Everyone has a strategy for getting the most out of a powder day at a ski resort. Here are 10 time-tested tactics, ranging from the aggro to the zen:
1. First Chair: It takes a special kind of skier to get to the lift half an hour or more before the lifts open, and stand there stomping like an excited race horse trying to stay warm, in order to be the first skier on the lift. While there is immense prestige with being on the first lift, it has little bearing on how many freshies you’re going to get – to have the most fun on a powder day you need to study the following strategies no matter what chair you’re on.
#2. Local discount: Hooking up with a local is by far the best way to harvest the most pow. They know which runs tend to get skied first, where the secret lines are hiding, and how to beat the crowds. If you don’t know a local, listen carefully in the lift line. The locals are usually either talking loudly about their run selection strategy, or not saying anything at all. Then follow the one who’s not saying anything – they probably know best.
#3. Sloppy seconds: One of the best-kept secrets of the ski area powder day is that sloppy seconds are some of the best turns on the mountain. I’m not talking about skiing across somebody’s tracks; I’m talking about that point when the deep piles have been knocked down, creating a consistent surface that rides like carving the surface of a lemon meringue pie. Sure, the first lap or two in truly untouched snow is great, but after that, I’d rather have sloppy seconds on a sweet line than root around the flats for another turn or two in the fresh.
#4. All too obvious: If you can’t hook with a local, or find one to follow (or can’t keep up with the local you tried to follow), don’t ski the obvious runs. Everyone else will be there too. Instead, look for those obscure lines that require a traverse to reach, runs where you have to take your skis off and boot pack to reach, those black diamond runs hidden in the middle of mostly blue terrain. Watch for places where a number of tracks traverse off the side of the main runs – those tracks are probably from locals gettin’ the goods (Remember, though, you may get more than you bargained for by following those tracks!).
#5. Tree team: There’s always that guy or girl who jumps into the thickest trees on the very first run while even the main open runs are still untracked. To each their own, I suppose, but most of the tree team will hit the trees after the main lines are skied out. Poking around in the trees is a great way to find freshies long after the rest of the ski area is fully hammered, but it’s also a way to get suckered into lousy fall lines and slots where less skilled skiers and snowboarders have side-slipped through, removing the fluff. Explore the trees on a bluebird day so you know where to find the goods when the flakes are flying.
#6. Hey diddle diddle, straight down the middle: With the invention of the fat ski, anyone who’s an intermediate level skier can ride powder. This is great, but it means there are a lot more powder hounds on the hill than there used to be. I almost don’t want to tell you this one, since it makes me giggle every time I score on this, but quite often everyone thinks the middle of runs have already been skied, so they ski the edges, leaving large swaths of untouched snow right down the middle.
#7. IBOB - In Bounds Out of Bounds: While you may find some fresh snow here, this method will get you busted. Most ski areas have roped off areas within the ski area boundaries. On powder days, there are always a few people who decide it is worth getting their passes taken, or getting injured, so they duck the rope. Think about it: losing your lift ticket or season pass over a single run is more expensive than Heli-Skiing.
#8. Sidecountry/Slackcountry: Progressive ski areas with good backcountry terrain accessible nearby have installed gates where riders can leave the ski area legally. This is a fantastic evolution of our sport, but it also means skiers who leave the area need to realize they are entering the wilderness. The ski patrol does not usually do avalanche control or patrol outside the ski area (unless the slopes threaten the resort or roads) so you’re on your own. Avalanche and terrain assessment are essential, and remember that just having avalanche rescue gear does not mean you are safe.
#9. Patrol Beers: The whole mountain doesn’t always open immediately after a dump, but instead runs open in stages as the ski patrol determines it is safe to do so. In areas with the most rowdy terrain, the day after the powder day often results in the best skiing when the whole mountain is finally opened. It might be a good investment to take a six-pack to the patrol office, tell them you're new to the area, and ask nicely how they tend to open terrain after a storm. This can be more effective than jonesing in line for the first chair only to miss the main event when they open the backside hours later.
#10. Last Chair Larsen: This is the ultimate zen approach to the powder day. Named for a legendary ski bum, Last Chair Larsen would show up on a powder day for his first run – and catch the last chair; not just once but nearly every time it snowed. While many dozens of riders vie for the first chair, Last Chair Larsen was in a league of his own. At first, I thought he was missing the whole point of the powder day, but he seemed to be having at least as much fun as anyone else on the mountain – maybe it was those of us stressing out for fresh tracks who were missing the point…
PS. Go Heli-Skiing: If powder is your thing, take a lesson from Last Chair Larsen. Mellow out at the ski area and have fun no matter what time you arrive - then do whatever it takes to go Heli-Skiing. In an average week of Heli-Skiing with CMH you’ll rip more powder than a decade at a ski resort – and even though Heli-Skiing is expensive, from a dollar-per-powder-turn perspective it is the best deal going.
Any of you powder gurus have any other tactics you'd like to share? C'mon, we'd never use your own tactics to poach your line...
Photos of Man versus Machine at Alpental, Washington, and Man loving Machine at CMH Galena by Topher Donahue.