Finding powder stashes | SierraSun.com

Finding powder stashes

Chris Fellows
All Mountain Tips

Expert powder skiers have learned how to read the mountain to find the choice powder stashes. As you work your way around the mountain, start to collect weather and snow observations and begin to assemble an educated guess regarding where the snow is the lightest, deepest, most untracked, least affected by the wind and where the most desirable pitch is.

Because these choice spots are often prime avalanche slopes, you’ll find that they’re heavily controlled by the ski patrol. If you are lured beyond the ropes, remember that proper permits, avalanche education, first aid and proper rescue equipment are required.

Learn how to read some of nature’s signposts to discover those “locals’ only stashes.”

First, determine in what direction the prevailing wind blows and then ski from the windward ridge (the slope facing into the wind) to the leeward slope (the slope facing away from the wind). The leeward slopes usually harbor the goods.

Windward slopes are often recognizable because they’ve been scoured by the wind. Leeward slopes may have a cornice built up above them and deep snow pockets deposited for skiers’ enjoyment. But remember, cornices can be extremely dangerous. Cold, dry snow is always preferable to warm, wet powder and can be ferreted out with a little topographical knowledge. North-facing slopes in the Northern Hemisphere and south-facing slopes in the Southern Hemisphere will always keep the snow drier and colder, so keep this in mind when searching for the best powder pitches. Sometimes the wind will blow across a slope, depositing loose powder into gullies and troughs of moguls and chutes, so when things start to get too tracked out, look for nooks and crannies that may have caught the extra fluff.

Another potential stash can be found in the trees, where the slopes are protected from the wind. Here in the Sierras and in the Northwest, the snow’s water content can get pretty high, which creates a challenge that can be remedied only by skiing steeper slopes faster. A good rule of thumb is the heavier the snow, the steeper the pitch needs to be to ski the run effectively and efficiently.

An easy way to get beta on the conditions up high is to grab a grooming report or access the resort’s Web site for snow and weather information. These reports divulge a huge amount of information if you know how to read between the lines. You can tap into useful terrain information by tactfully discussing the conditions of the day with an instructor, patroller or snowcat operator.

While skiing at Squaw Valley on a powder day recently, I rode KT 22 with a couple who had modified a hand-held radio to track the Squaw Valley ski patrol’s conversations. Ironically, the couple was always at the right place at the right time for gate openings and fresh tracks. I thought for a moment about getting my own radio then I though how that would take some of the adventure and natural occurrences out of the day.

One of the rewards of developing intimate knowledge of your favorite mountain is that you begin to intuitively know how to find the best snow in any weather. Trial and error will expose you to a range of experiences as you gain a better sense of where to find the premium snow. Being caught up and engaged in the place that you have explored so thoroughly will allow you to grasp the moods, natural forces and essential fabric of that magical mountain. When the light is right, you’ll glimpse a realm that is not of this earth.

Sometimes you just have to push off and allow yourself the freedom to forget the how, when and where and focus on the feelings of the movement. In “Deep Powder Snow”, written by Dolores LaChapelle, the original mother of powder skiing writes:

“Why do I climb for hours for a handful of turns in untracked snow? Why do I grin and dance afterward? Why is fun such an anemic answer to the question above? Powder snow skiing is not fun. It’s life, fully lived, life lived in a blaze of reality. What we experience in powder is the original human self, which lies deeply inside each of us, still undamaged in spite of what our present culture tries to do to us. Once experienced, this kind of living is recognized as the only way to live ” fully aware of the earth and the sky and the gods and you, the mortal, playing among them….”

It’s obvious that Dolores had attained an ability to clear her mind of all extraneous thought as she floats through the untracked.

On your next powder day go with a clear but observant mind and see what unfolds for you.

Chris and his wife Jenny are the directors of Truckee’s North American Training Center (NASTC), and Chris is a member of the PSIA National Demonstration Team. Chris will be writing a weekly column all winter. He can be reached at ski@skiNASTC.com or 582-4772.