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Powder to the People

Connoisseurs of the cold rip through their favorite brand of snow

Man, skiing, powder

Man skiing in powder.

Tetra Images/Erik Isakson/Getty

TO MOST OF THE WORLD, SNOW is just snow: an unpleasant byproduct of an unsavory season. But connoisseurs of the chilly months — folks who are seriously tuned in to winter — know different. It’s widely believed that the language of the Yup’ik people, an Eskimo tribe that inhabits the frigid coast of Alaska, contains twenty-five words for snow, each describing a specific variety of white stuff.

This, of course, comes as no surprise to skiers, who have an equally rich vocabulary for delineating the distinctions between one kind of frozen fluff and another. From a skier’s point of view, snow types are ranked in a clear-cut hierarchy. At the bottom are such permutations as breakable crust, sierra cement and death cookies. At the upper end are wind-board and corn, the latter a forgiving surface that can make a rank beginner feel like Tamara McKinney or Scot Schmidt.

But there is one genus of snow that is held in even higher esteem. It is so magical to ski on that it has spawned its own huge mystique. Skiers call this snow deep powder. Ripping a series of rhythmic turns through virgin powder is often likened to high-voltage sex or taking an exotic drug.

To ski the finest, lightest powder is to feel that you’re soaring through a cloud of eiderdown. As you lean into a turn at thirty miles per hour, billows of frozen smoke spray from your ski tips and blow past your face, forming a high, gossamer rooster tail that lingers in the gelid air, glinting in the sunlight. The boundary between earth and sky becomes indistinct; you swear that you’re airborne. Every cell in your body begins to resonate with an electric hum. You feel like you’re in a movie, filmed in dreamy super-slo-mo.

An expanse of fresh powder appeals to the ego as well as the senses. A powder glutton will go to great lengths to be the first to carve his or her signature down an unsullied slope. It’s an opportunity to scrawl a sinuous KILROY WAS HERE on an epic scale. Unlike lesser forms of snow, powder allows you to pause at the conclusion of each run and admire your arcing path. For a little while, at least, a record of your prowess will be etched across thousands of feet of mountainside.

Deep powder can be addictive. It also happens to be in short supply. The talclike precipitation of skiers’ fantasies materializes only when a soggy storm front collides with a mass of very cold, very dry arctic air. Most of the deep powder found in this country falls in pockets of the Rocky Mountain states. Aspen, Crested Butte, Steamboat and Telluride, in Colorado; Jackson Hole and Grand Targhee, in Wyoming; Sun Valley, Idaho; Taos, New Mexico; and Alta and Snowbird, in the Wasatch Range of Utah (where more than forty-two feet of snow lands in a typical winter) — all are ski resorts renowned for the quality and quantity of their powder.

Sadly, not only is deep powder scarce, it’s also highly perishable. Even if you’re lucky enough to be on hand when a weather system dumps a major load of powder on Alta or Crested Butte, swarms of greedy, foaming-at-the-mouth powder hounds are certain to descend upon your mountain at the crack of dawn and lay waste to all the good snow within an hour or two. To find untracked slopes, you can fork over up to $5000 to spend a week helicopter skiing in the Canadian wilderness. Or as a cheaper alternative, you can head for the trees.

At most ski areas there are densely forested tracts between and beyond the designated trails, and when the ski patrol declares them open for skiing, these stands of timber can provide a powder junkie with a fix long after the rest of the mountain’s pristine snow has been ravaged. Not only do the trees screen the snowpack from the effects of wind and sun, but the forest’s profusion of large, unyielding obstacles demands skill, local knowledge and reckless abandon, which serves to discourage visits from the unwashed masses.

Should you manage to find a stash of perfect powder on a treeless, wide-open slope, if you’ve never skied deep snow before, you’re likely to find the experience initially frustrating. The key to handling untracked snow is to realize that mastering deep powder is a jujitsu-like exercise in turning the power of your adversary to your advantage (wide, soft skis help, too). Bend your knees and drop your butt even more than usual. Keep your chest aimed squarely down the fall line and carve turns by driving your knees forward, riding the edges of your boards until the skis come around. You can’t rush a turn; the herky-jerky maneuvers that work on packed slopes will land you on your lips in a hurry in powder.

Once you begin to get a feel for it, though, you’ll come to appreciate that deep snow can in fact make gnarly terrain easier to negotiate. Peter Shelton — a mountain guide and former director of the Telluride ski school — explains that powder slows everything down. “Deep snow acts as a natural brake,” Shelton says. “Steep slopes don’t seem so steep. Tree lines that are otherwise unthinkable are easily navigated in powder. Runners and tennis players talk of transcendent moments when time slows down. Powder can do it to a whole mountain.”

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