Montana weather is unpredictable at best. Spring sunshine draws out gardeners, who fill the ground with tender seedlings. Picnic tables, freshly emerged from snow drifts, host groups on carefree outings. Barefoot children rush to swing sets and sandboxes. And as people hasten to enjoy springtime warmth, dark wintry clouds dash across the sky, reclaiming the outdoors.
Late spring weather events are rather commonplace in the Flathead Valley. In June of 2008, our family spent a frantic afternoon brushing four inches of fresh snow from distraught broccoli plants and burdened raspberry canes in our garden. Almost every year since, a late spring snow event has surprised us. Last week the weather once again took an unexpected turn, and I woke up to see snow falling outside my window. The sky was a familiar wintry grey; cold and dull. Branches drooped under the weight of soggy springtime snow. Matching the motion of the snowflakes outside, the pieces of a plan fell together in my mind. If the weather could take unexpected turns, I could follow suit.
I made a sandwich, filled a thermos with tea, and snagged a few articles of winter clothing from the depths of my closet. A short drive brought me to the base of a familiar mountain. Higher elevations had facilitated cooler temperatures and more snow. Slopes which had been green with grass the evening before now lay under a six inch blanket of snow. Though I hadn’t hiked in a couple weeks, I soon fell into a steady rhythm. After sixty two minutes of plodding up the mountain through the fresh snow, I reached the summit. A road had been plowed out, revealing a three foot base still capping the mountain. Elated, I headed for north facing aspects, where snow had been protected from direct sun.
I know from experience that late spring skiing is a bumpy proposition. Scarred by warm sun, the snow is pock-marked. Despite a mushy top layer, the lower layers of the snowpack are hard and icy. After watching the weather carefully all spring, I anticipated a typical spring ski day; a few short runs on a thin, slush base. Looking over the crest of the summit revealed an unbroken blanket of fresh creamy snow extending to the bottom of the mountain. My heart leapt for joy and I leapt over the edge, throwing myself down the steep run. The new snow carved beautifully, flying up around me like foamy spray from the bow of a speedboat.
All too soon I reached a flat place. Time to turn around. Bummer. And then I realized a major problem. I’d left my skins at home. When skiing without the assistance of chairlifts, mohair skins are a skier’s best friend. A sticky surface holds one side of the skin to a ski, while mohair on the other side allows the ski to slide forward, but not backward. For uphill travel, skinning is far less effort than hiking. There is no post holing in snow, no slipping, and best of all, skis stay on your feet, so you don’t have to carry them on your back.
Just looking up the hill bothered me. That would be a long way to kick steps. So before embarking on another upward journey, I sat and observed my environs. Fog rolled in and out. Sometimes, a grand vista was spread before me. Moments later, I strained to see the trees just a few paces from where I sat. Stiff branches, used to heavy snow and harsh weather, swayed slightly in the breeze. As the snow slowly melted from the pine needles, tiny icicles reached downward.
Sitting and observing my surroundings proved pleasant, but I had other aspirations for my outing. Four times I strapped my skis on my pack. Four times, I mentally chastised myself for leaving my skins at home. And four times I huffed and puffed my way back to the summit. I knew I needed to get home. But I also knew I couldn’t leave until I had tired myself out too much to climb the hill again.
During the hours I’d spent skiing north-facing aspects, the snow on the south side of the mountain had melted. As my weary legs stumbled down the mountain toward my car, my surroundings changed rapidly. Trees were wet, not snow covered. Bushes, rocks, and even grass perforated the thin, soggy mat of snow which remained. The weather had taken an unexpected turn, allowing me some unexpected turns on fresh snow. Winter had made a bold advance, but summer would carry the day. Looking out over the valley, all was green once again. The contrast to the soft white world where I’d spent my afternoon made me thankful for my extra opportunity to ski fresh snow.