Pro Snow Tips: Reading Terrain

Braden Anderson | - February 22, 2013

"There is a technique, an art even, to being able to ride in any condition"

At this point in the 2012-2013 snow sports season, I don't have much hope for another killer storm that will swoop in at the last minute and bestow northern New Mexico with feet upon feet of fresh powder.  Even I, the snow dancing optimist, must admit; it's a fairly depressing year for the slopes in New Mexico. However, we are looking at the possibility of some white stuff today and tomorrow and as such, I figured, let's talk about snow. In particular, how to read the snow when you're riding. Having perfect theoretical technique and physical ability are a good start to great riding, but don't forget probably the most important aspect of riding: what you're riding on.

There is a technique, an art even, to being able to ride in any condition. From skittery ice to East Coast marbles and back again to chunky, day-old chop, you're likely to encounter as many different types of snow as there are ways to explain why you wiped out for no apparent reason. Yes that's right, you may be a fantastic powder rider, but try some of the same moves on a slushy spring day, and you could end up hurting.

So, reading the snow is the first step to get to that next step in your riding skill. One of the best pieces of advice I've ever received was never to work on a new trick on new terrain. It's one or the other. Trying to move up to that 540? Great, try it on a slope, or kicker, that you have already mastered three's on. That is to say, don't try a backflip for the first time off a drop you're hitting for the first time. Makes sense right? Then wouldn't it be safe to say that you shouldn't try ANYTHING new on terrain you haven't ridden before? Including snow types you aren't used to?

Well yes, and no. You never want to push two limits at the same time, but if you never tried anything new on snow you weren't used to, you'd never progress! There is something to be said for using some intuition when on new snow, but there are a few things to remember that can help when faced with terrain you're unfamiliar with:

Powder – Although the scarcest of most snow types we encounter here in New Mexico, when it does hit, it is a completely and drastically different kind of riding. Powder is obviously the plushest snow to ride in, easily conforming under your base and edges and providing a near-cushion of air to glide atop (not to mention fall into). With all this candy topping comes a price, though. Powder is usually one of two things: heavy or fluffy. If it's heav,y it's much harder (and slower) to make your turns. If it's fluffy, the base under the snow can be problematic, and the ridges of drifts can be deceiving. When riding in powder, whether wet and heavy or dry and fluffy, a general rule to help counter the tendency of the nose of the board to want to sink into the deep snow is to actually move your bindings back on the board or ski a bit. It will change your riding slightly, but the correction is well worth it. Setting the bindings back some on the board or skis certainly gives some of the control back to the rider in deep powder conditions. DO NOT simply lean back some while riding powder. Although it may bea great temporary solution if you find yourself being affected by the deep snow, stop as soon as you can to re-adjust.  Leaning back only throws off your balance and makes riding even harder.

Ice – I use this term liberally and with a touch of disdain, I'll admit. Ice is the least favorable type of condition in my opinion and unfortunately, is more often than not how our local ski areas can be described between storms. I'll admit that too. When I say ice, I really mean what some ski areas call “packed powder.” When snow has been sitting around in the sun for a while, it gets soft during the day and freezes again every night, added to the fact that anything on wide runs is getting packed and sheened by skiers and boarders. When groomed, packed powder can be an excellent, even terrain to ride and especially to practice new tricks on. When packed powder goes un-groomed, however, the result can quite often be practically a sheet of ice. Edges have a harder time gripping, and any movement that is too forceful can cause those edges to slip and the rider to lose control. If there is one good rule for riding hard packed terrain, it’s “relax.” Ease up a bit on the hard turns by using your edges to control the turn rather than your upper body. Stay steady in your line by feeling the edges, and following their natural path. While this is a good rule for riding in general, it is something that, if remembered, can make all the difference on an icy day.

Chop – There is a love-hate relationship that exists with chop, at least for me. The broken chunks of what was, at one point in the recent past, a deep and heavy snow. These chunks form after the slopes get ridden after a massive snowfall. These blocks of hardened snow lay strewn across runs and deceive even the best riders. Chunk varies from day to day and place to place, but often looks much softer (or harder) than it really is. The maneuvers used to get through a certain area can be easily misjudged. The rider may count on hard berms where only powdery drifts are the reality, or soft mounds that may actually send you flying upon the realization they were chunks of hard snow. Often the chunk will collect additional snow during the night, making the distinction even harder.  The only way to tell what you are actually going to encounter is to take a good first run and check out your surroundings. Make sure you have a good idea of what the snow feels like under your board or skis. Usually, the best medicine for hard chunk, is flexible knees. Using your knees as shock absorbers for the large chunks will allow for better control and won’t throw you around as much, making for a smoother ride. Be prepared for some serious knee flexing in bad, deep chunk.

While there are many more snow types out there, in relation to riding, the ones mentioned here are the most likely to be encountered here in northern New Mexico on any given day. Paying attention to the way different kinds of snow react under your feet, and the way the different types can form the landscape as a result of their individual properties, will give any rider a distinct advantage. Take some time early on to “learn” the snow, and there won’t be any terrain you can’t handle. Except rocks maybe. Rocks are never fun on skiis or a snowboard. So that means we just have to…


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