Powder Day

This is inspired by and dedicated to Caryn Tan’s “Storm Rider” piece. I’m a skier, not a surfer but it looks like we have a lot in common.

Storms excite me. I’ve tried before to capture the rapture of a powder day and fell short. I’m going to try again. Mostly, I ski Snowbird, in Utah.

It’s nearly dawn, not quite light, not quite dark outside.
I’d slept fitfully with one eye open so I could keep track of the incoming snowstorm. The forecast was for a good size storm to rip through starting around 3 or 4 am. At 4 am there wasn’t a damn thing happening outside. The Snow Gods like to tease you.

At 6:30 am, I couldn’t even see the mountain, the snow was coming down so hard. It was a winter banshee wind, so wild the snow didn’t know which to fall. The huge evergreen trees were bending in the wind. Something they only did reluctantly when the wind hit around 65mph or more. The sliding glass door had lacy ice crystals halfway up it. On the inside. That meant it was right and truly freezing cold.

It was going to be a perfect day.

I started the weather report ritual around 7 am. Cycling through my multiple trusted sources to see what sort of storm we were looking at.


Damn. There would be a delayed opening due to avalanche control work. We were interlodged until 8:30 am, at least that’s what the report was saying now. Interlodged means you can’t leave the building because of avalanche danger. The road was closed, but they’d get it open soon enough. There is only one road up the Canyon and when it snows like this, the avalanches can cover the road and wipe out cars, buses, trucks, Mick Jagger’s limo – nothing is sacred. (He was here for the Sundance Film Festival and I guess he thought celebrity status would keep away an avalanche? I dunno. Arrogance comes in all shapes and sizes around a ski hill.)

I heard the first avalanche control bomb blast at around 7:40. No follow-up sound means there was no avalanche release. The next bomb was much closer, causing the sliding doors to rattle. Followed by the whoosh sound which means the bomb had hit its target and brought down a slab of snow.

The Wilbere chair was looking like it would be the first to open. Fine with me. Wilbere is a short, protected chair with some fine pitches and enough trees to help with the lack of visibility due to the ongoing storm.

We had breakfast while I endlessly refreshed Twitter to see when we could head out. Interlodge was lifted. The weekend warrior types, the ones who could ski just a few days of the year, were already suited up and out on the plaza waiting for the lifts to open. Those of us who listened for the bombs, the Twitter reports, and could read the snowflakes, knew enough to enjoy our coffee.

By 9:30 the anxiety to get out the door to ski was too high.

Suiting up is a process. Everyone has their own sequence – the key is to not forget anything!
Stick a hair dryer in the boots to warm them up, Cold boots are stiff, hard and a total bitch to put on. Warm boots make me much happier.
Choose base layer underwear – the ones for stormy extra cold days, clean socks pulled up over the leggings, no wrinkles in the front or back, and a neck gaiter, I like the under piece with a built-in hood, it’s thin enough to go inside my helmet even if it is a printed floral and I look like a cross between a Polish babushka and very fem bank robber.
Mid-layer: heavy-duty top, maybe another pair of leggings or those knee braces that don’t do squat to protect me, but they do keep my knees warm.
Outer layer: ski pants and jacket. Check all pockets for essentials: tissues, lip balm, lift ticket, and room key.
No avoiding it now. The dreaded “Boot Time”. Unbuckle the boots, slide in, kick your heel back, kick back hard, do a light boot clip lockdown. If you go too tight too soon you’ll get foot cramps, leave them too loose and you’ll swim around and have no control over your skis. It’s a science, a deeply personal science. Pretend it is not a royal pain in the poop to walk around in stiff-ankled, big, heavy, black boots. I’m never going to be a snowboarder, but those boots look so much more comfortable.
Nearly ready. Avalanche beacon – turned on. I have a real problem remembering to turn the thing on. I hate it. It crisscrosses across your chest and was clearly meant for boy bodies, not girl boobies. Helmet. Gloves. Skis. Poles. And out the door. Oops, I forgot the thick gooey Vaseline-like sunscreen moisturizer for my face, of which only 1% is exposed, but whatever, it’s part of the high altitude experience, and if the snow is still blasting, it’s all that is going to keep your skin on your face.

