same way you’d take on packed powder and enjoy the corn snow ride.

How do you ski mashed potatoes? Avoid the condition. Go home and ski another day!

 

6 Comments

  1. Avatar Laurie Vogl says:

    Glad to hear you say this – it’s validating, in a way. I always feel a bit guilty quitting in the nicest, warmest part of the day, seeing the youngsters still pushing through the mashed potatoes. I used to be one of those skiing in short-shorts! Now, with one knee awaiting replacement and a couple of very bad ski injuries in my past, I don’t dare push it anymore. My motto: any skiing is better than no skiing!

  2. Amen. Its why I don’t run gates, ski really heavy snow, go off-piste, go out when the snow looks/acts like a hockey rink or the temp/wind chill is below zero. I’ve gotten soft in my cottage.

  3. Avatar Alan S Cort says:

    I have found it very helpful to (1) pay attention to the temps from base to top (you may want to start with the bottom trails and work your way up the mountain during the day), and (2) know how the sun traverses the ski area. Ski the trails that aren’t directly or completely in the sun, or ski the shady side of the trail. Finally, sometimes the last hour can be great as the soft snow firms up, but hasn’t frozen yet.

  4. Avatar Bruce Lund says:

    I skied Snowbird from the top of the tram in June after 3 years in Utah to make a statemen. It was all corn snow . I was wearing shorts, my Chicago Cubs shirt, and my Chicago Bears hat. If I had wiped out my legs would have been cut to ribbons.

    to make a statement. I was leaving Utah after a 3 yr. stay to return to the Chicago area and wore my Chicago Bears shirt and my Chicago Cubs hat along with my Bermuda shorts. I am thankful that I did not wipe out in the corn snow- I would have been cut to ribbons

  5. Yes, it’s important to know your snow and to make wise decisions about when and where to ski or not to ski. Among the bad kind of snow in ungroomed terrain, one of the worst conditions is “breakable crust”, where a layer of ice covers up the softer snow under it. The icy crust sometimes can bear your weight, but it can break when you least expect it, and then your ski suddenly dive under the crust, which then trips you and you fall.

    But among the good snow, in addition to dry powder and corn snow, there is also the very smooth and hard-packed surface that happens in ungroomed snow that has gone through several freeze-and-thaw cycles, which usually happens in the Spring. On such days, skiing this smooth ungroomed snow is easier than skiing the sand-like mush that happens on groomed trails.

    It’s easy to test the snow. Start on a groomed trail and then venture into the ungroomed snow right next to it for a few turns. If the snow is too hard to ski, simply return to the groomed trail. But, if the snow is really good, feel free to venture deeper into the ungroomed stuff. Honestly, on good days it can be much better and much easier to ski than staying on groomed trails.

  6. Avatar Jack Shipley says:

    Thanks for the article on corn snow, Marc! It’s definitely an under-appreciated ski “season”. In places that get the combination of high sun, high altitude, and good snow quantity, the spring corn season generally lasts from late March through to the end of May, and is really the best skiing of the year. It’s often best in the backcountry, and varies from day to day (even hour to hour) depending on the altitude, aspect, and weather conditions. The short, wide skis and snowboards that are now fashionable are NOT great for corn because they are too slow, and difficult to get up on edge during the hard, icy early morning climb. Something like a Madshus Epoch or Annum (old Karhu Guides) gives you really sweet, fast carved turns on low-angle corn, while magically having enough grip in the pattern to climb straight back up the same slope for more runs. Even us gray-beard seniors (I’m 75) can get in 4 or 5 pretty long runs before the snow softens up too much about 1:00 p.m.

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