Early Season Riding – Not All It's Cracked up to Be
Patrick Garbutt | On 31, Oct 2017
Okay, let’s get to brass tacks. Early season riding isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Yeah, it’s awesome—but it’s also not.
I know, I know; you’re just about ready to burst. You can’t wait a second longer to get out for a ride. Your 2018 sled is sitting in your shop starting to collect dust, which was never in the plans. Or you bought some shiny parts for your older iron and you’ve been putting in late nights in the garage, wrenching and dreaming about future dirty dangles. You’ve been inspired by a few of the new epic sled films from this year and you can’t wait to work on your re-entry. You’ve figured out what gear you need to replace this year and you’ve been researching all the new stuff to find out what’s best. It’s an exciting time, no doubt.
Early Season Riding – Not All It’s Cracked up to Be
Trust me when I say that I’m just as excited to get on snow as the most rabid enthusiast. I’ve spent the last six months pouring over the best sledding and snow bike photos from the top riders and photographers in the industry, making selections for our magazine. I’ve studied and reviewed all the new films this year. We have piles of new gear sitting in our office to be tested, just waiting for those flakes to fly. We’ve read and written about all the latest industry news, talked to the athletes and generally just gotten a little more pumped for the upcoming season every single day since our last on snow back in May.
But it’s not quite time yet, and here’s why.
It’s Good to Go!
Invariably, this is what happens. Someone goes out in an attempt to be one of the very first riders of the year (aka the most hardcore). It’s not only an effort to get the season rolling, but also to engage an audience with an incredible thirst for fresh riding content this time of year. First-ride-of-the-year reports are guaranteed to go over huge.
When those shots and video clips go up on social media, they show the deepest and best patches of snow found all day. They give the impression that it’s pretty much good to go out there, and the result is that the next weekend there is a parking lot full of sledders who are super excited but don’t truly know what they’re getting themselves into.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticizing the people who make a big effort to get out and ride first. I’m super stoked for their enthusiasm and willingness to go the extra mile to make a fun adventure happen. And we love to hear about it. But an unfortunate side-effect is that it sends a misleading message to the mountain sledding masses—that it’s good to go.
I hate to be the one to burst the bubble, but that isn’t the case just yet.
Wait a Minute, No it’s Not!
The problem is that those first ride reports don’t usually show all the hazards and crappy parts that had to be endured to get that one sweet—but gingerly executed—pow turn.
Glacier Travel and Crevasse Hazard
It might not be obvious to the average rider, but often when you see the first ride reports of the season, they happened on a glacier. The benefit of riding a glacier in early season is that they are at high elevation and receive snow before anywhere else. But there’s a downside.
Snow bridges that cover crevasses are thin and weak at this time of year. Often they will be formed up enough to disguise a crevasse beneath, but not yet strong enough to support a snowmobile and rider. As you can imagine, this is a recipe for disaster.
If you don’t carry a crevasse rescue gear with you and the know-how to perform a rope rescue, you need to think twice about riding on a glacier at the best of times, let alone in early season when they are at their most hazardous.
Unknown Avalanche Risk
This time of year can be two-fold risky from an avalanche standpoint.
First, early season snow is notoriously fickle. There is no supportive base, and thin cover can produce faceting at the ground which results in instability. We’re not sure who first said, “If there’s enough snow to ride, there’s enough snow to slide,” but it’s good advice. Here’s an Avalanche Canada blog about an early season avalanche this year in which four skiers were caught off-guard. It’s a tricky time of year.
Second, there are not enough avalanche conditions observations coming in for forecasters to make accurate predictions. For riders, that means no bulletins to check before heading out. If you’re planning on going early season riding, you need to have the knowledge to make your own assessments in the field. Either way, now is the time to play it safe and stick to some low-angle meadows well away from any exposure to avalanche terrain.
Sure, there’s some snow up top, but not a lot, and nothing in the valley bottoms. That means that regular trailheads can’t yet be used, and you’ll have to drive up to the snowline. That makes it very awkward for riders who trailer their sleds. You might not be able to turn around at the snowline or anywhere even nearby. It’s good reason to wait a little longer if trailering is your only option.
But what if you’re sporting a sled deck on your truck or just rocking solo? Just remember that the snowline in the fall is not like it is in spring. You don’t just suddenly arrive at snow that is solid and deep enough to sled on. In the fall, you might find kilometers of road with only a skiff on it. Where do you stop driving and start riding? It’s usually some sort of crappy compromise.
And it shouldn’t need to be said that grooming is non-existent this time of year. If you’re one of those guys who complains when the trail isn’t in pristine shape, then forget about it.
Lots of interest out there and questions pouring in on snow conditions. Its soooooo early folks. Currently we don't…
This might be the ultimate deal-breaker. Shallow, unconsolidated snow is really good for hiding rocks and not much else. If you’re a mountain sledder, you’re going to be riding over very rough terrain with not much coverage. There are stumps, just waiting to snag a-arms. Rocks are on standby, ready to clip spindles and tear paddles. There are land mines all over, lurking just out of sight.
It feels so good to sink into that first turn of the season. But remember, that feeling can be snuffed instantly when you scorpion over the bars as your sled comes grinding to a mangled halt atop a hidden rock outcrop.
Early Season Riding – Take it With a Grain of Salt
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not telling you to stifle your enthusiasm, not at all! But take what you’ve seen on the internet with a grain of salt. Remember, it’s the jobs of professional riders to pump us on the upcoming season. And a stellar early season ride report is a great way to do that. But Regular Joes aren’t tied to any such obligation, and they can afford to sit back and let the other guys find all the rocks first.
I know it can be murder to hold back after waiting so long to get on snow. But the reality—despite what the internet is trying to tell you—is that the early season riding conditions aren’t there yet. We’ve got a long winter ahead of us. It’s probably worth waiting a few more weeks before getting out there. But if you absolutely can’t resist—and we don’t blame you if that’s the case—then at least be well-prepared and ready to deal with the hazards and hassles that come with early season riding.