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Laws of the Deep

Deep thoughts
posted: 06/01/2005

Not once in thirteen years of compulsory public education and four years of university indoctrination did an instructor, professor, counselor, or postdoc teach me anything that even remotely applied to powder skiing. How to fail miserably in statistics? That I learned. But powder? Zip, zilch, nada. Forget aboutinsight—no one so much as gave me his two cents. Only when I took matters into my own hands and pursued the autodidactic heights of unconventional education did I discover the alternative universe of learning that lies between the first flake of autumn and the last melted crystal of spring. That's when my real education began—like understanding the difference between a face shot and a core shot.

Throwing myself into extracurricular studies with a fervor that had somehow escaped me in the classroom, I was a model student. I progressed quickly. The more I learned, however, the more I felt I was peering into a murky level of powder knowledge that went beyond words—knowledge that could be accessed only through experience. Aha, I might have said, there are rules to this here sport. No one ever talks about them, but there are guidelines to getting the most out of powder, as sure as winter's short and summer's long.

Perhaps these rules exist outside us, as true as the laws of science but just waiting to be discovered. Maybe we make them up, inventing them anew as we creep along the learning curve. Who knows? I found that if I organized my life around them, I was rewarded with more powder, deeper powder, lighter powder.Never was I more rewarded than when I followed what became my rule number one: If you want to ski powder, you have to get out there. This might seem obvious, but there's a big diff between knowing something and living it. If you want to ski powder—if you want to revel in four-percent-water eiderdown—you have to be on the hill, day in and day out. Powder is only partially predictable. Sit on your obsessive butt waiting for the Weather Channel to tell you when to go, and you're going to miss those days when microclimates bring surprise dumps; or cold, starry nights recrystallize and dry the snowpack; or an expected storm arrives early and drops a foot after lunch instead of the next morning. You'll miss the freak Halloween blizzard and the May miracle, and you will, without fail, decrease your odds of getting it in the face by orders of magnitude.

It doesn't cut it to simply be out there, however. You also have to want it more than the next guy. It's not enough to just show up: Freshies require extraordinary effort. Powder days have become powder mornings, and if you aren't on the first chair—or close behind—you're begging for scraps at the royal feast. Late-day inbounds powder is about as common as George Bush slow-dancing with Michael Moore, but it's there—you just have to be willing to hike for it. Boot-packing isn't just a nice way to burn off Krispy Kremes—it's mandatory for the true powder skier, and through it, the merely adequate becomes a search for the excellent; the groomed is left for the uncertainty of the trees; and the bird in the hand is traded for a potential two in the bush.

Those are self-directed commandments—get out there and keep working for it—but after that, my rules become less imperative and more woven into the fabric of my nature. Through my own foolishness and the mistakes of my friends, I've learned that you never leave powder to find powder. A couple of years ago, I was in Alagna, Italy, with a crew led by photographer Scott Markewitz. Conditions were good the day I left, but someone heard they were better in Serre Chevalier, France, so they drove 10 hours across Italy, only to find junk, crud, and a big fat goose egg. The lesson? If it's great, stay till it's done.We had a big posse in Alagna, and it included some of the best skiers in the world, so we moved pretty fast. But in general, you should avoid groups like you'd avoid Mid-Vail at noon on a Saturday. Groups are tooxic to the powder experience. They slow you down, clog the decision-making pipeline, and sow doubt and dissension. Clusterphobia is not an irrational fear—nothing good comes from skiing powder in a big group. Three skiers, maybe four: that's ideal for speed and safety. Which reminds me. You know that saying, "There are no friends on a powder day? Not true. There are friends, there's just no waiting on friends.

These four tenets are the foundation for great powder days, but you shouldn't stop now. Drive yourself with the knowledge that good snow is out there, somewhere. Study the tangled interconnectedness between sun, snowpack, and wind. Become a meteorologist. Ask a trustworthy local where to ski, then double-check his answer with someone else. Listen between the lines, eavesdrop on patrollers, make notes on your trail map. The pursuit of powder is part science, part dark art driven by the selfish hunger to make turn after untracked turn. The sooner you commit yourself to a lifetime of learning, the sooner you'll discover your own rules. And the more you'll dive into the deeps. It might not do much for your career or your relationships, but I can promise you'll get an education of the highest order.

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