The Nomadic Ski Bum
Powder skiing… is… the finest variety of skiing there is. To us powder means freedom, with an emphasis, not on how you do it, just doing it more… it is beyond equipment, form, all the dos and don’ts of ski instruction. Perhaps more important powder skiing means getting away from the crowd to a place where there are no lines, no lift towers, no snow fences, no bodies in the way. Just snow. It’s another world. —POWDER, introduction to the first issue, 1972
When it comes to outdoor sports, a veritable industry has grown up around one notion: soul—who has it, where it’s found, and why it’s there.
Naturally, those with the oldest histories are most likely to trade in these arguments, laying claim in movies and magazines to being soulful pursuits: surfing, climbing, and skiing would head that list.
But soul can be both ephemeral and omnipresent, more readily apparent in certain sub-disciplines within the greater sphere of any pursuit. When it comes to snow sports, soul flows in greatest abundance in the realm of untracked snow—powder, nieve polvo, pulver schnee, le poudre. Just as “getting barreled” is the most sought-after experience in surfing, so a “face shot” in powder is the Holy Grail of snow-riding.
Naturally, then, you’ll usually find a healthy dose of soul in those special places you go to chase powder down, as well as worn on the sleeves of the people you share the experience with. In fact, when you get right down to it, People + Place + Powder = The Soul of Snowsports.
And it seems this is the very idea that many of us, bored with the manufactured environment of our local ski hill, are waking up to. Or maybe it’s the spectra of climate change and the worry that we don’t have much time left to enjoy the phenomenon of fresh snow. Or perhaps, as the tired cliché goes, powder is like a powerful drug—once you’ve tried it, you can only crave more. Whatever the reason, We Want Powder is the new We Want Fast Lifts in the winter-resort industry.
Or, as a magazine famously put it: Powder to the People.
There’s a lot about powder snow to recommend it. It’s natural, for one thing. Fresh. Clean. Sparkly. And it doesn’t hurt when you fall. But true aficionados know it’s about a lot more.
There’s a certain transcendence to moving through powder that cuts to the heart of the entire ski experience, something that cannot adequately be described but must be experienced to fully understand. Many have stated that explaining powder skiing to a neophyte is like explaining sex to a virgin—all mechanics and no je ne sais quois. Trite but true, but I’ll try to explain it anyway.
Powder skiing is about words and being unable to speak. About telling, but unable to describe. About the silence that surrounds you—but how that quiet somehow amplifies the pounding of your heart, the rasping of your breath, the wind in the trees. It’s about involuntary grunts of effort and unconscious squeals of delight. It’s about inspiration. Desperation. Broken marriages. Bad poetry. A dozen magazines. Grins. Silliness. Frozen toes and ice-cream headaches. First tracks and lost skis. The magical feeling of sinking followed by momentary weightlessness. About trudging, navigating, and riding over, through and around boilerplate, sastrugi, crust, slab, crud and all manner of bad snow just to get to the good stuff. It’s a way of feeling. A way of thinking. A way of life. A way of sharing.
That last bit is important. The relationship of powder to the friends you experience it with is also hard to describe. But I’ll give that a try, too. Powder-skiing doyenne Dolores LaChapelle said that if joy is the response of a lover receiving what he loves, then this is the joy we feel when skiing powder with friends. An overflowing gratitude that produces the absurd smiles flashed to each other at the bottom of a run. You never see these kind of grins anywhere else in life—not on someone leaving a tennis court, a golf course, or a hockey rink; not on someone stepping down from a podium after a great speech or leaving a club after a fabulous evening of dancing. Nothing else even comes close to the meaning of the smiles shared in powder: they reflect life fully lived, together, in a blaze of reality.
So enraptured are many of us with the feelings engendered by skiing powder, that we travel the world to chase them in as many different places as possible.
When you make such a pilgrimage to a new land and a new mountain range in search of snow, you’re really looking for more than just exotic sliding. What you truly wish for is to take the culture of the moment and the friends of the day, then mix them together. A new experiment in the laboratory of winter.
Whether Europe, Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, New Zealand or Japan, basic ingredients are the same—rock, ice, peaks, slopes, snow. And yet all are also deliciously different—a new latitude, unique local light, strange forests, interesting snow formations.
