According to Urban Dictionary, Powder Fever is, “Used as an excuse for ditching school/work at the last-minute to go skiing/snowboarding. Most commonly used the day after a snowstorm so that you can ski/board fresh powder.” For example: “I can’t make it into work today; I’ve got powder fever.” But that’s not the fever that I’m talking about. I’m talking about an overwhelming desire to get the best snow conditions possible that has symptoms such as a narrow-minded fixation on fresh tracks, fantasies of bottomless powder, and frustration when such fantasies fall short. Powder fever, powder addiction, whatever you want to call it, I think it’s a real condition, and it’s one that I’ve dealt with a lot in the past couple of years.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love powder skiing, and not surprisingly. It’s a well-known fact that part of what makes these adventure sports that we do so incredibly fun is the sensation of flow that comes with being totally present in an activity, and flow is one of my favorite things in the world. Skiing in general is the quickest way to get there – just point your tips downhill – but powder skiing takes that flow to a whole new level. Suddenly, along with the speed there’s this feeling of weightlessness, and a pure childlike joy as you tear through a white blanket of snow.
But there’s a dark side to chasing freshies as well, which I’m calling powder fever. First of all, the search for untouched lines can make you do some pretty stupid shit. In my case, it’s gotten me into a car accident on snow covered roads as I tried to get to the mountain before anyone else. It’s made me ditch friends (no friends on a powder day, right?) only resulting in unhappiness later on. I’ve spent ridiculous amounts of money on hotel rooms, equipment, lift tickets, and resort food in the pursuit of it. Worst of all, I’m only really happy when I get those perfect conditions.
In those brief moments when I do find myself in perfect, untracked powder I feel fulfilled. I’m in the flow, my favorite tunes are bumping in my ears and I’m dancing in a winter wonderland. But for the most part, getting to that state of bliss takes a whole shit-ton of blood, sweat, and tears. Powder skiing is an inherently difficult endeavor. Either you need the dedication to live where the snow is, or you need good timing and a flexible enough schedule to go when it’s falling. It can cost gobs of money for ski tickets and lodging (because car-camping when it’s snowing sucks), a million and one things can go wrong (like car accidents), and there is nothing worse than going through all that effort only to find the lines already tracked out, the snow is too wet and heavy, or the good lifts are closed and the untouched stuff is just waiting for someone else. That’s when those dreams of grandeur evaporate and you’re left with the reality of subpar conditions. The trick is to take that in stride, you’re skiing for fun, remember? So have fun! But for me that’s way easier said than done as I recently learned.
This year, I set out the month of January as my ‘ski season’. I didn’t buy a pass so I decided to get my ski fix in the backcountry with a friend of mine in the North Cascades of Washington… except there wasn’t any powder. A couple days after I got up there, a quick thaw and refreeze cycle sealed up all the powder under a layer of nasty crust.
So I waited three weeks for conditions to get better. Each morning I emerged from where I was quarantining in the basement to the disappointment of so called “stellar” nordic skiing conditions, a.k.a. very cold and not snowing. A hut trip had been planned for months, which we did anyways. Five miles of groomed nordic trails led to the hut, so while everyone else prudently opted for cross-country skis (why lug your backcountry skis up if you’re not going to use them?), I stubbornly decided to trudge up the groomed trails with my powder skis on hoping against hope I might find some softer stuff at the higher elevations. I didn’t, but I did spend the two days we were at the hut nursing the worst blisters my ski boots had ever given me.
And then that storm hit Tahoe, and suddenly there was much better conditions to fixate on. It just about drove me crazy to think about the irony that I had just driven over 20 hours north from my home in the Bay Area to have even better, and arguably epic, snow appear three hours away from there in Tahoe.
The obsession, fueled by snow forecasts and Instagram videos left me in this painful state of trying to make the best decision. There was a storm forecast for Washington — could I somehow get snow up where I was and then chase the storm down to Tahoe? There were so many factors to consider. Driving time balanced with play time and work time (it’s hard to call in sick for powder fever when you’re literally writing about the powder that’s on its way). The friend I was ditching in Washington. Money as I thought about lodging, lift tickets, food, and gas. COVID-19 factoring in as I tried to balance staying with friends along the way to reduce hotel costs with social distancing and being safe. Not to mention snow safety — no one wants to be driving on roads with multiple feet of snow, and I was not going into the backcountry by myself. Worst of all — what if I didn’t have fun?
I was losing it. A small side note — I’m an obsessive perfectionist, frequent overthinker, and my mental health is just fine, thanks for asking. So once I had this vision of perfect powder descending on Tahoe in my head, I couldn’t shake it.
In the end, the “what ifs” won, the cost in time and money, and the risks of getting there ultimately outweighing the potential fun of such perfect powder. I tried to convince myself of the fact, but couldn’t shake it, and kept on hoping some route to do it all would present itself. I waited just long enough to get some decent powder turns up in Washington before driving south, hoping to get to Tahoe and do some backcountry once the massive snowfall had settled a bit. Even so, as I left Washington, I had a little voice in the back of my head telling me that there was still a way for me to make it to Tahoe before the storm. “Just drive 12 hours straight to Reno right now, hole up there for a day and then in between the end of the storm and resorts getting their act together, drive up to Tahoe and ski your butt off.” Unrealistic, but I wanted to do it so damn badly it caused me physical pain. What finally freed me from the search for such perfect conditions, was actually my boss hitting me up for a quick writing assignment.
“Hey Will,” he said over Slack. “Do you think you can get this article up today?” It was a Thursday, and I should have been working instead of driving anyways. I pulled off the highway and into a gas station, set up my solar panel and got to work. Two hours later, I was done with the assignment, and there was no possible way for me to get to Tahoe in time. I breathed a sigh of relief. The powder fever had passed.
Instead of driving straight to Tahoe, I diverted to Idaho, getting a couple of pretty good powder days in at Brundage and Tamarack for the price of one day at any Tahoe resort, and with a third of the lift lines. The powder was light and fluffy, and while it wasn’t deeper than I am tall, in places it was easily to my thighs and I was able to get my float on and simply enjoy the ride without fixating on perfection. For those couple of days, I was a buddha. Nothing could ruin my vibe.
I may not have managed to fit an entire ski season into a month, and it wasn’t always fun while it was happening, but my adventure taught me a lot about myself and my relationship to flow. Powder skiing, as mentioned above, is in my opinion far and above the highest form of flow there is, so it’s hardly surprising I would have developed this addiction to it over the past few years. But there’s got to be an easier way to find it. And less stressful.
Next winter, I’m doing things differently. I’m buying a ski pass. I’ll try and spend most of the winter in a ski town with friends I can do backcountry with that’s close enough to the ocean to make a trip or two for some waves when the snow sucks. Hopefully, such a scenario will let me enjoy the snow that comes my way without this overwhelming need to be where the conditions are best. And maybe if I’m lucky, I’ll score some really deep powder.