Spring 2001
Spring snow on the Big Burn at Snowmass: a perfect recipe for transition snow: windblown and drifted-in moguls, partly tracked, partly packed.
photo © Lito T-F
Coping 4
Transition snow
  Our dreams of skiing often seem to revolve around two poles: perfect powder and perfect pack. Optimum conditions for skiing performance as well as pre-season daydreams. But reality has a way of dumping us, all too often, into in-between conditions, neither powder nor pack, neither fish nor fowl, neither firm nor floatable. What then?

Learning how to cope with awkward transition snow - snow that appears after a new blanket of snow has been seriously tracked but before it's been skied out to a uniform smooth surface - is even more important than it used to be because today's skiers encounter such conditions more often than was the case five or ten years ago. Why? Simply because there are more powderhouds, more technically excellent skiers at American resorts than ever before. And so a max dump of new snow is generally tracked-out by ten in the morning, and even at the giant western mega-resorts, all real untracked snow is gone by noon. What remains is a cut-up, uneven snow surface that gives most skiers a lot of trouble, even skiers who are quite proficient in powder. Thus the brightly dressed crowds tend to desert the "back bowl" powder terrain where they whooped and hollered before lunch and head back to the pack while they wait for grooming machines to solve the problem of transition snow in the most brutal and obvious way - by rolling it into submission.

But we can do better. A clear explanation of just why cut-up, tracked-out powder is so awkward to ski, plus a few tips on handling it, should do the trick. I can't guarantee that you'll wind up loving junky, broken, transition snow as much as I do. But I promise you, coping with it is a snap.

The main problem is the way your skis tend to get deflected, bounced around, hung-up and caught by the random sized lumps of tracked (but not yet packed) snow. And secondarily, of course, the loss of balance that occurs as a result of this stop-and-go, catch-then-slide sort of action down in the snow. You are constantly skiing from a section of deep soft snow to a section of packed snow, patch after patch of it, and your skis will speed up and slow down as they go from one to another. To make matters worse, sometimes one ski will be moving through one type of snow, while the other one, right beside it, is moving through different stuff altogether.

The strategy I want to suggest for transition snow is twofold: First, maintain the same stance you use in deep powder, that is to say, stand equally on both skis. Don't switch back to your usual packed slope technique of skiing primarily on your outside ski. And second, make longer, rounder, slower turns than usual; long-radius, GS-style turns rather than short-radius slalom-type turns. Let me explain a little more thoroughly. . . .

Most skiers nowadays know that on a packed slope it's cool to stand solidly on the outside ski (so it will bend more easily into reverse camber); but that in deep powder weighting both skis equally prevents one or the other from diving beneath the surface. Well and good. But at what point, as your powder slope gets more and more tracked out, do you switch from one technique to the other? For very strong, very confident skiers it just doesn't matter. But average skiers tend to get on their outside ski too soon. In this case, the lighter inside ski of a turn can get caught by a heavy clod of snow, or worse yet, hit a lump and get flipped up across the other ski. By making a real effort to stand on both skis equally in cut-up crud, you'll find that both skis are more likely to blast their way through the various lumps and clumps in the snow without being deflected. Give each ski enough weight to keep it on course.

The second half of my strategy for transition snow is equally important. By making long-radius turns rather than short ones, your skis will wind up moving more or less forward, rather than more or less sideways. This means that the tips of your skis will punch right through the odd clumps and lumps of snow, waiting like a minefield among the crisscross tracks and semi-packed patches. In the opposite case, if you do try to make shorter turns, you are very likely to slam broadside into one of these random lumps which will stop your skis' momentum and - woops! - over you go.

Is this the only way you can ski cut-up, transition snow? Of course not. But I do believe this approach is the easiest. It will definitely take the sting out of this awkward never-never land of semi-powder and semi-pack, this skier's purgatory that we're forced to cope with between the twin paradises of true powder and smooth pack. Coping, as I've pointed out in this series, is always the first step. Take it!

   Spring 2001
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© Lito Tejada-Flores unless otherwise credited.