From Hemispheres (United Airlines) March, 2009
Imagine surfers going out of their way to hit the beach when the waves are at their lowest and staying home when they’re at their best. That’ll give you some idea of the way skiers treat our mountains here in Colorado.
“Come in April,” I tell friends, and they nod and book their vacation for Christmas Week. Granted, it’s wonderful to be in the high country for the holidays, but during high season, you’re paying more, sharing the hill with a lot more people and, oftentimes, not enjoying the best snow of the year.
My family lives in Frisco, smack-dab in the middle of Summit County, Colorado — North America’s most visited ski county. We still go out during the busy holiday season just because it coincides with school vacation. But for us, the best part of the season starts in February and gets progressively better up through mid April, when the ski areas close. Then, we watch rather sadly as perfectly good runs full of snow sit idle, melting ignominiously into May and June.
Global-warming doom-and-gloom studies notwithstanding, historically March and April are the snowiest months of the year in the Colorado mountains. March is very busy with spring break crowds, but it’s still a great time to ski or snowboard. The heavy snows roll in, leave a foot or two, then roll out, leaving abundant sunshine in their wake. Compare to the 5-degree days of January, a 25- or 30-degree March day feels almost tropical.
And kids love it. As most parents know, kids have a love-hate relationship with snow and cold. They love playing in it, but in the deep-freeze months they don’t always realize incidentals like: one of their mittens is gone or frozen solid; their brother has filled up their hood with ice; their socks are sodden masses soon to freeze little toes.
March and April are a lot more forgiving. When parents and ski or board instructors don’t have to worry so much about keeping everyone warm, it’s just more fun to be out learning to ski or ride. As my friend Suzanne Greene told me simply, “It’s wonderful, and they should come.”
An instructor at Arapahoe Basin, Greene calls the milder spring weather “a huge advantage” for families in a ski vacation.
“It absolutely makes it easier for kids to enjoy,” she says. As an instructor, she points out that she’s got more time to focus on students in spring’s smaller classes, while less stops for warming up mean more time on the slopes.
Manhattanites Peter Nieman and Megan Golden love to bring their two girls to Vail in the springtime.
“It’s much easier when you only have two layers on your kids in the morning and don’t spend any time listening to them complain about how cold their toes are,” Nieman says. “There’s no lines, everyone gets a tan — it’s really the best time to go.”
Golden points out that late-season also means taking advantage of other activities.
“You can ski all day, then come home, put your shorts on and go for a bike ride,” she says.
Careful out there
But just because there’s fresh snow and a sunny day doesn’t mean it’s all smooth sailing. There are some very definite things to know about skiing at this time of year. My wife and I have a simple rule about sunscreen for sunny-day skiing: one gallon per child, reapplied every 37 minutes. For eye protection, we insist on welding goggles.
I exaggerate only a little. One of the biggest problems we see with kids up here in spring is parents who simply do not understand how powerful the sun is at 10,000 feet, reflecting off the snow.
The other thing to keep in mind is that the temperature will swing wildly between morning and mid-day. Kids (and adults) should dress in layers that can be removed as the day heats up. Lighter gloves are a must, as is a water bottle and eye protection.
Another thing to keep in mind is that warm, sticky snow and flat beginner runs can make things a literal drag for kids. Look for areas that have their beginner areas higher up the hill.
“At Keystone, a lot of our teaching terrain is nearer the top, so snow stays winter-like longer,” says Bobby Murphy, director skier services at Keystone. He also makes the point that the longer, sunnier days of spring mean kids can stay out longer learning to ski or ride.
“It’s a great time to learn how to ski,” Murphy says. And if you happen to be vacationing with a couple of other families, he suggests a private instructor for kids of similar ability.
“It’s a good way to get a lot of individual attention for your kids,” he says, adding that the cost is roughly the same as all-day lessons for four or five kids.
And here’s one last point anyone who’s spring-skied at high altitude will make: If the mercury is topping 40 degrees during the day, plan to ski between 10 or 11 and 2. Anything earlier and yesterday’s late-afternoon slush will be frozen ruts; anything later and you’ll be skiing Slurpees lower down.