Travel: The slopes still call in spring

This is no fairy tale. Once upon a time, major ski resorts actively competed to see who could stay open the longest. Season closings sometimes came as late as July 4. Giants bestrode the hills in those days, with names like Alex Cushing (at Squaw) and Dave McCoy (Mammoth) – resort owners who set policy at whim, with a flick of their mighty managerial fists.

Now we are in a different climate, both meteorological and economic. Corporate resort owners use far less ego-driven ways to determine how long a season will endure. Here’s the short of it: The 2013-14 winter recreation season will come to screeching halt at most resorts by April 30, and in many cases, 10 days sooner, halting the lifts just before sunset on Easter.

The good news is that special events and special deals and ticket prices will abound in these closing weeks of the season – primarily the chance to ski free through April by buying season passes now for the 2014-15 season. With signs that an El Niño weather pattern might be forming in the Pacific, next year could over-fill every hope and expectation.

A selection of currently announced closing dates includes: Diamond Peak, April 13; Mount Rose, April 20; Northstar, April 20; Heavenly, April 20; and Kirkwood, April 27. As of this writing, Sugar Bowl is aiming at April 20, but may elect to stay open longer; Squaw Valley and Alpine are thinking “end-of-April” but may extend; Sierra-at-Tahoe has tentatively selected April 13. Boreal will close April 20, but plans to keep its sister resort, Soda Springs at Norden, open until April 27 so that families can enjoy the snow-play area during the week after Easter.

If you check the resorts online to see current status, you can also discover some of the events and deals. For example, you can score a 2014-15 season pass at Heavenly by putting $49 down now and paying the rest in the fall, and enjoy gondola privileges all summer long. Or acquire a new season pass at Squaw, and you’ll get free days at Sugar Bowl, Alpine and Sierra-at-Tahoe as part of the deal. If you’re not a season-pass person, you can still get $10 off a weekend lift ticket at Squaw by dressing up according to one of the resort’s playful posted themes. If you hold a pass for another resort, Mount Rose wants to lure you over with a $29 daily lift price for the rest of the season.

But no matter where you go, for best results you’ll need a good strategy, and that depends on understanding that in spring, snow turns into a different animal. It’s true that a cold storm – like the one that hit Tahoe during the last week in March – is going to put down a layer that will operate for all intents and purposes like a winter surface, “the firm, packed powder” that’s a staple phrase of snow reports.

However, it won’t stay that way for long. Snow constantly evolves, and one of its most interesting manifestations is the spring phenomenon of “corn” snow. This requires a succession of warm days and freezing nights. After a string of them, water vapor migrating through the pack will condense on rounded grains of ice, which produces, in effect, a field of damp ball bearings.

Even after the night groomers work, the slopes will freeze into solid sheets when temperatures are low enough. When dawn comes and they get kissed by sunshine, those sheets will gradually thaw. The grains of corn snow will become a silky and soft hominy that will gracefully accept an edge from ski or snowboard, and let you make smooth and fast turns with confidence.

The other nickname for corn snow, by the way, is “hero” snow.

Here’s how to respond, and transform yourself into a skilled hunter of corn snow. Get to the resort before lifts open, and make sure you’re riding up as soon as the bullwheels start to spin. Study the mountain map, and look for the first slopes that will be bathed in sunshine. While on the chair, if you hear other early birds coming down the hill who make the scrape-scrape sound of steel edges on ice with every turn, at that point, you need be in no special hurry. Take a few warmup runs on the lowest, low-angle slopes.

Then give the high chair another try. As soon as you hear the swish-swish of edges sinking into softening snow, charge that run. As the slopes soften, check the map for the next run to receive sunshine, then the next, working your way up and down the mountain. Save the highest and shadiest runs for last. As soon as those runs get slushy, call it good, rack your boards and go get a burger or bowl of chili. Save your energy for the next day’s workout.

There’s a lot to like about spring skiing: You can wear light clothing, the roads are clear, lift lines are practically nonexistent, there’s special pricing and events. And, of course, there’s that special snow, readily available to help you access your inner ski hero.