Snow snakes pose danger to unwary skiers

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— Permit me to say a few words about snow. In fact, I'd like to say 708 words about snow exactly enough to fill this column.

If you haven't started a snow diary yet, this would be an opportune time.

Current conditions at the Steamboat Ski Area resemble mid-January in a very good year. We could be on our way to one of those months that people talk about for years to come. And if you don't jot down daily snow totals in your day planner or engagement calendar, you could find yourself disputing the facts at dinner parties in 2014. While you're at it, make some notes about who you skied with, the conditions on your favorite trail and how many untracked runs you got in.

Otherwise, your future conversations will sound like this:

"Was that November/December 1983 or 1984 when we endured 40 days and 40 nights of snow?"

"Was it back in January 1998 that we had more than 200 inches in a single month? Remember that day it was too deep? Dude! We tried to ski Vertigo and it wasn't steep enough!"

"Remember that winter you could jump off the garage roof without getting hurt?"

"How about that day we were submerging in the Closets and we had to pop up every three turns to get some air? When was that?"

"Did you ever recover that ski that pre-released on Flying Z? How many hours did we dig for that thing?"

This might seem like a trivial pursuit when our nation is at war. But if you measure the seasons of your life by memorable days in the snow, it's essential data.

Recently, some of my colleagues who have limited experience with Steamboat winters have been asking me, now that the snow is finally here, "Is this champagne powder?"

My reply to them was that you will be able to recognize champagne powder when you go out to your car some morning and you are able to clean the snow off the windshield simply by clapping your hands loudly.

However, not wanting to dismiss their inquiries lightly, I decided to conduct some intensive powder research of my own on Mount Werner Sunday morning.

I can now certify that the snow conditions on the ski area are remarkable, make that unheard of, for Dec. 2. But that isn't champagne powder up there.

It is, however, a good California chardonnay. And there is plenty to go around.

On a more sobering note, I'm sorry to report that the winter to come looks like it could be a bad one for snow snakes. Herpetologists are reporting that the Lesser Upper Montagne Bull Snake is due for one of its cyclical population spikes.

Longtime local skiers know that like the brown weasel, which becomes a white ermine in winter, the Montagne Bull Snake adapts to winter by shedding its summer skin and growing a new, white skin.

Although snow snakes, as they are commonly referred to, are not poisonous, they are ornery. The snakes are virtually undetectable because of their coloration and are quite dangerous because of a unique adaptation that allows them to wrap their sinuous bodies around the heel piece of a ski binding and release it rather suddenly. Other times, they catch snowboarders by their leashes, and pull them off their edges on a backside turn.

I'm fairly certain I had a close encounter with a snow snake Sunday on Tornado. Otherwise, I don't know how to explain that sudden tumble that I took.

Snake attacks are most prevalent during snowstorms, when there are frequently large patches of untracked snow in which they can lie in wait.

For that reason, I am suggesting that most of you stay off the mountain on powder days, leaving it to more experienced skiers (like myself) who know how to handle snow snakes. Should you decide not to heed my advice, and go skiing or riding on powder days anyway, please avoid expanses of untracked snow at all cost.

I would be more than happy to sweep the mountain free of snow snakes so that you can enjoy peace of mind.

Tom Ross is a longtime Steamboat resident. His column is published every Monday in Steamboat Today.

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