Ode to Spring

It’s the most wonderful time of the year—for skiers, at least. The end of the season brings sunshine, corn snow, cold beers, and countless ways to embarrass yourself in front of the entire resort. Good times. From late-season storms to pond skims and patios, spring skiing is winter’s most excellent parting gift.
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What can be said about spring skiing that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? That it has a mind of its own? That it’s winter’s wildly unpredictable last gasp? All true. Herein, a few words about our favorite slopes to ski as the calendar clicks into March, April, May, and beyond, and the parties, patios, and après provisions that really stoke our fire.

» Mammoth, California

Tutus, hula skirts, and bikinis, oh my!

Spring sunrise corduroy at Mammoth.

Spring sunrise corduroy at Mammoth.

Spring is the default season in the southern Sierra Nevada. Snow will fall in every month of the year—even in July and August there will be an errant blizzard that sneaks in over the crest bearing sidelong flurries of feathery crystals. But the sun always wins. In midwinter, when after the storm clouds lift, leaving the mountains plastered with enough snow to bury cars and houses, there will always be that cerulean blue southern California sky, that clear air, that warm sun.

The sun shines on Mammoth more than 300 days a year. Part of it is topography: The rain shadow cast by the tallest range in the Lower 48 stretches to the east across the driest desert in North America. And part of it is latitude. At just over 37 degrees north of the equator, it’s the same sun that passes over the border between Colorado and New Mexico, the same sun that touches both Kentucky and Virginia.

As far back as the 1930s, Los Angelenos began making the pilgrimage across the Mojave Desert to this magic confluence of snow and sun. When Dave McCoy built his first permanent ski lifts on the north side of Mammoth, the uniform was pleated trousers, Ray-Ban sunglasses, and a crisp white T-shirt—or no shirt at all. On Easter Sunday there were egg hunts on skis, hula skirts, grass hats, and bikini tops.

By the 1970s and ’80s the style gave way to cutoff jeans and short-shorts. Nowadays, the month of April brings pond-skim parties, DJs on the rooftop at Canyon Lodge, far-flung barbecues at the Outpost at Chair 13, and live bands on the sun deck at the Main Lodge. Tutus and rainbow-striped afro wigs, wacky shades and superhero costumes are de rigueur. Oh, and did we mention bikinis?

Sven Brunso plows the spring pow in Outpost Glades.

Sven Brunso plows the spring pow in Outpost Glades.

A recent congressionally approved land trade and major refinancing deal has paved the way for the upcoming redevelopment of Mammoth’s historic base lodge into what is being billed as The World’s Greatest Ski Beach. But you don’t have to wait for that to happen. The snow beach is already in place: Bring your loudest Hawaiian shirt and plenty of sunscreen, order a tall local draft, and find a lounge chair, an on-snow mattress, or a tailgate with a view of the shenanigans. You may even be able to catch the U.S. Ski and Snowboard teams doing spring training on the racecourse or in the halfpipe.

Most years, Mammoth Mountain is open for crowd-free spring skiing through Memorial Day, and it often holds enough snow to extend the season to July Fourth, when you can ski in the morning and in the afternoon go mountain biking or rock climbing or golfing. Got touring skis and climbing skins? Check out the hundreds of miles of high-alpine bowls and world-class spring corn from the edge of Yosemite to Mount Whitney. Don’t forget to bring a picnic. —David Page

» Killington, Vermont

Skiing in the bumped-up tracks of the stars

Killington's terrain parks come to life in the spring.

Killington's terrain parks come to life in the spring.

First off, huge props to Killington for hosting the East’s first World Cup in 25 years. Signing up for that had to take courage, especially on the heels of the worst winter ever. So, what’s Killington going to do for us now? Only what it always does, which is show skiers a good time for as long as it possibly can.

No other resort in the East—and few anywhere—can touch Killington for length-of-season bragging rights. The place had already been open more than a month when the World Cup came to town on Thanksgiving weekend.

The weather was typical for Vermont in November—gloomy. But what a party: An estimated 16,000 fans watched Saturday’s GS; another 14,000 on Sunday were treated to a win in the slalom by U.S. slalom ace Mikaela Shiffrin.

That’s a lot of people having a very fun time, thinking very positive thoughts about Killington. Karmically speaking then, The Beast is due for a spring season of epically abundant snow. Skiing in June? It’s a prize the Killington bosses openly covet. Maybe this is one of those years.

No, The Beast isn’t always a perfect place. A victim of its own success—and of its proximity to the major metros—it is sometimes overcrowded, sometimes scraped off by a clientele that’s a little edgier than the skiers you’ll find at smaller, less commercial resorts in the East. 

In spring, though, it’s a different place. Not long after Presidents’ Week, the masses disappear, taking their big-city attitudes with them, leaving the mountain to the most enthusiastic and deserving skiers. As the days lengthen, the vibe mellows, the pace slows. With years of practice, the regulars have perfected their springtime routines. On sunny days especially, the KBL lot is one big happy party, tunes blaring, barbecues wafting, beers flowing. 

In the end, as the snow melts and terrain shrinks, it all comes down to Superstar, where long-silent snow guns worked hard during the cold months to pile up spring reserves (the famous Superstar Glacier, some 25 feet deep). By this season’s end, happy spring skiers will be bumping it up on snow once skied by Shiffrin and Gut. Maybe even in June. —Joe Cutts

» Sugarbush, Vermont

Sugaring season, a spring ritual

The annual pond-skim spectacle at the Lincoln Peak base.

The annual pond-skim spectacle at the Lincoln Peak base.

Vermonters do, but maybe others don’t know what a sugarbush is. It’s a grove of sugar-maple trees, preferably located on a hillside, where gravity can help with the work of collecting sap.

In spring, sugarers hope for three things: warm days, cold nights, and snow on the ground. That, of course, is also the recipe for ideal spring skiing conditions. Which makes “Sugarbush” the perfect name for a ski area in Vermont.

Old-timers remember the days when Sugarbush North—now Mount Ellen—was the King of Spring in northern Vermont. On weekends long after Stowe and Mad River closed, the bottom of FIS—north-facing and high enough to hold snow well into May—was the place to be for beers and barbecue while watching your buddies hammer, or get hammered by, those monster slush bumps.

These days the scene has migrated over to Lincoln Peak, but the Sugarbush spring heritage lives on. Instead of FIS, the action’s on Stein’s, a trail that doesn’t get the credit it deserves. It’s named, of course, for Stein Eriksen, the late, great Norwegian ski-instruction legend who many forget began his career in American skiing as head of the ski school at Sugarbush. His namesake trail is a beauty, a wide carpet of bumps straight down a steep fall line, perfect for spring. Mountain ops hits it hard with manmade snow during the cold months. When the natural stuff taps out over at Castle Rock, Stein’s is prime.

Another good thing about spring at Lincoln Peak: You don’t need to sit in the snow while you drink your après beer. The sunny, south-facing patio at Castlerock Pub has quickly become a spring classic, and late-season you can actually find a seat. Or stop for a quick one at the Hyde Away, down at the bottom of German Flats Road—a real skier’s bar, beloved by locals, reliably filled with good people. For dinner, grab some wood-fired pie at American Flatbread; you’ll see why it’s mobbed all winter. And if you’re really smart, you’re staying at the Pitcher Inn, a whimsical boutique hotel in the heart of tiny, quiet Warren Village, where the understated luxury is classy and sophisticated.

The thing about sugaring season, though, is that it always comes a little sooner than you expect it. And then it’s gone. But while it lasts, there’s simply nothing sweeter. —J.C.

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