Good Snow Hunting
Or How to Find the Goods
“I’m not going to *#!&’ing hike for three hours to ski some *&^#tty snow.”
Chris Grover – Black Diamond Sales Manager
The above quote always makes me laugh as it was spoken by a non-skier justifying his non-skiing, but it also perfectly sums up the crux of backcountry skiing – what is the point of hiking for hours to ski crappy snow? Long slogs to endless breakable crust inevitably happen, but if that was the norm, backcountry skiing as a sport would be about as obscure as noodling for catfish. You’d have to be a true glutton for punishment to keep at it.
During or just after a storm, good snow is easy to find almost anywhere, but what separates the pro snow sniffers from the rest is the ability to keep skiing good quality snow well into a dry spell or after a radical change of weather. This doesn’t always mean blower pow, but could be recrystallized fluff, corn snow, supportable wind-board or porn (powder/corn). Conditions vary widely and are completely backwards for the southern hemisphere with south facing powder and north facing corn, but in general, there’s almost always good snow to be found somewhere. No more *#!&’ing long walks for *&^#tty snow.
When a big storm arrives, think of skiing it as a spiral from the lowest, south facing elevations first, then twisting through east or west mid elevations a day or so later and eventually working your way up to high, north facing, which will hold soft snow (and lingering avalanche danger) the longest. Powder on low elevation, south facing shots is fleeting, so ski it while you can. For powder, east and west are considered “off aspects” as they get medium amounts of sun that can cause crusting, so you don’t want to wait too long to ski them. To calm powder fever, it helps to have a hit list, guidebook or guide to help wean you away from the tempting tried & true upper north facing powder, which will last for days. Carpe skiem – ski it while you can.
In powder terminology, “north facing” generally means just that, but it’s also a catch-all phrase for any shaded area, like the sidewall of an east/west facing couloir, tree skiing under a heavy canopy or contouring tight up against a shady ridgeline. Direct sunlight can quickly zap powder like a microwave, but oftentimes the shady side of a subtle ridgeline in the middle of a predominately south facing slope can hold soft snow, especially with a bit of cross-loaded, wind deposit.
Wind loading is generally the bane of snow stability, but at times it can create excellent skiing conditions. Dubbed “the architect of avalanches,” by Bruce Tremper, wind can transport up to ten times the amount of fallen snow. A classic example of this is Alta’s Main Baldy Couloir, which can be blown in with three feet of early season snow while the lower parking lot has a trace. In places like the fjords of Baffin Island, huge couloirs are filled almost entirely by cross loading. The deepest snow I’ve ever skied (six feet of sub 5%) was in the Terminal Cancer couloir in the Ruby Mountains, NV which is a virtual snow magnifying glass with top loading, side loading and smooth flanks that funnel spindrift sluffs into its narrow gully. Wind loaded snow is a very localized phenomenon that can be found on the lee side of ridgelines.
Steep & deep is a winning combo, but when it comes to dust on crust, try low & slow by dialing your slope angles down as a way of staying afloat on only a couple of inches of new. On steeper slopes, the pull of gravity demands more edge pressure, forcing you to slice through the fluff into the crust below. Conversely, on low angle slopes with an angry inch of new, you can get by with smooshing turns and staying afloat. Low angle butt wiggling is an acquired taste and can be really fun as long as your homies don’t catch you doing it.
Regardless of how bad general conditions are, there are almost always little narrow bands of good snow to be sniffed out. These might involve long walks to remote little nooks of obscure West/Northwest, sheltered trees in the shadow of a ridgeline between 9,000’ and 9,500’, but they are out there as a reward for developed snow hunting skills. The skiing might be short, but you can always take more laps.
One of the true show stoppers for good snow is extended warm temperatures at all elevations, which is akin to throwing water on a Kleenex. No matter how sheltered an area is, it all turns to mush. In Europe, this often occurs in the form of a warm, humid foehn wind, which is similar in effect to what are called Chinook winds in the Pacific Northwest. It is party over from a powder standpoint, but can lead to some good snowpack consolidation. In the best case, the temperatures will go back down afterwards and leave a nice smooth playing field for future storms or corn snow.
