The Eskimo may or may not have 50 words for snow, but there are plenty in English as well. Experienced backcountry travellers seek out the best snow to be found every day, like surfers looking for the best wave every morning, or climbers looking for least chossy rock. Everyone’s heard of powder, but there’s other types of snow out there, and a true expert skier or board knows how adjust their technique for every situation.
Well lets start with the platonic ideal of snow – powder. Or pow pow, blower, cold smoke, champaign powder. Powder is freshly fallen, very light, dry, and cold snow. Skiing through deep untouched powder at speed is an amazing floating feeling that some say is better than sex (YMMV).
True powder is actually uncommon in a lot of places (it’s rare in Australia). It needs to be quite cold – minus 5 or 6 degrees. It might sqeak like fine sand as you walk on it. The traditional test to see if snow is powder is to try and make a snowball. If the snow is so dry it won’t stick into a ball and falls apart like sand, it’s powder. You can also try swishing a ski pole through the snow. If you meet resistance and it sticks in the snow, it’s not powder.
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If freshly fallen snow fails the powder test because it’s too warm and wet, what you probably have is crud. Particularly wet and dense crud may be called elephant snot, gloop, glue, cement, ice cream. Wet snow will fall when the temperature is about minus 2 to plus 1 degrees.
Crud has a lot more resistance than powder, and it’s “stickier”. While snowboarders and fat skis surf over the top providing great fun, more traditional skis can be very difficult to handle. If you try to force a turn, your knee will give before the snow does. Slow down and be prepared to make wider slower turns, and let the ski turn on its own time.
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The Sliding Scale Of Pow
As you can see, freshly fallen snow can be placed on a sliding scale of dryness and density – from super dry Rockies cold smoke that forms over the desert at zero humity, falls at -25 degrees, and has more in common with a low-lying fog than most snow; to the mushy sleet that falls at the base of Thredbo valley at +2 degrees in a spring storm (the resorts optimistically refer to this as a ‘wintery mix!’.
A rule of thumb is that 1mm of precipitaion ~ 1cm of snow – but dryer less dense snow with a lower moister content will produce a greater depth, and heavier wetter snow will produce less depth.
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Some storm systems produce a round frozen pellet. It looks like hail and feels like hail, but because of the way it forms it’s technically snow, and is called graupel, or sometimes sago in Australia.
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After a few days exposed to the elements, fresh snow becomes not so fresh and can develop a frozen layer on top, called a crust. Depending on what the weather’s been doing you can have sun crust or rain crust. If the layer is thin enough you punch through it with every step, you have the infamous and difficult breakable crust. If a small amount of fresh snow falls on a crust, so that it looks pretty but just hides the icy layer underneath, some people call this dust on crust.
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Wind has a huge effect on the snow. It can carry it for kilometres and deposit huge amounts. It also grinds down fluffy snowflakes into dense small crystals like sand grains.
On the windward sides of mountains and ridges, the snow can be eroded into small dunes called sastrugi. These can be soft, or frozen. Frozen sastrugi are a real test of technique under fire – hold that edge, absorb the bumps and trust!
On the leeward sides, dense soft snow is deposited into drifts of windblown or wind slab. Wind slabs are infamous avalanche slopes, but in Australia often provide the lightest freshest snow and best skiing days after a snowfall.
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True ice, or blue or black ice, usually requires running water or a body of water to form. It’s actually rare to find it in front of you. I hope you brought crampons.
On some very exposed slopes, extreme wind effects can cause crazy formations of rime ice (counter-intuitively, it grows into the wind). Rime ice can also form icy nodules on the snow surface mixed in with sastrugi, where it might be called death cookies.
Diamond hard frozen snow or crust might be referred to as boilerplate ice.
The word ice, like powder, is maybe overused. If you’re making much of a footprint in it, it’s not ice (see hardpack).
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Corn Snow and the Melt Freeze Cycle
After a few warm spring days, the entire snowpack can reach the same temperature and turn into one homogenous mass. Technically this is called an isothermal snowpack. It freezes overnight, is very icy in the morning, and then slowly softens starting at the surface and then getting deeper until the whole snowpack is a melty snow-cone of slush. This is classic spring skiing. Skiers know it as corn or melt-freeze snow. Corn can be sugary, or if you get it at juuust the right time, it provides a perfect soft but supportive surface called hero snow. It’s easy to display perfect technique on this snow. If you want to go ski mountaineering, hero snow is what you want.
Getting to the right slope of corn snow at just the right time in the melt cycle is the art of spring skiing. You’d be surprised at how big a difference aspect makes and how sensitive the snow is – every degree of north-facing aspect helps, and a few meters either side of a faint gully or ridge can be the difference between ice and perfect corn.
The more the snow melts, the dirtier and browner it becomes. After a dust storm, Australian snow can even get pink or reddish. Drifts of white fresh snow on top will form a stark contrast.
As it progresses into summer, snow at high altitudes will form a melt pattern called sun cups. The mountaineers might call it neve. Snow that survives throughout summer in shaded gullies is called firn, and it’s the precursor to glaciation.
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The Hoars – frost and facets
A cold calm night will produce feathery hoar frost on the surface of the snow. This can be unique and magical to ski – it’s sparkling and sugary. But when buried under fresh snow, the buried frost layer creates deadly avalanche conditions and can persist for an entire season in cold climates – the infamous depth hoar or deep hoar.
Strong temperature gradients in the snow can convert ordinary snow into a kind of blocky snow crystal called facets. Again this snow creates deadly avalanche conditions in seriously cold inland mountains like the Rockies.
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Tame Domesticated Snow
So far, we’ve only looked at wild snow in its natural habitat. But snow in a ski resort is different and affected by the sheer amount of traffic.
Snow freshly groomed by a grooming machine has lovely grooves and is referred to as corduroy, like the trouser fabric. A real pleasure first thing in the morning – great for skiing fast and carving! And for doing those conga line synchronised disco turns ski instructors do in advertisements.
Lots of people doing turns all over a slope forms bumps called moguls. Once a proud skiing discipline, mogul skiing is becoming a shunned and forgotten art (boarders hate it).
After days of grooming and skiing, snow is packed down hard into hardpack. The resort marketing department calls this “packed powder” (I call it bullshit).
Finally, there is man-made snow. This tends to be very sugary.
In spring, the resort does not escape the melt-freeze cycle. You will get ice first thing the morning, and corn and slush in the afternoon.
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Of course, it doesn’t snow all the time – balance in all things. Rain’s not as damaging to the snowpack as you might think – warm winds make it melt far quicker. Rain on dry snow can create a thick layer of wet snow on top, producing the infamous upside-down snow. This creates bad avalanche conditions and is even hard to ski than crud.
Sometimes it can rain when it’s below zero – if the air near the ground is cold but the upper atmosphere is warm, snow can’t form, but it’ll freeze instantly when it hits the ground. Hooray, freezing rain. It’s as fun as it sounds.
Final count: 44 words. Well, we didn’t quite make 50.