Finding a crowd-free Tahoe: Winter corn?
Special to the Tribune
You know, Tahoe can be a funny place. The last couple of months have thrown me for a loop. First we are given this unbelievable series of winter storms starting back in November and pushing into the new year. That was followed by some pretty cold blue bird days – at least by Tahoe standards – that kept the snow in good form for an unusually long time. Then come these spring-like doldrums in January. Wow! You know it’s warm when there’s 60-90 inches in the snowpack at 8,000 feet and people are talking about riding their bikes more than they are about skiing.
But don’t fret; there is a redeemer that is born out of all this funky weather: Corn.
No, I’m not talking about the veggie that goes good with barbecue. Nor am I talking about the plant that grows in abundance in Iowa. What I am talking about is a type of snow that the Sierra Nevada is famous for: corn. It’s the precious product of Sierra cement. It’s the powder of the spring. The last savory bit of winter. Yes, corn – but in January?
Many of you might be thinking: “it hasn’t snowed in so long, I’m gonna hang it up and head to a warmer climate and do something that better fits the weather.” Well, I don’t blame you. But, keep in mind that the next storm is just barely making its way into the long-term weather models. However, another type of weather pattern is building up in the mean time that can produce the next best thing to fresh snow.
It is true that corn is usually associated with spring. It is spring’s relatively long, sunny days and short, cold nights that produce the ideal climate to grow world-class corn. It is the consistent freeze/thaw cycle that provides the vigilant and observant skier with a light at the end of the tunnel when there isn’t a storm in sight.
Before I go into the specifics of what the weather must do to produce corn, let me first explain why California is predisposed to produce those conditions.
First off, California has a tremendous amount of annual snowfall that comes right off the ocean. It comes in wet and warm and sticks to just about everything that’s less than 90 degrees. It’s not just that, though. The Sierra gets over 250 days of sunshine yearly and maintains relatively moderate winter temperatures compared to continental mountain ranges like the Rockies. Combine these two elements and the result is a snowpack that is accurately described as cement.
Good corn will only grow when the snowpack consolidates, forming a deep layer that is hard enough to walk on. This process is expedited when melt water percolates down through the snowpack and breaks down the weak layers, essentially crushing or filling the voids, binding the mass together all the while. After it has frozen hard, the hope is that the surface will thaw under the heat of the sun. This must be followed again by a good freeze at night. Repeat this cycle several times, and the corn starts to sprout.
It sounds simple, right? Well, yes and no. Yes in the spring because the air temperature is, on average, higher, the days longer and storms somewhat less frequent. No in the winter because all of the above isn’t true. These trends tend to make winter corn a bit more elusive.
However, when the timing is right, the skier can catch the top layer when it is soft. This allows the edges of skis to bite in and push the loose surface around while staying atop the underlying firm snowpack. Anyone who has caught it at the right time will tell you that it is one of the best conditions snow can offer.
Like fresh fallen snow, corn is fleeting and your timing has got to be right. Yet, unlike powder, corn can take a great deal more pressure from skiers before it loses its consistency and the quality of the ride diminishes. If this is sounding pretty good to you, I’ll give you a hint on where to look: It thrives where the sun shines the most. I’ll leave it at that. Happy hunting.
– Nicholas Miley is a freelance writer living in South Lake Tahoe. He spends his free time exploring the Sierra Nevada and writing about his experiences.