Most people are itching to go on long bike rides, take hikes in the woods or maybe run around town wearing shorts. It is spring, after all.
For the two University of Wyoming head coaches for the Nordic Ski Team, this time of year means more skiing. While snow is gone at the lower elevations, there’s still plenty at the higher elevations. The treat now is a rather unique type of skiing called “crust skiing.” It is where there’s a hard crust on the snow’s surface that provides a smooth and fast base.
According to Co-coach Christi Boggs, it is a real hoot.
“When the conditions are just right, it is amazing,” Boggs said. “It’s the most magical thing you can do on skis.”
Co-coach Rachel Watson agrees and said crust skiing offers amazing freedom because a skier can go pretty much anywhere.
“It is like having a terrain park, too,” Watson said. “You can go off little jumps or cruise on the flat terrain. It is just wonderful.”
Laramie Nordic skier Sarah Konrad is also an avid crust skier.
“Crust cruising is pure freedom and joy on skate skis,” Konrad said. “Go anywhere, explore everywhere — but with a ‘Cinderella’ caveat. You have to be done before the snow softens.”
As the name implies, what is needed is a solid crust on the snow’s surface. Weather and snow combine to make conditions “just right.”
The first requirement, of course, is a lot of snow. The U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service snow measuring stations in the Medicine Bow Mountains show that is an easy requirement to meet. Snow depths currently range from four to eight feet at the various measuring stations in the Snowy Range.
The key weather ingredients are warm daytime temperatures to create a bit of melting, followed at night by temperatures below freezing to make the slushy surface freeze and form a crust. While an inch of new snow is fine, any more than that prevents a crusty surface.
What Boggs calls the “sweet zone” is when the snow surface is hard – crusty – and free of freshly fallen snow.
“You have to get out early,” she said. “Once the snow softens, it’s done for the day.”
In fact, if the snow gets too soft, she said it can be rather torturous. On the plus side, as temperatures rise in the morning, the snow softens gradually so there is time to turn around and head for home before the crust melts. When that happens, the skis can sink several inches into the mashed potato-like snow, making it a real slog.
While the skating mode of skiing is most commonly used, Boggs and Watson said there’s also great classic style skiing on the crust. For that, they recommend using waxless skis since waxing this time of year is tricky and the wax gets worn off quickly when the snow is abrasive.
Speaking of abrasive, that can also cause rather notable “road rash” if a person takes a tumble. For that reason, while the temptation is to ski in shorts and a t-shirt, Boggs recommends against it.
Remember the sunscreen. That’s an important item with the sun being quite intense with all the snow reflection. Bring water and maybe a snack. The requirements of what to bring aren’t all that great since the outings tend to be fairly short. Once the crust softens, the fun is over.
As for the length of the crust skiing season, Boggs said they’ve skied well into June. By mid-June there’s still enough snow but it gets “pocked,” rather than being a smooth surface.
There is the special treat when Highway 130 over the Snowy Range Pass opens for the season. Instead of skiing from the Road Closed sign, skiers can drive to the higher elevations and take off from there.
For those hoping for some “magical skiing,” keep an eye on the weather at the higher elevations. Look for weather that warms in the day, but cools below freezing at night. While new snow is fine, there should be less than an inch, especially for skate technique. Get out early, and expect to get back to your starting point before the snow softens. As for where to go, that’s easy: Anywhere there’s snow.