Growing up in Wisconsin, I suffered terribly from lack of sunlight for several months out of the year. Only a good white snow could pick me up out of that funk. It reflected what little light there was from above, and most often I was out in it doing something that got my heart rate up. I’m pretty sure those snow-fueled endorphins powered me through so many midwestern winters. It’s the prospect of easy access to playing in the snow that allows me to consider going back.
There is a myth that snow is just a fluffy white medium through which to glide on various sports equipment, that it unfailingly packs to make snowmen and snowball fight ammunition, that anyone can build igloos, and that snowshoes let you walk on top of it. These are simply not true. In fact, there are many kinds of snow, and knowing them makes the difference between recreating on top of it or under it.
Posthole Snow: Crusty snowbanks are perfect for a higher vantage point, right? Think again! You can clamor happily along them like Paul Bunyan over the Appalachians, then all of a sudden, thunk! One foot goes through and half of you is up to your hips in snow. Here the only agility that will serve you is your brain, as you quickly work out which method will most swiftly and gracefully extract your buried half from its sink hole before your friends notice. You may be lucky to find a solid, icy patch on which to plant your other foot. If not, can you fold forward and drag yourself out on hands and knees? A cool second-best. Last month, in Yellowstone, my right leg sank so deep that options one and two were out. I had to sit on my rear end, slide backwards, and roll my entire body back to the parking lot. Key takeaway: Maximize your surface area on top of snowbanks.
Dense Pine Forest Snow: My first snowshoeing experience was at Trees for Tomorrow, in the North Woods. As the name implies, we were there for the trees. Although it was spring, several feet of dense snow remained in the forest, and with snowshoes we could avoid Postholing and literally run anywhere, trail or no trail. It was important not to get too close to the tree trunks, though, which warmed the snow enough to create soft and melty sink spots.
Mountain Ridge Snow: My next substantial snowshoeing experience was in Tajikistan, on a guided mountain snowshoeing hike north of Varzob. I intended to strap right into the snowshoes at the outset, only to gaze up from the trailhead at an entirely bare mountain face. Borrowing a friend’s caribeeners, I strapped the snowshoes to my daypack, and we hiked to the top of the ridge where we found all of the missing snow blanketing the other side. There was so much snow, in fact, that descending without snowshoes would have been impossible. We followed our seasoned Russian guide through switchbacks to get back below the tree line, on the knife’s edge of a steep mountainside that had spent all winter hoarding the snow meant for our ascent. There was so much of it, and the pitch was so steep, that at one point my Australian friend and I realized that the 6-10 feet of accumulated snow, on this angle, meant that if we fell through it we would easily sink several stories straight down until we met solid ground again. It was very literally like walking on a cloud. And it held us.
Ice Masquerading as Snow: Take the above, shrink the elevation and decrease the regular temperature 40 degrees, and you have perfect skiing conditions in Northern Michigan. I still do not understand what people from the Mountain time zone mean when they talk about powder. I learned to ski black diamonds on ice. We would leave hours before dawn to be first in line for a full day of skiing, and the cold never stopped us, even at 15 below. By the middle of the afternoon, the wind and ice-cold temperature set the bare runs completely to ice. My mom would casually suggest one, then Christie beautifully down the slope. Encouraged, I would follow, only to realize she was turning on vertical sheets of ice. I figured it out, too, and am still far more comfortable on ice than in this thing they call powder. I do not understand what to do when snow gets on top of my skis. What snow?
Faux Powder: Have you ever tried to ski in Virginia? They have this thing called powder there, in their mountains, and it is wet. It, too, is completely unskiable. After not falling for seven years skiing in Michigan, I found that I could not make it down a run without taking a dive at Masanutten. The snow looked like powder, but acted like melted soft cooler packs that wedged your skis onto the sticky surface. It was like skiing with 10 lb stationary weights. I still am not convinced this is not the elusive “powder,” but I’ll give anyone bragging about East Coast powder a very quizzical look.
The White Fluffy Stuff: For all my love of downhill, I was born cross-country skiing. A cheaper and more accessible sport, my dad would ski us to school in the winter, and take me through the nature preserve when I got home, to do a loop alongside the deer as the sun set. Once I could drive, I even went alone. Cross-country skiing looks like an amiable way to go from point A to Point B in the snow. However, someone has to set the trail, otherwise, depending on conditions, you may be slogging through some pretty dense precipitation. Without a trail, you want that elusive powder layer to add some grease to the skids, and you really want it on snow that has frozen to ice. Under two inches and you will fly. Over two inches and you will go less far and get more of a workout, but you’ll enjoy the day. Any wetter snow and you will be hosed without a groomed trail, but it can be done. The proof will stay with you for some time.
Beer Fridge Snow: After a day of cross-country skiing in virgin beer fridge snow, your muscles sore and aching, you will be thankful that the white fluffy stuff only comes 10 percent of the time when you open your back door to a fully stocked beer fridge, bottles packed into the wall of your back patio’s shoveled-out snow fort. This is the stuff that packs well enough to win the Giant Pumpkin Contest of Snowmen. This is what Frosty is made of. This is not “trek across the neighborhood on skis” snow. This is “have fun in your own backyard” snow, after some back-breaking shoveling sessions.
Even after living in Southern California for years, knowing how to spot these diverse ground-coverings comes as second nature. Equally important as the lexicon, though, no matter your level of expertise, will always be a sufficiently puffy outer layer to cushion any misfires.