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Spring snow

Started: 2013-04-30 21:21:54

Submitted: 2013-04-30 22:24:30

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator skis to Lake Isabelle in spring conditions, and finds a new class of gear to lust after

Kiesa decided to take Calvin to visit her mother (and the Oregon coast) for a week, leaving me at home without any pressing responsibilities last Sunday (except my own laundry, which was easy to postpone). I headed to Brainard Lake, parked at the winter trailhead (now a large, paved parking lot; a major improvement from the roadside parking that persisted until a few years ago), and headed toward the lake on the CMC ski trail.

White rabbit near the CMC ski trail
White rabbit near the CMC ski trail

The air was warm on the last Sunday in April; the forecast called for a high of 50°F at 10,000 feet around the lake, which seemed about right. In the trees, around noon, the snow was a little crisp (having melted and subsequently frozen), with isolated patches where the snow appeared to have never melted. I reached Brainard Lake (the end point for a brief ski expedition earlier in the season) and continued westward, catching the general alignment of the Niwot Cutoff trail leading straight toward Long Lake. My skis handled the modest uphill beautifully: the snow was beginning to melt and my waxless backcountry skis gripped it effortlessly.

Mount Audubon in spring snow
Mount Audubon in spring snow

I reached Long Lake and headed around the south side of the lake, continuing westward up the gentle valley. I started out following other ski tracks in the trees on the slope above the lake, then set out to roughly parallel the lake in a rough approximation of the track of the summer trail, but that proved difficult, so I skied down to the edge of the lake. I didn't want to get too far out on the lake -- it was spring, after all -- so I stayed as close as I could to where I judged the shoreline to be, under the snow under my skis.

Apache Peak in spring snow
Apache Peak in spring snow

I followed other ski tracks up the middle of the valley until I reached the snow slope that thwarted my last attempt at skiing to Lake Isabelle two years ago. An ominous wind-blown cornice threatened the slope immediately east of the lake, but another south-facing slope looked safe. The snow looked solid, and in the early-afternoon heat it had melted enough to provide my skis with an irresistible surface for climbing, so I headed up the slope and presently reached the top, where I was met by a view of Lake Isabelle and the cirques and peaks above it covered in spring snow. It was transcendent -- and the first time I'd reached Lake Isabelle on skis.

Navajo Peak, Apache Peak, Shoshoni Peak over Lake Isabelle in spring snow
Navajo Peak, Apache Peak, Shoshoni Peak over Lake Isabelle in spring snow

On my descent, I found that the slope I had ascended was a bit too steep to gracefully descend on my waxless backcountry skis with standard nordic system bindings. This slope wouldn't have phased me with proper alpine skis and bindings, but in nordic-style gear I lacked enough control to gracefully descend the slope, though I eventually managed. (Telemark skiers say "free your heel and your mind will follow".) It was then that I wished for backcountry touring skis, with bindings that would free my heel to climb in the nordic style but capture my heel to descend in the alpine style.

Ski tracks leading away from Lake Isabelle
Ski tracks leading away from Lake Isabelle

Once I reached Brainard Lake I opted to save time by taking the slightly-more-direct road rather than the CMC ski trail, which turned out to be a slushy slog through sticky postholed snow. I should have taken the ski trail.

One of my side objectives for my outing was to evaluate the snow conditions relative to earlier years, in an attempt at guessing the snow conditions on other routes. I intentionally picked Lake Isabelle as my destination to replay an earlier spring ski trip to Lake Isabelle. My earlier trip was at the end of May 2011, at the end of an abnormally-wet spring (after an abnormally-dry El Nino winter). This winter was on the dry side, but so far the spring has been on the wet side; Boulder recorded a record four feet of snow in April, and there's more snow in the forecast tonight.

I didn't consult my photo archive before setting out, so that I might duplicate my earlier photos to compare snow conditions across time from the comfort of my living room, but I did end up with one almost exact duplicate photo. Here's the photo I took this week:

Spring snow running down Niwot Ridge
Spring snow running down Niwot Ridge

And here's the nearly-identical photo from the end of May 2011:

Spring snow running down Niwot Ridge
Spring snow running down Niwot Ridge

I'm hard-pressed to decide which has more snow; I think it's about equal. In some other photos I think there's more snow in May 2011 than April 2013; there does appear to be more evidence of sliding snow in 2013. But tonight's snow is going to change all that.

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