January 2005

a powder skier's apprenticeship
part 1

an introduction to the ultimate skiing experience
from Chapter 7 of Breakthrough on the New Skis

Powder is a dream come true. A child’s dream of flying: weightless, free from the nagging tug of gravity, floating through space. Skiing powder snow is a fantasy barely becoming a reality, a slow-motion fantasy of effortless, graceful movement through an equally fantastic setting—mountains never look more magical than they do under a foot of new snow. This chapter is your passport to powder. As you become more and more comfortable in deep powder snow, I hope you will discover your own Images, your own metaphors to describe this sublime experience. Powder and passion go together; for skiers they are virtual synonyms. You’re about to discover why.


The mystique of skiing new powder snow runs deep. It’s been a central part of skiing for as long as people have skied. But many skiers just don’t get it. The powder mystique is definitely an insider’s kind of thing. I suspect that many of my readers have heard all the usual tales of great mornings spent making fresh tracks through fresh powder snow, but haven’t ever experienced this insider’s delight—for a couple of good reasons. First, there just aren’t enough powder days. A deep-snow enthusiast might well say there’s never enough powder, but what I mean is that unless you live at a ski resort, it’s very easy to ski all winter long without ever connecting with the aftermath of a big storm, a virgin mountain covered in new snow. Maybe you ski every weekend, but this season the storms all arrived midweek. You see what I mean. It’s difficult to get enough practice time in powder to really get comfortable with the special balance and the special moves that deep snow demand. Which brings us right to the second reason that so few skiers are really comfortable in new snow: Powder snow requires that we adapt and modify our way of standing and reacting. It feels different and it is different. And to be honest, fresh snow, deep snow, powder snow is quite disconcerting at first. You can’t see your feet and skis; they are lost somewhere down there under the snow; and you no longer have a solid firm surface of packed snow to stand on. You are floating in an uncertain medium. The neophyte in powder feels unbalanced, tippy, insecure. And the deeper the new snow, the more off-putting it seems—until you’ve made your peace with it, that is. Then everything changes and powder snow becomes very easy, really easy, technically easier, less demanding, and more effortless than anything you have experienced till now on packed slopes. Deep-snow aficionados—and I’m one—will all tell you that skiing powder snow is much easier than skiing on the pack. Hard to believe but true. I’ve always called this the powder paradox, deep-snow skiing is easy to do but hard to learn. Well, not that hard. So let’s get started.

Fat powder ski compared with a modern deep-sidecut ski.

Skis for Powder Snow

Many of the problems that used to ambush would-be powder skiers have now been solved by better equipment: either specialized powder skis, which are extra-wide, or “fat,” skis, or by our new generation of all-mountain super-sidecut, or shaped, skis. These amazing deep-sidecut skis, which have become the standard in recent years, and that have given us a whole new range of carving possibilities on hard snow, also simplify our life in the deep stuff. Why? Not because of their deep sidecut per se, but rather because of their extra wide tips and tails. Overall, many of the new skis are wider than classical skis used to be, and this extra width translates into more surface area, which in turn provides more flotation in deep snow than classical skis ever did. Of course, the pure powder ski, significantly shorter and much wider, provides even more flotation. But the modern shaped ski is sort of a halfway step toward the specialized powder ski. And the increased ease it offers in deep snow is very significant.

Let’s look closer at this issue of flotation in deep snow, and ask why it’s so important. Most of the time we ski on the snow, on the surface of the snow. But in powder we are ski in the snow, skiing in three dimensions. Of course I’m talking about a real powder day, at least a foot of new snow. Not just a decorative dusting of two or three inches of light fluff. If we are looking at only a couple of inches of new snow, nothing really changes except the aesthetics. It’s always a treat to leave your own tracks, your own signature in fresh snow, or to kick up a plume of light white dust behind you. But you will still be skiing on the solid packed layer beneath. Think of such conditions as “decorative powder snow.” But as the inches add up, as your feet and skis disappear beneath the surface of the new snow, some interesting changes take place.

In real deep powder there is no longer a solid floor to stand on, so to speak; you find yourself floating not exactly on top of the snow, but a little way within it. And how well and how easily you float in the deep stuff depends on whether you are standing equally on both feet, on both skis. That’s right, deep powder is the exception to the important rule of one-footed skiing that we have been pursuing like a holy grail through this whole book. Not to worry, special circumstances require special techniques. And nothing is quite as special as deep powder.

If you get all your weight, or even most of it, on one ski in deep snow, what happens? That ski dives down through the snow, the light ski floats up to the surface, and you, the skier in the middle, are seriously out of balance or worse. Conversely, if you can maintain roughly equal weight on both skis in deep snow, they will tend to float and to float you at the same level in the snow. The two skis really behave as one ski, like one big platform to support you in this fluid medium, and your balance isn’t threatened.

This is why specialized extra-fat powder skis work so well. They are so wide that each ski has about as much flotation as a pair of classical skis used to have. So if you do get off center and wind up with your weight all on one ski, that fat ski will still support you in the deep snow; it won’t dive, and you won’t crash. These fat powder skis are truly marvels. They protect you from the consequences of your own mistakes. And they do more. The amazing flotation of special fat powder skis actually turns difficult deep and wild snow into light powder—or so it feels. Whether in heavy, wet “Sierra cement” or breakable crust, fat powder skis seem to float you right over the toughest snow. You’ll wind up riding closer to the surface on these seven-league boards and I promise you won’t even notice that the snow is awkward or difficult.

But why, you may be wondering, if fat powder skis are so great, why shouldn’t I just rush out and buy a pair and use them all the time? If you lived at a ski area you probably would—buy a pair, that is. But real powder is an infrequent treat, and most savvy skiers simply rent fat boards when a major storm starts to promise that tomorrow morning will be a powder day. Ski resort rental shops usually have a good selection of extra-fat powder skis for just such days. Yet you won’t enjoy these skis very much on the packed slope. Many of them don’t have much sidecut, and even those that do don’t carve well on packed snow because it is quite hard to hold an extra-wide ski on edge.

But as I hinted above, many and maybe most of today’s super-sidecut shaped skis are a perfect compromise: pretty easy to handle in deep snow because their wider tips and tails do provide extra flotation (although not as much as fat skis), and yet, of course, they give you all the performance you could desire on packed slopes. So unless you are facing a major dump of new snow—well over a foot of the white stuff—I’d recommend that you go out and dive into the new snow on your regular modern shaped skis. Rent fat skis when you get into trouble or when the powder gets really deep.
 January 2005