Winter corn?

Nope, it's not April. It's January! Chris in route to harvest some winter corn.

You know, Tahoe can be a funny place. The last couple of months have thrown me through a loop. First we are given this unbelievable series of winter storms starting back in November and pushing into the new year. That was followed by some pretty cold blue bird days – at least by Tahoe standards – that kept the snow in good form for an unusually long time. Then come these spring-like doldrums in January. Wow! You know it’s warm when there’s 60-90 inches in the snow pack at 8,000 feet and people are talking about riding their bikes more than they are about skiing. But don’t fret, there is a redeemer that is born out of all this funky weather: corn.

No, I’m not talking about the veggie that goes good with barbeque. Nor am I talking about the plant that grows in abundance in Iowa. What I am talking about is a type of snow that the Sierra Nevada is famous for: corn. It’s the precious product of Sierra cement. It’s the powder of the spring. The last savory bit of winter. Yes, corn – but in January?

Many of you might be thinking: “it hasn’t snowed in so damn long I’m gonna hang it up and head to a warmer climate and do something that better fits the weather.” Well, I don’t blame you. But, keep in mind that the next storm is just barely making it’s way into the long term weather models. However, another type of weather pattern is building-up in the mean time that can produce the next best thing to fresh snow.

It is true that corn is usually associated with spring. It is spring’s relatively long sunny days and short cold nights that produce the the ideal climate to grow world class corn. It is the consistent freeze/ thaw cycle that provides the vigilant and observant skier with a light at the end of the tunnel when there isn’t a storm in sight.

Before I go into the specifics of what the weather must do to produce corn, let me first explain why California is predisposed to produce those conditions. First off, California has a tremendous amount of annual snow fall that comes right off the ocean. It comes in wet and warm and sticks to just about everything that’s less than 90 degrees. It’s not just that though. The Sierra gets over 250 days of sunshine yearly and maintains relatively moderate winter temperatures compared to continental mountain ranges like the Rockies. Combine these two element and the result is a snow pack that is accurately described as cement.

Good corn will only grow when the snow pack consolidates, forming a deep layer that is hard enough to walk on. This process is expedited when melt water percolates down through the snow pack and breaks down the weak layers; essentially crushing or filling the voids, binding the mass together all the while. After it has frozen hard, the hope is that the surface will thaw under the heat of the sun. This must be followed again by a good freeze at night. Repeat this cycle several time and the corn starts to sprout.

It sounds simple right? Well, yes and no. Yes in the spring because the air temperature is on average higher, the days longer and storms somewhat less frequent. No in the winter because all of the above isn’t true. These trends tend to make winter corn a bit more elusive.

However, when the timing is right, the skier can catch the top layer when it is soft. This allows the edges of skis to bite in and push the loose surface around while staying atop of the underlying firm snow pack. Any one who has caught it at the right time will tell you that it is one of the best conditions snow can offer.

Like fresh fallen snow, corn is fleeting and your timing has got to be right. Yet unlike powder, corn can take a great deal more pressure from skiers before it looses its consistency and the quality of the ride diminishes. If this is sounding pretty good to you, I’ll give you a hint on where to look: it thrives where the sun shines the most. I’ll leave it at that. Happy hunting.

correction:

Two weeks ago I wrote a story called “Backcountry Blunders,” which discussed common mistakes made in the backcountry. In that article I brought up the the fact that most avalanches befall seasoned backcountry skiers with lots of experience. After talking to readers of the article, it seems that I omitted a key piece of information that helps to further explain this phenomenon. Time spent in proximity to dangerous situations naturally increases the likelihood that something may go wrong even though one is playing it safe. The way one reader put it was this: “if there is a 1% chance that something bad can happen to a skier and you ski 100 days a year, it is highly probable that you will have at least one day that things will go wrong.” This seems to correlate with the statistic that says most car wrecks happen within ten minutes from home: duh, this is where we drive the most and are most comfortable. The lesson here is not to become complacent and think: “I’ve been here many times before and nothing has gone wrong.” There’s always a first time for everything.

3 Comments

  1. Hi Nick. I liked this post quite a bit. Nearly all of the information in it was new to me & I enjoyed your writing style. It seemed as if you were intending to keep things light while communicating a lot of useful & somewhat technical information. For my part, it would have been fine if you’d gone into even more technical detail. I’m looking forward to reading your other posts.
    I watched your “Crusty Corn Chute” video & enjoyed that too. I was startled when you began to jump off of the rocks. Did you know that chute well? That is, did you have a very good idea of what was waiting for you on the other side, or did you just assume you could deal with it, whatever it was?
    Thanks again for the work you did on my boots.
    Best wishes for success in your writing,
    David

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