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Ask Dr. Flake
posted: 08/20/2003

Dr. Flake: What's the steepest pitch that actually holds enough snow for a true descent on skis?

Egads, man, have you never heard of the "S System? Until yesterday, Dr. Flake hadn't either. He was busy packing up the Slip 'n Slide. But then he put your question to backcountry pioneer Lou Dawson, one of the developers of the S System steepness scale for rating ski and snowboard descents. This is what he had to say: "The general consensus is about 60 degrees. Guys can stand with ski edges on snow that's steeper than 60 (that's an S7 rating), but it's pretty tough to make controlled edging motions that regulate downward momentum for any significant distance. All of which means, above 60 degrees you're B.A.S.E. jumping without a chute. Goopy Cascade Concrete has adhered to slopes up to 80 degrees, and Sierra Cement allowed snowboarder Tom Burt to nail a record 72-degree, S7 line near California's Donner Pass a few years ago. But Burt's a freak and snowboarders can sideslip, toeside, with an ice ax in each hand. There is an S8 rating, but you won't see 72 degrees surpassed by a skier—not a living one, anyway.

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