A lady stops me on the way out of the building.
“Can you still ski when it’s snowing outside?”, she asks me.
“Lady”, I said, “I can go out and ski. You can’t.” It wasn’t a day to coddle the beginners, besides, no friends in powder, as the saying goes.

No skin.

The lifts were opening and it was time to catch some pow (powder snow). There was more than a foot on the ground by now and it was still coming down. It was looking like there would be free refills all morning long. (That’s when the snow is coming down so hard your tracks are filled in by the time you take the lift back up. It’s a primo gift from the Snow God Ullr. No groomers today. The grooming machines wouldn’t be able to head out until later, so the whole mountain was basically untracked nirvana.

The tram was still not running and the line for the tram was out the door with the die-hards who wanted to go straight to the summit.

There are better ways to get the goods on a powder day. We opted to head to the Peruvian chair- we could ski Lower Baldy. It was serious white-out conditions so we would stay near the trees to have some vague idea of where we were on the mountain. A white-out means you can’t see anything, you lose all depth perception and you risk getting vertigo. That’s when you don’t even know if you are moving, you lose all sensation of up or down. It’s horrible. Everyone gets it now and then. You need to know and trust the terrain and just let yourself go. It’s terrifying and thrilling and definitely helps to know the mountain and where the cliffs are.

The chairlift was frigid cold, the wind whipping the snow against our goggles. There wasn’t any conversation going on with my ski mates. There’s a point where you come up over the ridge and it’s wide open and the wind will smack you hard. Hard. Fast. Cold. No exposed skin if you can help it. Especially if there is graupel. That’s little snowball bearings that pellet into you. Nature’s take on dermabrasion.

Finally, it’s time to ski. We line up at the edge of the bowl and pick our route. Basically, we decide on an end-run meeting point because we are each picking our own line in the powder. We’ve skied together for so long, we know what the other one is going to do. But, today is a new day, and no two runs are ever the same.

It’s tip-off time. My feet are still flat on the ground, but the tips are out in space, over the white, cloudy abyss. A quick push on my poles and I’m heading down, testing the snow, because it changes with every run – will I float or is this heavy snow?

Right now, it’s floating powder and you can do no wrong. Each turn is just a gentle weight adjustment of your legs and torso, your weight stays right dead center on your skis, the snow is flying up and you’ve lost total sight of your body from about the knee down. This is pure ecstasy. Even though I’m earthbound, I’m flying, gliding at an exhilarating speed. At some point, I become aware that my quads are starting to burn but stopping is out of the question. If you stop, you’ll stick in the deep and have to pull your skis up and out of the snow to get going again. Too much trouble. Feel the burn. Love the burn. Love the speed and the turns. Love the cold and the sting. Love the whole entire universe for these perfect moments.

The snow stays fluffy for another hour or so, then it starts to firm up as the snowfall starts to let up. Now the ecstasy has turned into a slog. Instead of untracked snow, I’m looking to ride in someone else’s tracks. It’s heavy, hard work to turn in this snow, but skiing the tracks is dangerous too. It’s far too easy to catch an edge and flip head over heels and then you might lose a ski, a glove, goggles, a pole – this is known as a garage sale, when you and your gear are parted from each other in a most violent fashion. It’s exhausting, and it’s about the last thing I will allow my body to do.

Bluebird day

By now there isn’t much that is untracked, except for some secret stashes that only you and …well… some other dudes know about, but that can wait until tomorrow which is supposed to be a blue sky, bluebird day. And truth be told, skiing under a bright blue sky, with twinkling hoar frost cracking against your boots, isn’t a bad way to spend a day. It’s not the pow we had in the morning storm, but it’s another reason to get up in the morning and put on your boots.

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