Skiing and snowboarding

Spring skiers look forward to corn snow

By Mark Morical / The Bulletin / @MarkMorical

Published Mar 20, 2013 at 05:00AM

Today marks the first day of spring, and that means skiers and snowboarders are looking forward to uncrowded slopes, warmer days and, of course, corn snow.

Sure, snow is falling in the Central Oregon Cascades this week, but soon, the terrain at ski areas across the region will transform into the soft, spring snow for which some snowriders wait all winter long.

Before the snowfall moved in this week, Mt. Bachelor and Hoodoo ski areas had been enjoying springlike conditions for days.

Corn snow forms during a three- to five-day freeze-thaw cycle, a period when temperatures are above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. During the day, the snow that froze overnight thaws into small ice pellets, referred to as corn.

“It’s kind of like skiing on wet ball bearings,” said Matthew McFarland, general manager at Hoodoo. “You’re looking for a freeze-thaw cycle a few times to get the top layer of snow into that little pelletized form. And then you’re looking for where you just have minimal freeze at night.”

Hardcore corn-snow lovers are amateur meteorologists — always looking for that freeze-thaw cycle and then finding where the sun has hit the mountain slope to make for the softest snow.

Often, according to McFarland, corn snow conditions are better in the afternoon, when the sun has been on the slopes for a longer period of time. By the warm afternoons, the frozen substance that binds the snow has melted, leaving behind the ice pellets.

Corn snow is similar to powder, but not as soft.

“Corn snow is heavier than that, and you can use your (ski and snowboard) edges more,” McFarland said. “In powder, you’re more floating and using exaggerated body movement. Corn snow is more like skiing on groomers as far as the body movement, but with a super smooth, silky kind of feel.”

In spring, the snow conditions on a mountain can change rapidly, depending on the temperature, according to Tom Lomax, the mountain manager at Bachelor. A run that is icy and crunchy can become soft and smooth in less than an hour. Some areas can also get too warm, making the slush excessively deep and sticky.

On a good corn day, skiers and snowboarders can enjoy three to four hours of corn snow. But sometimes temperatures rise too fast.

“On some of the days when you have a really fast heat-up-and-melt cycle, you might only have 20 minutes, and you’re lucky to get one run (of corn snow),” McFarland says. “It’s kind of a follow the sun and warmth deal. And then it depends on the overall temperature of the day. Sometimes a north slope won’t get any corn if it’s not quite warm enough, and your east and west slopes will. Other times, east and west slopes heat up so fast with the direct sun that you’ve got a five-minute window and it’s gone.”

Most skiers and snowboarders looking for corn snow find it off-piste. But groomed runs can offer a half-inch to an inch of soft slush as well on warmer days.

Another advantage of corn snow is that it does not get “tracked out” by other skiers and riders like powder does.

“It just gets kind of pushed down the hill,” McFarland says of corn snow. “The next time down you’re skiing the same corn. It’s not like powder that gets tracked out. With corn snow, you can go down the same run a hundred times, and still get good corn.”

Unlike powder, corn snow does not require advanced skills or specially designed skis or snowboards. It is more like skiing a groomed run, which is easier for the average snowrider.

Despite the often good spring corn conditions at Bachelor and Hoodoo, the slopes are typically less crowded in the springtime, a seasonal reality that McFarland has never quite been able to understand.

“This is some of the best skiing of the year, and the fact that people don’t take advantage of it is always surprising to lovers of corn snow,” McFarland said. “Once you experience it, it turns people into die-hards. If you wanna see some smiles on people’s faces, come on a day when there’s good corn and people start spreading the word. Everybody starts chasing each other.”

Skiers and snowboarders still have plenty of time to enjoy the snow this season in Central Oregon. Hoodoo, which currently has a 74-inch snow base, plans to remain open at least through April 14. Bachelor, boasting a base of 111 inches, plans to remain open through May 26.

Saturday is Preview the New Demo Day at Hoodoo, which will include some 20 vendors offering free demos of their new ski and snowboard gear.

Spring skiing in Central Oregon

Mt. Bachelor ski area

Scheduled to be open through May 26; offering a spring season pass for $169 for adults; www.mtbachelor.com.

Hoodoo Mountain Resort

Scheduled to be open through at least April 14; currently offering a season pass for the remainder of this season and all of the 2013-14 season for $299 for adults; www.hoodoo.com.

Willamette Pass ski area

Scheduled to be open through March 31; www.willamettepass.com.