Skiers, snowboarders and sledders are getting summer runs in the backcountry of the San Juan Mountains thanks to lingering snowpack from an above-average winter.
For those willing to hike or ski up, the reward is slushy downhill turns in July wearing short sleeves and shorts.
“Summer skiing in the San Juans is not necessarily rare, but the conditions are really good this year,” said Josh Kling, program coordinator for Outdoor Pursuits at Fort Lewis College. “There were a handful of skiers and sledders on Ophir Pass on the Fourth of July.”
Lather on the sunscreen because high-altitude solar radiation hits from above and is reflected back to you from the snow with intense results.
Avalanches are still possible, Kling said. As the snow heats up and begins to melt on vertical terrain, water moving through the snowpack can produce wet slabs and loose wet avalanches.
“If it is steep enough to ride, it is steep enough to slide,” Kling said. Slushy conditions that cause you to sink more than 6 inches can be a precursor to a potential slide.
Access to large snowfields is surprisingly convenient along the Ophir Pass road. But as the summer progresses, the snowline recedes to higher, more expert terrain that is more challenging to access.
During a recent ski tour of the Ophir area, low-angle sledding runs were accessible off the road. For the more adventurous, steep gullies full of snow awaited, some near the road, others requiring a hike to pack in ski boots and skis.
Some snowpacked gullies are also filled with avalanche debris, presenting obstacles such as rocks, broken trees and uneven terrain.
The La Plata Mountains are also attracting summer skiers.
Brett and Diana Davis rode fat bikes loaded with camping and ski gear into Rush and Owen basins last week.
“We based-camped for three days, skiing line after line,” Brett Davis said. “The skiing was superb, we had the basins all to ourselves.”