Powder day at Vail Resort in Colorado

Skiing down the Mary Jane trail felt like I was picking my way through a minefield — a minefield of skiers who had crashed, face planted and otherwise come to an untimely demise.  There were bodies strewn all the way down the trail as I made turns zigging and zagging, trying to avoid my fallen comrades.  If you ski and are reading this, you might think this was during some terrible day when the trails were icy and unforgiving, but you would be wrong.  In fact, this was the scene most recently during what skiers lovingly refer to as a Powder Day.

No two words elicit joy more for many seasoned skiers than “Powder Day!”  And after a somewhat dry and warm February, happily snow has returned to the high country, and over two feet of snow has fallen at Winter Park Ski Resort the last two days, where I spend most of my ski days.  For the diehard skiers of Colorado, many of whom rack up 30, 50 even 100 days of skiing per season, powder is a great thing.  One of my happiest days of skiing ever at Winter Park occurred a few years ago, when it snowed 18 inches one blessed week day and Berthoud Pass closed.  Every run had new snow, and I couldn’t help but smile in glee, and whoop out in joy.

But powder is something that is learned through many days on boards, and many experiences with powder.  You don’t learn to ski groomers and instantly graduate to powder.  And if you’re one of those people that only goes skiing once a year for a week (and that’s a good year) like our spring break visitors from Texas, you are definitely not going to be happy skiing in a foot of new snow.

It’s the great myth — media reports of a foot of new snow in the Rocky Mountains are what drive airline reservations, hotel room bookings, and ski school lessons.  But in fact, for the average skier who is visiting Colorado right now from Texas, Kansas, Nebraska or even Florida, they are probably cursing the last two days of weather, where a foot of new snow fell two consecutive nights.  Which brings me to the above scene I witnessed on what is normally a lovely intermediate trail frequented by many solidly intermediate skiers visiting from afar.

The problem is this.  As I have now learned from becoming a ski instructor, most of us are flawed skiers that don’t ski with perfect form, but we get away with our flaws because of our equipment and those nice groomed trails the snow cats produce for us. So many of us with some semblance of coordination or athletic ability get to be skiing intermediate, blue square terrain fairly quickly.  We make slow looping turns that criss-cross back and forth across the wide, groomed trails and are able to navigate them fairly easily.

But throw in a foot of powder and that technique doesn’t work so well anymore.  Skiing powder requires an aggressive style of skiing that means heading more straight down the hill with very small quick turns where you sort of bob back and forth.  Those slow looping turns that served you so well now slow you down to a crawl, tossing you around unevenly, bucking you every which way and eventually throwing you down face first into a mound of snow.  When you’re not a seasoned skier, you tend to want to hang back and not plunge down the hill, the very thing that works against you during a powder day.  On a powder day, speed is your friend.

And it only gets worse the longer the day goes on, as each skier tends to follow in the tracks of the other, pushing the ski to the inside of their turn, forming rounded humps of snow, otherwise known as moguls.  The longer the day goes on, the more moguls form, the bigger the moguls get, and the harder the moguls are — yet another nightmare for Mr. or Ms. Blue Square skier on their once-a-year ski trip.

I too went through my initiation in both Lake Tahoe and Colorado of trying to learn how to ski powder, with face plants followed by snow up my goggles and snow down my jacket.  It’s only now, many years and ski days later that I actually feel confident enough to ski the powder and really, really enjoy it.

Powder Day?  You might hear lots of people talk about how amazing it is, but in reality those words strike fear in the hearts to the bulk of people skiing this week, who can’t wait for the Bluebird Day when the snow stops falling, the sun shines, and the snow cats can groom out all that powder into the corduroy that makes them feel like hero skiers once again.