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Bill Jennings: Powder transitions to corn but still good skiing

Fri., March 17, 2017, 6 a.m.

We’ve reached the final turn in the skiing and riding season. For me it came last week in boot top powder under the sun at Mount Spokane. I was among the lucky ones – a lot of them – who escaped the filthy, rotting snow that plagued a gray-clad city to enjoy the beauty of a mountain coated with thick white frosting against a backdrop of brilliant blue.

The next day our climate took a giant step toward spring. A long run of stellar skiing and riding conditions, refreshed regularly, came to an abrupt end. Snow levels soared. Fog and rain rolled in, powder turned to cement. Hitting Mount Spokane for powder on Wednesday after two days of untouched snowfall was a great call at the time. Now it feels like a stroke of genius.

The local powder hounds must have sniffed a change in the air. The most coveted lines of untracked snow didn’t last long. It was one of those days where you had to watch and listen in pain as those first in line ripped, whooped and hollered all the way down.

I was glad for them, but mad that I didn’t get out the door just a little bit earlier. A chair lift ride to the top lasts forever in those situations. But you get a chance to chat with a lot of nice, happy folks who have the luxury of seizing mid-week opportunities. I talked with an attorney who was getting in his morning turns before an afternoon of appointments. I skied with a UPS driver getting his fix before an afternoon/evening shift. I shared a ride with a local pub owner doing the same.

Was this our last chance for the ideal combination of fresh powder and sunshine? They only thing to expect about the weather around here is change at any time. But even if this trend continues, the snow will hold up. Plus, The next best thing to fresh powder is spring corn.

Malingering snow made a hasty retreat from the warmer wet weather in town. But the mountain snowpack is more resilient to rain than you might think. Bitter cold in December and January is like putting money in the bank for March. It’s likely the first layer of snow deposited in November has been holding at 32 degrees. Each layer laid down maintains the temperature of its particular snowfall. Rain that soaks into strata of this very cold snow quickly refreezes.

The key to its continued survival is freezing overnight temperatures. Without them, individual snow layers warm up until every layer consolidates at about 32 degrees. This is a fragile state, in which warm rain can penetrate the snowpack and overwhelm its defenses. But don’t worry about the balmy nights you saw in the mountains earlier this week – freezing lows are back in the forecast starting tonight and continuing through the weekend.

Conditions should be ideal for the “corn cycle.” Melt water seeping between snow crystals in the top layer of the snowpack will freeze overnight into frozen granules. As the warmer days and freezing nights continue, the granules and crystals will consolidate into a nice bed of slippery little pellets known as corn snow. Tilling the piste at the end of the day results in another fresh crop of spring corn for your carving pleasure the next morning.

A properly managed corn cycle with our deep snowpack should allow us to finish the season in style. What’s more, as spring draws more people to their golf clubs and gardens, slopes clear and lift lines disappear. All we need is a little sunshine for the barbecue deck.



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