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Photo: Courtesy of Ian Bolliger

Photo: Courtesy of Ian Bolliger


The Inertia

Last month, I wrote a post introducing a handful of common snow conditions found when skiing backcountry. I began with hard snow types because, well, no one hopes for hard snow and I guess I’m a bad-news-first type of guy. Having spent the last month in the Pacific Northwest, I experienced some of those conditions. In particular, we saw a lot of melt-freeze and rain crusts developing on the heels of some pretty miserably warm and wet weather. Yet it wasn’t all bad. On New Year’s Eve, some friends and I took advantage of some rare Northwest sunshine to explore the backcountry near Crystal Mountain. And while there, we encountered a mix of snow conditions.

Cold, sunny weather during the past couple of days had preserved a dump of champagne powder on northern aspects but had lead to a confusing and challenging combination of breakable crusts and corn on southern-facing slopes. That heavenly snow drawing us to the northern faces also came with its own demon, as a southwest wind had deposited pockets of wind slab that varied greatly in location and characteristics.

Wind slab covers this pristine looking cirque in Crystal Mountain’s backcountry. Photo: Courtesy of Ian Bolliger

Wind slab covers this pristine looking cirque in Crystal Mountain’s backcountry. Photo: Courtesy of Ian Bolliger

Needless to say, this adventure required a great deal of awareness and observation of the conditions. Throughout the trip, we were constantly gathering snowpack data through simple ski pole tests (plunging our poles into the snow as we skinned to get a feel for the density changes) and eventually had to bail on skiing a picturesque shoulder due to the results of an Extended Column Test (ECT).

An ECT reveals a 10 centimeter wind slab on top of near-surface facets that collapsed easily with significant propagation — a poor sign for this slope we were hoping to ski. Photo: Courtesy of Ian Bolliger

An ECT reveals a 10 centimeter wind slab on top of near-surface facets that collapsed easily with significant propagation — a poor sign for this slope we were hoping to ski. Photo: Courtesy of Ian Bolliger

Aside from understanding the avalanche problem, observation of the snowpack helped us determine where the most fun skiing could be found and how we should approach each slope that we descended. Of course, the most fun skiing equated to the deepest, lightest powder. So without further ado, here is a description of three of the most common soft snow conditions found in the backcountry.

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Corn snow is the target of those who hike to Camp Muir every summer to get their skiing fix. Photo: Courtesy of Ian Bolliger

Corn snow is the target of those who hike to Camp Muir every summer to get their skiing fix. Photo: Courtesy of Ian Bolliger

Corn – A shallow surface layer of water-saturated snow crystals.

Skill level: Novice

Forms by: Melt-freeze cycles.

Pros: In the springtime, this is the best skiing you can find on account of the lack of fresh snow. As a bonus, corn is usually associated with sunshine and warm temperatures, which can bring a smile to the face of even the most die-hard winter enthusiast. There is also usually a low risk of a slab avalanche because the surface snow is unconsolidated.

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Cons: You must time your ascent and descent properly so that you have good, firm climbing conditions on the way up and just a few inches of corn on the way down. Timing your arrival at a high point just as the sun starts to bake your intended descent can be a challenging task. Reach the peak to early and you’ll be forced to either wait it out, if possible, or ski down on top of some of the miserable hard-snow conditions discussed in my previous post. Get there too late, and you will be stuck with deeper wet snow, which can lead to the “sierra cement” conditions discussed below and put your group in danger of significant wet loose avalanches.

Best approach: As mentioned, try to time your descent such that there are a few inches of softened snow at the surface. Make longer, faster turns, especially when the soft snow deepens, to keep your speed up and avoid sticking in wet, heavy slop. Stay balanced and prepared for unexpected sticky sections that are eager to pitch you forward over your tips. Mid-range to slightly fatter skis will help you float on top.

 

Sometimes “Cascade Concrete” can reach north, far past the Cascades. We encountered these conditions while skiing in June in an area of the Alaska Range known as Little Switzerland. Photo: Spencer James

Sometimes “Cascade Concrete” can reach north, far past the Cascades. We encountered these conditions while skiing in June in an area of the Alaska Range known as Little Switzerland. Photo: Spencer James

Sierra Cement, or Cascade Concrete – A deep layer of wet, heavy snow.

Skill level: Intermediate to Advanced

Forms by: Rain on snow; warm weather either during or after snowfall. Typically associated with warm fronts, in which precipitation is associated with a warming trend. As you can probably guess from the colloquial names attributed to these conditions, this snow type is especially prevalent on the west coast and in other so-called “maritime” snowpacks.

Pros: With good technique and modern fat skis, sometimes you can almost trick yourself into thinking what you’re skiing on is powder. That is, until your tips dig in and you get a mouthful of it.

Cons: It is SLOW, it tends to grab your skis, and it can easily cause injuries. Another name for this snow is “ACL snow”. In other words, if you take a twisting fall or try to make an awkward turn, your skis might stick in their original position and give you that “pop” that we all dread. Furthermore, when this wet heavy snow falls on a lower density layer, you get an “upside down” snowpack. This increases the likelihood of triggering storm slab or wet slab avalanches.

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Best approach: As with corn snow, focus on maintaining your balance over the skis. It’s never a good idea to sit far back on your tails, but you may want to be slightly aft of your typical stance. This gives you a larger margin for error if your skis stick in the heavy snow and you get tossed forward. Keep your speed up to cruise through these sticky sections without tumbling. Fat skis will be your friends in these conditions.

 

Powder is awe-inspiring but can present significant avalanche danger. Here a skier cautiously descends a corniced ridgeline on the first day of the season in the Valle Blanche (Chamonix, France). Photo: William Van Meegdenburg

Powder is awe-inspiring but can present significant avalanche danger. Here a skier cautiously descends a corniced ridgeline on the first day of the season in the Valle Blanche (Chamonix, France). Photo: William Van Meegdenburg

Powder (Pow, Pow-Pow, Cold Smoke) – Needs no description. The ultimate condition for nearly every backcountry skier.

Skill level: Novice to Advanced

Forms by: The blessing of the snow gods; snow falling with reasonably cool temps. Cool temps also help to preserve these conditions for longer.

Pros: Face shots, pillows, the best (or second best) feeling in the world.

Cons: It can hide obstacles. Deep pow can be difficult to navigate for novices and at slow speeds. New snow, especially when associated with a warm front, can lead to storm slab formation.

Best approach: As with all soft snow conditions, stay balanced. Prepare to lean back slightly if your tips start to dig. But, again, don’t sit too far back. Especially if you are rockin’ some fatties, you shouldn’t need to sit back like would if you were skiing in the nineties. Keep your speed up by keeping your boards pointed down the fall line. Arc some high-speed large-radius turns for a transcendental floaty feeling; tighten things up to get some serious spray and that Powder Mag cover shot. Also, avoid the temptation of rushing out to get first tracks immediately after a significant snowfall. Rapid loading makes storm slab avalanches likely so pay close attention to your local avalanche forecast and allow for some settling of the new snow before you shred.

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Pray to your snow god —whoever or WHATever that might be.

Pray to your snow god —whoever or WHATever that might be.

Now that you’ve got a basic idea of how these conditions are formed and how to attack them, the next step is simply to pray to the snow gods to deliver some freshies. If you’re on the west coast, I think you might want to join me in making an offering — we need the help.

Travel safe out there and stay tuned for the next segment, when we delve into mixed snow conditions.

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