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Mountain Chronicle Spring Corn

Mountain Chronicle Spring Corn

Mountain Life
posted: 03/31/2000

This time of year, everybody asks me: How do you manage to make such fabulous corn? Well, I don't actually make it, of course. It's really a matter of finding the right ingredients, which absolutely anybody can do. It just takes a little shopping around the high mountains. Add a dash of timing and a pinch of good luck, and you, too, can partake of this marvelous springtime treat. So buttery. So velvety underfoot. So absolutely freeing. Bon appétit!

Recipe for perfect corn:

(Remember, corn is not winter fare; attempt this recipe only in the weeks leading to and following the spring equinox.)

  • Combine a string of sunny days and clear, cold nights. Daytime temperatures should be well above the melt point; nighttime temps need to reach well below freezing. You'll want three to four of these day/night, melt/freeze cycles in a row. More may be required in March, as few as one or two in late April and May.

  • Observe the snowpack marinating in its own juices as free water percolates from the melting surface down through the layers. Then, at night, as heat radiates back out into space, all that free water freezes, locking the snow in a latticework of ice and air.

  • Bake for the required time (see above). Every mountainside will be different depending on elevation (higher is usually slower to corn up), orientation (south-facing slopes will obviously "go off" before north faces will), and shade (corn in the trees is rare until late in the season, but if you do happen to encounter this delicacy, enjoy! It'll just be you and the snowshoe bunnies in there skimming a frosting of shadow-splashed, needle-scented snow).

  • When the pack becomes "isothermal" it's ready. That is, when the temperature in the snowpack is equal throughout at 32°F, you have ultimate corn. Beware the temptation to ski corn before its time. A thin, granular crust may form on the surface of otherwise unsupportive (colder) snow, giving rise to such unpleasant terms as "breakable crust," "death cookies" and "shin scissors." Wait for the proper time and, as they say in the "Handbook of Snow" (Ron Perla, et al.), corn's "large, coarse grained aggregates...provide easy maneuverability and delightful downhill skiing conditions."

    Which brings up the question of in-area corn snow vs. wild, backcountry varieties. Both have their proponents. Ski areas often tout corn snow on their groomed pitches in spring. And indeed, a strong melt/freeze cycle will produce a corn-like sequence throughout the day. First thing in the morning you'll be chattering over yesterday's rock-hard, frozen ruts. (Locals often prefer to sleep through this phase.) Then, with the sun's ascent, the top centimeter or two begin to melt, the chattering quiets and smooths, and the period known as "hero snow" commences. Later in the afternoon the corn transforms into slush. Roostertails become wet sprays of pearls, and moguls, those formerly fearsome battlefields, are transformed into soft-sided snowcones, ripe for the taking.

    Think of lift-served corn as an appetizer. Now kick it up a notch.

    Your main dish really should be wild corn, the kind that spreads a creamy-smooth glaze over whole mountain ranges. Wild corn transforms the backcountry into a gourmet feast, strengthens soufflé-weak winter snows as surely as gluten gives integrity to bread dough. You are free to ski anywhere. And the skiing is so easy. Couloirs feel like comfy back stairs. Great, engulfing bowls shrink to dessert cups. You ski faster. You stand taller. Your gaze takes in great sweeps of terrain, and your turns grow accordingly until you are Picasso, shirtless, sketching the world with sharp steel edges.

    Oh, my. One does get carried away talking about one's favorite dishes. A couple of words to the wise. Corn that is either too hard or too soft can be treacherous, ruining an otherwise fun party.

    Climbing in the shade one May morning a few years ago, I found myself watching a man walking in ski boots. No crampons. No lug soles. Just his smooth, plastic, alpine boots. The snow was still locked in night's icy grip, crunchy and unforgiving. And as the pitch reared up steeply near the ridge, sure enough, he slipped. And was gone.

    Instant acceleration. He spun onto his back, skis bristling from his backpack, arms flailing helplessly, and rocketed a thousand vertical feet to the flat bottom of the cirque. Bummer. He waved a groggy all-clear. Physically, he was fine. But I never knew if he summoned the will to hike again, or if he strapped 'em on and slid sheepishly back to the road from whence he had come.

    The flip side is corn that is too soft, melted down too deep, too late in the day. Back when we were backcountry sprouts, two friends and I decided to ski one of the Seven Sisters slide paths above the Loveland Pass highway in Colorado's Front Range. We started way too late. The east-facing Sisters had been cooking in the sun for hours by the time we eased in. One of our first turns started an oozing, wet-snow avalanche. Hominy grits slurping down the chute at a fast stroll, it nonetheless could have ground us into flour.

    Sometimes, on a long descent, you can't help but deal with both the crunchy hard pan and the steamed squash. Take the classic Ophir-to-Telluride spring route. At 13,400 feet, the north-facing corn is inevitably hard as burnt sugar, while the bottom thousand feet (by the time you get there) will just as surely be soup.

    In between, though, it's 3,000 feet of custard. From the "Handbook" again: "The most enjoyable downhill skiing regularly occurs as the surface begins to soften in the later morning but before the texture melts completely to slush." This is the art of timing corn.

    There is nothing, of course, like fresh corn. First corn is like first love, revelatory, sensual beyond all previous experience. My first time was in the sunny Sierra in the days just after Bear Valley closed for the season. We hadn't had our fill yet, and so decided to ski the backside of the ski area from high on the access road, where we could leave a car, to the village. It was early, but the sun already warmed the sweet-smelling pines, and first turns woke us from a groggy reverie. The ridge was like a long, silken dune, peppered with rocks and old snags. The snow was vanilla sherbet, icy fine and softening over a bone-hard base. It changed us, changed the way we skied. It made us swooping birds, turned us into lovers, caressing, voracious, invincible.

    We skied without thinking, never stopping. Laughing, panting, hungry for more, we barged into a friend's cabin, commandeered his car and raced back up to do it all again.

    Peter Shelton is an award-winning writer based in Montrose, Colo. Contact him at PShelton@montrose.net, or check out his previous columns at www.skimag.com.

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