Monday, May 8, 2006

Virginia Real

There is something magical that happens to snow as the sun bakes it. What fell to the ground originally as icy crystals that form drifts of fluffy snow, begins to change with the repeated melting during the day and freezing again at night. The crystals become rounded grains that begin to fuse together to form a more cohesive snowpack. Depending on the elevation, the aspect, and slope of the terrain, this transformation may be at different stages at different locations on a mountain.

We left the machine-worked snow of Mammoth to become students of the natural snowpack metamorphosis. We spent three days hiking and skiing the slopes around Virginia Lakes, located just north of Conway Summit between Lee Vining and Bridgeport. The parking lot at the road terminus was still covered under several feet of snow, with just the tops of the picnic tables and bar-b-ques visible. The County crews were working with large snow removal equipment to create a path to the many summer cabins and campground. The lakes themselves were still frozen – fishermen were fishing through holes augured through ice five feet thick. The lakes are nestled at the base of large amphitheater of peaks and ridges, perfect for skiing.

The technique for travel uphill is to attach “skins” to the bottom of our skis. These are a fabric with a nap, much like fur, so when you move forward, it glides with little resistance. When you step down and the ski begins to slide back, the fibers are pushed into the snow and it grabs. We are able to traverse fairly steep slopes in this manner, traversing back and forth like a sailboat tacking in the wind, to get up the steepest faces.

It takes time to get up high, and as we move up we take note of the snow and how it is changing as the sun hits it. The slopes facing east get the early morning sun and soften first, and by the time we reached a height worthy of skiing, it was already too soft. Think mashed potatoes. But when we traversed over to slopes facing more north-westerly, the texture and density of the snow changed. Just the upper inch or two was softened over a consolidated base – the trick is to time it just right to when it reaches this perfect thaw point. The sensation of skiing this texture can be silky, velvety, creamy. It is this that we seek, and can only be found in snow in its natural state that has been tempered by the sun. Every day is different, depending on the temperature or if it is cloudy or windy.

These were our first backcountry days of the year, and we were not disappointed. It is such a different experience from the lift-assisted skiing – quiet, solitary, strenuous – but the reward of finding the prime conditions keeps us coming back. Our tired legs need a rest, but we will be out looking for that perfect snow again soon.
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Anonymous said...

Hi Doris & John - I like the personal touch with you in the pictures........I'm waving hello! I find myself involved in your journey as I read your blogs, your a very good writer. Another hidden talent! This is a good escape for me during my break here at work :O) Keep them coming!

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All original text and photos are copyrighted Doris Reilly © 2006-2018. No part of the content or the blog may be reproduced without prior written permission.
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