Know Your Snow

Sun Lit Trees and Perfect Ski Tracks

Back in 2007 I wrote the book “Cross-Country Skiing in the Sierra Nevada.” The most fun section to write was talking about the different names we come up for the types of snow encountered by cross-country skiers in the Sierra.

Here is an abbreviated version, that is especially geared towards skate skiers.

Boilerplate This is that rock-solid, shiny as a piece of quartz snow. Snow might actually be a misnomer as it is actually close to ice. Boilerplate occurs early in a ski season when there has not been that much snow yet and even the little snow that came down happened a few weeks ago, and it is cold. This icy snow is hard to edge and requires you to ski right on top of your skis. it can be downright dangerous, especially on steep downhill sections. The only way to avoid boilerplate conditions is to ski later in the day when it has had a chance to soften up. Better yet, stay home and pray for snow.

Hardpack One step from boilerplate towards softness is hardpack. While still firm and icy, you can usually get a bit of an edge and are less likely to slide off the trail into a tree. In springtime, hardback is often called “crusty” or “morning crust” Skiers who like hardpack call it “fast” as in, “yeah, the conditions were fast this morning,” Skiers who don’t like hardpack call it boilerplate.

Firm Next up on the firmness scale is firm. For skate skiers firm is usually pretty good skiing, and for striders as long as the terrain is not too difficult it can be good skiing as well.

The Good Stuff

Soft and Buttery, Silk, Butter, Just right, awesome, Corn The better the snow for skiing, the more names it has. And for cross-country skiing, this is as good as it gets. Not too hard, not too soft, but right in the middle. Goldilocks, who obviously was a big cross country skier, thinks it is just right. Often snow will be hardpack, then firm, then just perfect as the day progresses. Silk snow is fast but forgiving and will always put a smile on your face. The problem with Just Right snow is that it often doesn’t last long. Once the snow becomes flawless it will soon change to soft and sticky. In the morning, you may encounter several different types of snow. Hardpack in the shade of the trees, soft and buttery where the sun just hit, and soft and sticky in the areas that have been sunny all morning.

Perfect Tracks

Ski Tracks Close Up

Soft and Sticky Once the sun really hits the snow it can get sticky. The right wax can help but its best to be off the trails before the snow brings your skis to a halt. The initial phase of soft and sticky snow is still pretty fast and fun to ski in, but as the hours progress and the temperatures rise the snow slowly turns into the dreaded…

Glob, Mashed Potatoes, Glue This is the snow that really fits it’s name, Very soft, dirty, sticky, gluey, messy…yeck! Best to avoid if possible. This snow is also known as Sierra Cement. It is once again time to pray for snow.

Snow Prayers

When your prayers are finally answered and a big storm brings in a fresh new load (also known as a major dump) it is time to experience several other types of snow:

Powder or Groomed Powder During or right after a big storm the snow is cold and dry: beautiful but slow conditions for a skate skier. This is the time to classic ski or if you ski both downhill and cross country, this is the day to hit the downhill slopes (except for the fact that everyone else in the world will be at the downhill slopes). If there has been more than a foot of snow and the trails have only been groomed once or twice, you may “punch through” with your skis not staying on top of the snow. Slow, slow, slow. It is, however, a great workout and if the snow is really coming down, it can be spectacularly beautiful, but don’t expect to set any speed records.

Firm Powder A day or two after the powder, when the snow has been groomed at least a few times, you will find firm powder. The downhill resorts call this packed powder, and they still call it packed powder three weeks later when it has progressed to boiler plate. While firm powder is not as fast as hardpack, it has sped up a bit and you will no longer punch through the snow. This is a great time to be skiing. Especially if the trees are still laden with snow and the air is crisp and cool.

Deep, groomed Snow Trails

Deep Groomed Snow Trails

Other Types of Snow

Off-piste skating Skate skiing is best done on groomed skating lanes, except for a brief period when the off-piste (off-trail) conditions set up perfectly. If it hasn’t snowed in a few weeks and it is freezing at night and above freezing during the day, the flat meadow can firm up to the point where you can ski around without sinking. Be sure to take full advantage of these blissful conditions. Antone Meadows (off Red) and Stump Meadows (off Gold) are good choices for off-piste at Tahoe XC.

Sun Cups Late in the spring, after lots of warm days and cold nights without any new snowfall, the snow surface can start to look like a giant golf ball. The sunny flats and slopes are covered with little round dimples known as sun cups. They can be anywhere from a few inches deep to a foot or more. Skiing across a meadow full of sun cups is a rough and bouncy affair, sort of like water skiing outside the wake on a really rough day. Since sun cups occur late in the spring when much of the snow has melted, they are nature’s way of telling you to tune up your mountain bike.

Frozen ruts In the spring, skiers, snowshoers and dogs make deep tracks in the mashed potatoes during the day. These ruts then freeze overnight. At groomed ski areas an evening groom of the trail deals with this problem, unless skiers or snowmobilers travel over these freshly groomed trails before they have had a chance to set up. Skiers have a few choice words and a few places they would like to stick their poles when they encounter ruts caused by inconsiderate folks who ski over fresh grooming. This is perhaps the worst snow conditions. The ruts catch your skis and are treacherous. If you are skiing at a nordic center, please be off the trails before the grooming machines head out in the evening.

Now that you are a snow expert, you can plan your day!

Early winter: If there has not been that much snow for awhile and the days are cold, watch out for boilerplate. Ski later in the day when the snow has had a chance to soften up, and hope for a big dump.

Midwinter: After a big storm, you might want to stride the first day, and skate after that.

Springtime: Get out early, but not too early. You want to make sure you enjoy that brief period of butter, but be close to home by the time it turns to glob.

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