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Seeing the Light

Deep thoughts
posted: 10/29/2002

The next time it snows, catch a snowflake in your hand. Look at how small it is, how fragile, how ephemeral. Now think about how many of those little guys it takes to cover the Rocky Mountains six feet deep. It seems like nothing less than a stroke of the divine.

Anyone not completely rocked by the mysteries and magic of our frozen white friend clearly isn't thinking enough about it. Snow is one of the most amazing substances on the planet, a thing of beauty and awe that never stops changing from the moment of its birth to its death and reincarnation as meltwater. Its wild and transforming properties are at the heart of the strangely compelling experience of deep-powder skiing. The snow is the thing.

Snow is, of course, what separates powder skiing from regular skiing, what makes it almost an entirely different sport from groomed skiing. And it doesn't take much mountain savvy to see why the experience of slipping silently into the white room is worlds away from the aggressive arcing of the hardpack carve. In most skiing, you're just on the snow, but in deep-powder skiing, you're in it, and therein lies the key: What separates deep-powder skiing conceptually, aesthetically, and practically from everyday skiing and, indeed, from every other sport, is the immersive, over-the-head, in-deep cover-up. Only scuba diving and perhaps surfing offer a similar link between the player and the field, but they're so far from the alpine experience that comparison is superficial at best. It's the rhythmic in and out of powder, the being a part of instead of apart from, that is the little miracle that makes deep-powder skiing so transcendent. A few thin layers of nylon might separate the skier physically from the snow, but when seen as a system, as a dynamic enterprise of motion and emotion, they are one. The medium is the message, the powder is the story.

The quality of the snow, then, is paramount. A truly religious powder experience first requires that the snow must be deep. If you can feel firm snow beneath your skis, you're bottom feeding. The skiing might be good, but if it isn't bottomless it doesn't count as deep-powder skiing, at least not in my book. Next, it must be legitimate powder snow. That is, it must be light, dry, and powdery. It drives me nuts when skiers and snowboarders confuse fresh snow with powder snow. Don't call it powder just because it's untracked. Freshies can just as easily be meringue, glop, or cement. Powder is powder, light and delicate. At its best, it's about four percent water by volume-96 percent air-and it explodes when you hit it. It dusts your chest, coats your face, streams from your shoulders. It lingers in the air in your wake. And there are few sights more inspiring than a vapor trail of cold smoke, a cloud of nanocrystals dancing skyward, then hanging in the air and drifting slowly back down to earth, a snowstorm in microcosm.

Unless you live in Alta, epic powder conditions are rare. Surprisingly, the most powerful storms don?t usually make the best powder snow. In the West, we've become conditioned to watch for lows stacked up in the Gulf of Alaska, and, to be sure, they can bring some mighty fine skiing. But a far better scenario is when a ridge of high pressure builds off the West Coast and a river of cold, moist air comes straight down from the northwest. Called a northwest flow or dirty ridge, this setup can bring day after day of steady accumulation to the northern Rockies and the Wasatch. It's not as dramatic as a mack-daddy curlicue dominating the satellite picture, but the skiing it brings can be legendary.

Even better is when the northwest flow comes in relatively warm and brings snow on the wet side at the beginning of the storm, laying down a nice, dense bottom layer that quickly hides the hard-packed base. Then the temperature drops, and the falling snow turns drier. It's like a cake with the thickest layers below: The layers get progressively lighter until the top one is like a sifting of confectioner's sugar, taking to the air with the merest whisper. When skiing in conditions like these, it seems the snow comes from every direction, falling from the sky, rising from below, swirling in anticyclones as buddies blow by. You are at the center of a world of white, flakes and crystals spinning all around, and the realization sinks in that nothing-nothing-is better than deep-powder skiing. That's when you know the difference-when you know what it's like to be one with the snow-and you're hooked forever.

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