The Art and Science of an Epic Powder Day

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Lift lines visible from outer space. Vail before first run on a weekend powder day

We aren’t talking hundreds of people in the lift lines, we’re talking thousands, and over an hour wait just to get up the mountain. That’s an hour of thousands of skiers skiing your powder, while you’re standing there with a sinking feeling. You’ve blown the powder day before making your first turn.

Weekend Powder Day at Sun Down Bowl in Vail, Colorado. Photo credit: Tory Williams

After a big February dump on a Friday, these scenes were repeated across multiple resorts in Colorado and Utah. So how exactly do you get the most pow skiing out of a big winter storm? Let’s go to the science first.

Science of a Powder Day

Marmot Basin, Alberta. 1720 Acres and empty parking lots is a sweet combination.

Skier per acre is crucial. It’s a no-brainer. The bigger the resort, and the lower the number of skiers will mean more fresh tracks. Getting your choice of ski field wrong means you end up standing in lines watching others ski your lines.

The two worst words on any powder day are “wind hold”. Getting wind readings off the net at 4am, and having a basic understanding of exposed ski bowls can prevent a really bad “where to ski” decision.

When half the mountain is on wind hold, the skier per acre ratio can get very bad, very quickly.

A quick scan of live snow-depth cams tells you where the most snow has fallen. Knowing wind direction and strength helps you to predict where the snow is loaded up and where it’s been scoured away. It’s crazy to be skiing six inches of powder when just over the pass it’s 16 inches deep.

Art of a Powder Day

Photo credit: Marmot Basin

So that’s the science taken care of, now for the art!

There’s no point knowing exactly where you want to ski, and then finding out the road in is closed. You don’t want to be that schmuck sitting in a traffic jam when the lifts are turning.

The best powder day my friend Gary has ever had was in Utah. A big winter storm was predicted to come in overnight, and Gary had a friend who worked at the resort. Gary took up an offer of sleeping in his mate’s office. The road was closed overnight, and when the lifts started rolling, there was virtually nobody on the mountain.

“I didn’t make a turn all day in another skier’s tracks all day. There was no need to hike to any run” Pure art.

Avalanche danger is a curse and a blessing for anyone wanting to ski fresh pow. Huge sections of resorts can be closed, but a staggered opening of resort areas can creating multiple powder days, on the same day.

My best powder day happened at Marmot Basin in Canada. I was on the first lift with a patroller who let me in on the avalanche assessment schedule. After getting freshies in the Showoff / Highway 16 area, I was first up the Eagle Ridge Chair when that open at 10am. After an hour or so of skiing the fresh Chalet Slopes, the patrollers started dropping ropes at Eagle East, just like the patroller said.

The next section of mountain to open was Knob Chair. Spotting four partollers heading up the chair was the signal to get to the line ASAP for the public opening.

And then to cap off a remarkable day’s skiing, my patroller friend, opened up the hike to Marmot Peak just as I was unloading from Knob Chair. I was completely pro-noid at this stage and was convinced this patroller was conspiring to make me happy. I wanted to give the guy a hug, but settled for a high five!!

Skiing in groups can be fun, but not on a powder day. If you want to ski with friends make sure they can keep up and don’t want to go in for a hot chocolate at 10:30am. Keep the group small because being the fifth skier down a narrow chute or tight glade run genuinely blows.

Final Tips

And my final tip is, ski with a genuine local. They will know the subtle rhythms of their resort on powder days during the ski season, and will put you just ahead of the crowd. They will know the perfect timing to poach that safe run just beyond the resort boundary gate, and they will have a sixth sense into which runs haven’t been skied yet.

Getting the most out of that epic powder day is part science, a little bit of zen, and often a case of who you know, not what you know.


Feature image credit: Fernie Alpine Resort/ Steve Reed
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Iain Lygo

With a double degree in accounting and finance, Iain Lygo has successfully avoided an office job all his life. He has just launched Big Adventure Club. This adventure travel club has 6-8 epic tours a year including motor bike trekking in the Himalayas, surfing in Indonesia, back country skiing in BC, Mountain biking from Colorado to Utah, and road biking in France.


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