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"There isn’t always a way to avoid difficult conditions, so you better be prepared."

“There isn’t always a way to avoid difficult conditions, so you better be prepared.”


The Inertia

So you’ve done a bit of skiing in-bounds, but your heart is set on venturing into the backcountry. You’ve taken an avalanche awareness class, and perhaps you even have a mentor to show you the ropes, but you’re not sure what kind of snow conditions to expect out there. The snowpack in a resort is pretty well controlled. Deep snow gets packed out pretty quickly and while difficult snow types certainly exist, they can often be avoided on particularly challenging days by sticking to the groomers. Not so in the backcountry. You may very find yourself at the top of a descent with wildly different conditions than the slope you have been skinning up. There isn’t always a way to avoid difficult conditions, so you better be prepared. In this vein, I’ve tried to compile a list of the most common snow types one might encounter off-piste, their mechanisms of formation, and some tips for ripping them up (or simply surviving them, as the case may be).

At the very least, this list should help you have some idea of what your buddy is talking about when he/she describes the “vicious death cookies” they navigated after sliding down some “dust on crust.” At most, it might give you a better idea about how to attack the challenge you are presented with when you encounter some of these snow types for the first time. Keep in mind that these are simply the snow types I have encountered most often. This reflects my geographical bias, having skied primarily in the Pacific Northwest, and of course makes for a somewhat arbitrary list. There are numerous other types of snow and countless more phrases to describe each one, but the list below is a good place to start — and the PNW is a mecca of sorts for backcountry skiing.

I’ve grouped them into hard snow, soft snow, and a mixture of the two. We’ll start with hard snow.

 

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Icy conditions, with sastrugi (the wind-formed ridges you see in the picture) on the Kautz Glacier of Mt. Rainier. Photo: Ian Bolliger

Icy conditions, with sastrugi (the wind-formed ridges you see in the picture) on the Kautz Glacier of Mt. Rainier. Photo: Ian Bolliger

Bulletproof Ice – A smooth, flat surface of particularly hard snow.

Skill Level: Advanced

Forms By: Rain, freezing rain, or melt-freeze cycles (it’s typically not true blue ice, but rather extremely hard snow).

Pros: There is generally a low avalanche danger, since there is no slab atop the smooth surface. There are few surprises and hidden obstacles.

Cons: It requires skill to maintain control. There is no carefree, floaty feeling like you get with a blanket of fresh pow. Instead, you’re powering through each turn, trying to hold an edge and check your speed whenever you start moving too fast. Also, it’s not so fun to fall on snow as hard as concrete…

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Best Approach: If the ice is due to a springtime diurnal melt-freeze cycle, continue climbing or hang out until the sun starts to bake the surface and the ice becomes corn. If you must travel on the ice, take it slow. Speed is easy to attain but more difficult to lose when traveling on this snow. Narrow-waisted skis with camber (the opposite of rocker) and significant sidecut are ideal for these conditions, as are snug fitting boots. This is the snow type where the downside of AT boots, as compared with true alpine boots, is most obvious. I’ve found that most AT boots have a little play in the cuff even when locked into ski mode. This can throw you off balance when icy conditions demand precise technique. Exercise extra caution and fight to stay in balance and in control.

 

Frozen wet loose avalanche debris makes for tough navigation down this couloir on Chikamin Peak, Washington. Photo: Ian Bolliger

Frozen wet loose avalanche debris makes for tough navigation down this couloir on Chikamin Peak, Washington. Photo: Ian Bolliger

Death Cookies/Chicken Heads – Frozen chunks littering the surface of an otherwise benign slope.

Skill Level: Expert

Forms By: Similar mechanisms to ice, but occurs when the ground is already marked by avalanche debris, remnants of ski tracks, or other chunky surfaces. Some skiers use the term “death cookies” specifically to refer to the product that emerges when chunks of snow churned up by a grooming machine freeze, while “chicken heads” represent a more generic term for frozen chunks. Regardless, neither of these conditions is pleasant.

Pros: Not many, but if you are looking for a challenge you will not be disappointed.

Cons: Just about everything…the possibility of catapulting over your skis when they are halted by a frozen boulder, the apprehension of navigating through a minefield of obstacles, the frustration of feeling (and looking) like you learned to ski yesterday, etc.

Best Approach: It depends a bit on the size of the frozen chunks. If we’re talking balls a few inches in diameter, you should try to keep your speed up and float over them while staying in control. If these are the large frozen boulders left over after a wet loose avalanche, you might be better off slowing down and picking your way in between these monsters. In both cases, keep your eyes ahead of you to spot incoming bogies and keep your hands down the fall line. It’s easy to get tentative and start falling into the backseat in an attempt to “run away” from the obstacles. This won’t work. As with icy conditions, fight to stay balanced. Though it might not be immediately obvious given the hard snow encountered with chicken heads, skis with significant tip rocker are the ideal boards for this snow condition. That’s because the rocker will allow you to slide over more of the offending chunks, rather than diving into them headfirst and causing you to engage in an inadvertent and poorly executed frontflip.

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A windslab has released. Note the relatively firm, well-consolidated surface characteristic of wind slabs and the shooting cracks that often form as precursors to a full fracture. Photo: bealadventures.com

A windslab has released. Note the relatively firm, well-consolidated surface characteristic of wind slabs and the shooting cracks that often form as precursors to a full fracture. Photo: bealadventures.com

Wind Slabs – Firm, grippy, but hollow-feeling snow; the closest thing to “hero snow” that exists in the backcountry.

Skill Level: N/A; AVOID!

Forms By: If you’ve skied groomers at any point in your life, you’ve probably encountered what skiers often refer to as “hero snow”. This is the hard, but not quite icy, snow that immediately grabs your edges and whips you through a turn whenever you lay your skis on edge. It’s so easy to turn on that it makes you think that with a little luck, you just might crack the top 30 at the next World Cup race. In the backcountry, this type of snow exists rarely due to a lack of groomed runs. When it does appear, it’s often on top of dangerous wind slabs. Wind blows loose snow across ridges from leeward slopes to windward ones. As it does this, it breaks up the crystals into finer grains that settle and consolidate into high-density slabs. This can resemble the hero snow that we find in-bounds but it belies a significant avalanche danger that should be avoided.

Pros: None

Cons: Avalanche hazard, especially when occurring on top of a weak layer or weak interface in the snowpack.

Best Approach: Avoid wind slabs whenever possible. They are often easy to notice if travelling from leeward to windward slopes. The barren, firm, ridged windswept surface will give way to a sparkly, crunchy, hollow-feeling slab. If the slab is particularly prone to fracture propagation, you may see cracks shooting out of the tips of your skis as you break trail. This is a highly ominous sign and only further indication that you should turn around and/or pick a different descent route.

 

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Well there you have it – a quick primer on common hard snow types that you might encounter in the backcountry. If you have snow types to add to this list or additions to those described above, please leave your thoughts in the comments section. And stay tuned for discussions of soft snow (the good stuff) and mixed snow type. Stay safe out there!

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