March 2001   
Coping 3
Low visibility
     Some days on the slopes start great, finish lousy. Those deep blue skies fill slowly, innexorably with clouds. First the sky and then the skier's world become white. The sparkle disappears, so do shadows, details. Visibility gets worse and worse until, finally, you just don't feel like skiing any more. Runs that are a piece of cake in sunshine, are suddenly full of snow snakes, invisible bumps and unseen obstacles. Gray light. Flat light. A noman’s land of low visibility, low-performance skiing. Who needs it?

While such conditions may well signal a retreat to the base lodge for well-earned schnapps, even that home run can be a long and frustrating experience. It's nice to have a few tricks up your parka sleeves for coping with low visibility skiing conditions. You can get quite good at it. And, yes, low-visibility, flat-light skiing or worse, no-visibility skiing, can even be fun.

Although a number of goggle/glasses manufacturers promise that their super amber formula lenses can lift the fog, be warned. No glasses I've tried work perfectly, though the best ones certainly help. Lenses at the yellowish end of the spectrum do tend to bring out a little extra relief in the snow because they absorb extra amounts of blue light (a component of whatever faint shadows may still exist in flat, grey light). With some sort of yellowish, yellow-brown, or orangish lenses as a first step, you're ready to start stacking other cards in your favor.

First look for trees, and then ski as close to them as possible. Near the forest, at the side of runs, you'll be surprised to see much more detail in the snow. Lines, tracks, shadows, lumps , it's all there; but twenty or thirty feet out in the middle of the run, the snow surface becomes a uniform textureless gray-white. On big western mountains like Mammoth or Whistler, or in Europe, this means skiing as low as possible, below tree line, and avoiding the high treeless slopes of the "alpine zone."

Second, you'll want to use your ski poles far more than you do on days of perfect visibility. How? Well, not just to start new turns, but more like a blind person's cane. I tap the snow incessantly with my poles in flat-light conditions; especially during my turns; and especially with the outside pole. This provides me with constant kinesthetic feedback to replace the loss of visual balance clues. Tapping the snow doesn't tell you exactly what the almost-invisible terrain underfoot is really like, but it does provide you with a series of miniature "propping-up" actions to keep you in balance. Without a clear visual horizon and sharp visual clues, a skier's balnce is the first thing that goes.

Another similar way to use your poles for kinesthetic feedback in flat light, is simply to drag them in the snow. This doesn't "re-stabilize" you the way that constant nervous tapping does, but it will tend to keep you from leaning too far to the inside . The important thing is simply to keep your poles in contact with the snow — not to think about what sort of information this gives you. Skiers can process and utilize this extra kinesthetic feedback almost unconciously. You will simply feel more secure, less hesitant, if you "overuse" your poles on flat, gray days.

Finally, don't hesitate to shadow (or follow closely) other skiers who appear more confident in the low-visibility situation than you are. Often they may simply know the run better, and you can observe their movements, especially their legs, as they encounter invisible bumps and obstacles in front of you — and adjust accordingly. Not too close, please, leave a little room, just in case a "snow snake" gets your "guide." It could turn into a case of the blind leading the blind. . . into a double pile-up.

Like most of the problem situations discussed in this series on coping, flat light just plain isn't fun. We'd all rather ski in sparkling, picture-postcard conditions. But the right glasses, hugging the trees, and more active ski poles can help tame the beast.

   March 2001  
photo above:
following the piste markers down into dense fog, St. Moritz, Switzerland.
photo © Linde Waidhofer
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© Lito Tejada-Flores unless otherwise credited.