Groovy graupel in Summit County

April 02, 2013

COPPER MOUNTAIN — A Colorado winter wouldn't be complete without at least one good graupel storm, when quarter-inch pellets of squishy snow fall intensely for a few minutes, usually before giving way to a steadier snow. Graupel showers most often happen during spring thunderstorms, when it's still cold enough to snow in the high country.

The sun heats the air and causes it to rise. Tiny snowflakes are caught in the updraft and bounce up and down in the atmosphere a few times, encountering super-cooled water droplets along the way. Those droplets stick to the snowflakes, gradually building up more mass until they can't escape the tug of gravity. They fall to Earth in little chunks that feel like frozen bits of styrofoam, a hybrid of snow and hail.

How's THAT for snow trivia?! Don't fret, this post isn't all about the science of snow - read on...

Skiing on a layer of fresh graupel can be fun, since the pellets feel like super-slick Teflon ball-bearings underfoot. But beware, because when graupel falls there's often lightning nearby. A thick layer of graupel can also persist in the snowpack and lead to avalanche risks in the backcountry if it's covered by a layer of new snow.

But if you're at Copper Mountain for spring skiing, never fear, because a graupel shower means the weather will probably change quickly, back to classic Colorado bluebird skies and another type of snow, called corn.

Corn snow isn't planted; it grows on the surface of the winter snowpack when warm daytime temperatures alternate with chilly nights to melt, then refreeze the individual crystals until they transform into a smooth blanket. And while graupel showers are pretty random, corn snow is a sure thing at Copper Mountain during the spring. After fresh, fluffy powder, corn is probably the second-best type of snow for skiing. It's fast and consistent, evening out the bumps and lumps of winter.

Corn snow is best enjoyed fresh, when just the very top layer of snow is starting to melt, before it turns to slush.

A few corn-hunting tricks:

  • No need to head out at the crack of dawn, especially with daylight savings time. Corn is best when it has a few hours to simmer in the spring sun.
  • Start on the lower elevation runs and look for slopes that face south to east. That's where the corn forms first. At Copper, try the A-Lift pod for morning corn, then work your way up to the higher slopes later in the day.
  • Waxing your skis for a corn snow skiing session is always a good idea. Perfect corn has a high water content, and that can create suction with un-waxed skis, leading to unwanted stops.
  • You can call it a day when your skis start to sink in more than a couple of inches. That means it's time to enjoy a cool beverage at the base area, or on the deck of your condo.

Do you have a fun story about spring: skiing, riding, snow or I-70 nightmare? Share it with us below!


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