In the Pacific Northwest, there is a saying “If you can’t drink it, it’s powder.” Aside from being miserable, skiing in the rain isn’t too bad if you can find consolidated snow. Anything that still has air in it is going to be schmaltz, but compacted areas are at least supportable. Generally look for open areas and avoid the trees.
Carveable windboard is another backcountry delicacy, but it can be difficult to reliably predict where and when it will show up due to vagrancies in the wind and the consistency of the existing snow. It is often too sculpted to be fun, but a good place to start the hunt is exposed ridgelines or open valley bottoms.
Recrystallized powder is proof that God loves skiers and riders. Unlike flakes that fall from the sky, recrystallized pow forms as water vapor filters up through the snowpack and then freezes as it reaches the surface. It can happen in a variety of conditions, but the main growing periods involve a string of clear, sunny days followed by cold nights, and with enough time, it can reach many inches deep. Recrystallized skis with a nice creamy feel, and is sometimes known as “loud powder” because of the hissing noise it makes as you move through it. As a top layer, recrystallized is often very stable, which makes it great for spring time couloir skiing, but as a buried layer, it is often dangerous when new snow falls on top of it.
Because of the way the delicate water vapor freezes as it reaches the surface, recrystallized powder mostly forms in wind sheltered areas. A very light, cooling wind is ideal for growth, but anything stronger blows the fragile formations away. As such, recrystallized can be reliably found in cool, sheltered areas, which usually translates to mid-to-upper elevation, north facing terrain. An obscure variation on the recrystallized theme sometimes happens to surface crusts as they lose water and break down, leaving a rough looking surface that skis like the buttery crust of a fresh baked croissant. Truly yummy, but almost impossible to predict exactly when and where it is going to occur.
Here Comes the Sun
Corn – it’s not blower pow, but it is pretty damn fun and way more stable. The short version of the Corn Hunter’s Guide to North America is to head to the east side of California’s Sierra range anytime in April or early May. If you have never been, the town of Bishop is a good start as it has endless day tour opportunities and good ski bum amenities. Another good one, although a bit more involved with permits, etc., is Mt. Shasta in May.
Corn harvesting relies on two very predictable conditions; consolidated snow and sun. The consolidated snow part involves multiple melt/freeze cycles where the air is cooked out of the snowpack over a few days or weeks. Ideally you want to begin with a base consistency that is more pound cake than angel food cake. Less air means more firm. The sun part is obvious, but also nuanced. East is the traditional aspect of choice as it gets first light and produces a nice slow, gradual warming. South facing is a close runner-up, but is more like a fast broil than a slow bake, so the skiing window is shorter. West facing is the most elusive corn aspect as it warms up last and then starts to cool down as the sun sets, which makes for a very tight window.
Terrain also plays a much bigger role with corn than it does for powder. Powder can sift its goodness on any and all aspects, but corn requires predominately open east and south facing slopes. In a range like the Wasatch Mountains where Little and Big Cottonwood canyons run east/west, we mainly have north and south facing slopes, but not a ton of east. Accordingly, we have an okay corn harvest, but it is nothing like the bountiful bread basket of the Sierra or parts of Colorado. Volcanic peaks like Shasta, Lassen or Hood are ideal corn skiing destinations as all four aspects are skiable and you can basically wrap your way around them to keep the corn turns flowing all day.
Timing is also critical and the early bird gets the corn. O’dark thirty starts are common, as are ski crampons or ice axes for the approach. On a trip down the Mowich Face of Mt. Rainier, we climbed in the dark, summited right at first light and then waited for an hour at the top for the face to corn up. When it did, the skiing was fairly casual, although when we tried a slight variation a year later, it was an absolutely terrifying sheet of ice where we sideslipped the entire 5,000’ face. Corn is all about weather, location and timing.
At the end of the day, good skiing is often more about the people and place than the actual conditions. After many years and many faceshots, they all start to blend together, but what sticks out are the characters and good times that unite in the endless search for the perfect run. On one of my early outings, we booted up 4,000’ of frozen avalanche chunder only to turn around and walk back down as it was completely unskiable. The snow sucked, but it was fun in retrospect and highlighted to me the importance of thinking strategically about good snow hunting. Part of the fun of backcountry skiing is that it’s a complex sport with endless options and safety trade-offs. The uphill never gets easier and the snow isn’t always perfect, but with experience, you get both faster on the ups and a higher success ratio on the downs.