– All our local Nordic Ski Centers are closed for the season. Last Sunday was the last day of the 15/16 season. I guess it’s time to lube up the bike chain, air up the tires, and break in the backside muscles and start logging some bike miles… or not. One more season can still show up. Crust skiing. The wonderful, incredible, crust season. There’s really not much better skate skiing than skiing on a nice layer of hard, frozen, icy, crusty, snow.
The crust forms after warm days filled with sunshine. The resulting water in the melting snowpack freezes overnight and in the morning you have snow as hard as a sidewalk. The great thing about this is you can skate ski anywhere. The entire backcountry has just become your Nordic Center groomed to perfection. Typically crust forms up in the lower valleys first. The warm temperatures hit here first and the snow firms up solid overnight. As long as there is no exposed barbed wire to trip you up – ski wherever permission allows.
As the lower snowpack melts away to mud the crust moves up to higher elevations. Rabbit Ears Pass. Buffalo Pass. Dunckley Pass. The Flat Tops. The possibilities are as endless as the number of miles you can ski. Endless. Limitless. Let your imagination ski free.
One of my best days ever on skis was a crust day up on Rabbit Ears Pass. I made my way to the Walton Creek Parking lot at morning’s first light. That in itself is worth the price of admission. No one is there. All is quiet. The last stars hang just above the trees as the blue dawn reflects soft morning light off the snowpack.
Crossing the road to the Hogan Park Trail I locked into my skis and set off for the 7 or 8 mile skate across the pass to the top of the Steamboat Ski Area. Hogan Park is a classic wintertime ski tour. On touring skis, in the middle of winter, it can take more than a few hours to complete the tour and descend the ski area’s trails to the base area. This day I skated Hogan Park in about an hour.
Crust skiing is fast. There is no resistance from the base of your skis up through your body. Flying describes it pretty right.
The Hogan Park trail is a series of large open meadows or parks. Small pockets of forest separate these sections from one another. The snow in the shadows of these trees may not have crusted up and they prove to be the most challenging part of the whole ski… breaking powdery snow on super skinny skate skis through tight trees is not that great. Once you are through the trees the next wide open section of crust presents itself and the rhythm of poling and skating and gliding and flying comes easily. Distance is of no consequence. The energy expelled is nominal. Time stands still and all you’re aware of is the sound of your skis sizzling across the crust.
I skied past the Morningside lift and the lift ops were inside. I heard them say “what the?” as I skied past and up to the top of Mount Werner. I telemarked down the face of Storm Peak. Tucked the low angle slope to Rainbow, threw a few more turns to the service road and was down before I realized what had happened. I took the bus down to Ski Haus, changed my boots, and road my bike back up Rabbit Ears Pass to where I had left my truck to make it back to work before the 1:00 shift started.
Every year I look forward to Crust Season. Some crust seasons are better than others. It’s best when the overnight freezing temperatures linger well into April and you have plenty of opportunities to catch it. Too much fun cannot be had.
The only limiting factor to the crust is when it starts to loosen as the heat of the day overtakes the cold. The crust begins to soften. You can set your ski edge better as this happens but this is also the first sign you had better keep an eye on where you want to end up. Hopefully, you won’t end up a few miles away from the truck as the snow turns punchy and it won’t support your weight on skis anymore… if you’ve waited too long another adventure of another type awaits you.