Because tracking the soul of snow riding involves following its footprints through snowbelts that wrap around the globe, resorts have played to this theme for years in order to create an international destination market. Yet many of the truly top players in the deep-powder sweepstakes long kept themselves on the down-low—whispered about in lift lines, beta passed between bros. But as demand increased, this couldn’t last. As travel operators tap into a growing public appetite for unique destinations, wilderness, and untracked powder, traditionally sleepy corners of the world like northern Japan, Turkey, and Bulgaria host ever-increasing numbers of international powder-seekers. Many U.S. and European resorts that never imagined doing so have opened up special areas on or adjacent to their mountains to accommodate the influx of powder hounds demanding access to unmanaged terrain. And the explosion in backcountry operations like lodges, hut-to-hut systems, cat-skiing and heli-skiing is unparalleled. In British Columbia alone, the backcountry ski industry’s capacity has more than doubled over the past decade and demand still exceeds capacity.
Compare this to the current global glut of spas that can’t be filled by any means. I’m no salesman, but I’d say this is pretty good advertising: the restorative benefits of a slap in the face with cold snow might exceed those of aromatherapy and a line of hot rocks down your back.
This last quote might be a little too Zen for some, but LaChapelle has a point. When you get right down to it, riding in powder isn’t really about the outer experience, but the inner. About that crucial intersection of mind and body, where thinking and feeling cannot be teased apart. About stopping at the bottom of a slope and looking back up at a line you’re convinced was the best run of your life, hanging on your pole-straps and sucking air through a smile that doesn’t belong just to you, but to everyone who’s ever stood with their legs quaking this badly.
And no matter how long the run was, or much you’re hurting, you’re secure in the knowledge that if you never made another run in your life, it would be fine. On the other hand, a good ski run in powder also sparks the kind of gimme-greed that makes your brain want more, think it just can’t get enough, and that the next time will always be better.
Maybe all those analogies about sex and weren’t so banal after all.
Geographic area: Swiss Alps
The powdermaker: Perfectly positioned in central Switzerland and blessed by altitude, this area is brushed by the northern edge of southern storms and the southern edge of northern storms. It also benefits from the orographic effects of nearby Lac Lucerne, and its own inexplicable weather-making tendencies.
The terrain: To a powder aficionado, Engelberg is like a Russian doll; every place you look reveals another chunk of hidden terrain. Everything from smallish glaciers, to couloirs, chutes, trees, arguably the world’s best resort powder run (The Laub) and plenty of interesting off-piste descents.
Geographic area: Austrian Alps
Place: Arlberg region
The powdermaker: Far enough away from the Mediterranean to deflect its moderating effects but close enough to milk its moisture and draw full benefit from the cold fronts of northern Europe. Altitude, glaciers, and cloud-snagging peaks figure heavily as well; Stuben is the snowiest resort.
The terrain: Endless high alpine, great glaciers, and a smattering of everything else. Fabulous touring with long, luxurious backcountry powder runs between resorts.
Geographic area: The Dolomites
Place: Cortina d’Ampezzo
The powdermaker: Far enough away from the Mediterranean to deflect its moderating effects but close enough to milk its moisture. Altitude, glaciers and cloud-snagging peaks figure heavily as well; 2013-14 saw the most snow in 50 years—some 20+ meters.
The terrain: The kinds of walls and towers found here-and-there in the rest of the Alps are everywhere in the Dolomites, creating a dramatic landscape that’s both spacious and filled with nooks and crannies, the latter exemplified in Cortina’s famous couloirs—long, narrow, often sinuous lines that cleave peaks from top to bottom.
Geographic area: Hokkaido, Japan
The powdermaker: Icy winds from Siberia moving over the Sea of Japan and Sea of Ohtosk make snow even when the local low-pressure system—which hangs around most of the winter—wavers offshore.
The terrain: Several ski areas on both ancient and active volcanoes; their general angle may not be desperately steep, but they sport plenty of steep-sided gullies and snow-catching areas. Amazing skiing through hardwood trees spaced far enough apart to drive a truck between them.
Geographic area: Teton Range, Wyoming, USA
Place: Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee
The powdermaker: Storms can descend on the Tetons from pretty much any direction but the best and biggest move in slowly from the south or west, drawing strong northwest winds down and picking up steam and moisture.
The terrain: Big vertical but no glaciers, just huge powder dumps and lots of steep, wide-open riding.
Geographic area: Interior British Columbia, Canada
Place: So many resorts, cat and heli operations, so little time; get an inventory at canadaheliandcatski.com
The powdermaker: Energetic Pacific storm cycles carrying tons of moisture are cooled and milked by successive contact with legendary ranges like the Kootenays, Purcells, Selkirks, Monashees and Bugaboos.
The terrain: A dozen mountain ranges mean everything imaginable. Huge vertical, massive glaciers, ridiculous pillows and the steepest and deepest trees on the planet.