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An Ode to Powder Chasing

Article by Gordy Megroz

The first time I went powder chasing was in April of 1999. Used to skiing on icy terrain in Vermont, I moved to Vail, Colorado for the winter, where I sold ski boots and slashed as many turns as possible. It was a particularly good season for snowfall in Vail, and in January and February I skied more powder than I ever had in my life, logging some ten days in the white room. Powder skiing is addictive, and when a big high-pressure system planted itself over Central Colorado during the month of March, bringing with it sunshine and warmer temperatures, I went into withdrawals. By the time my father came to visit in early April, I was jonesing. 

The town of Vail sparkles beneath the mountains as the sun sets over Vail Valley, Colorado. (Adventure_Photo/Getty Images)

After a few days of skiing spring corn in Vail’s back bowls, I peeked at the forecast. Colorado still looked high and dry, but there appeared to be a massive storm headed toward Utah. “Dad,” I said. “I know you just flew across the country. But how’d you like to jump in my car and drive to Utah.”

Fortunately, my father is as big of a powder junkie as I am. The next morning, we began the six-and-a-half-hour drive toward Snowbird, successfully dodging large herds of mule deer along the way. 

Shortly after we settled into our hotel, the sky darkened and it began dumping. By the next morning, there were several feet of snow on the ground—and it wasn’t letting up. It snowed so much that we were “interlodged”—an event where avalanches are so likely that it’s not safe enough to go outside the hotel—for two days. 

The aerial tram extends along a 1.6-mile-long cable (2.6 km). (Jay Dash)

When the lifts finally started turning again, my father and I rushed outside to catch the first chair. On each run, chest-deep snow billowed over our heads. But the biggest reward for several days stuck playing ping-pong in the hotel happened later in the day. On a fateful chairlift ride, a ski patroller told us he was opening up a new section of the mountain. My father and I followed him. As soon as he dropped the rope on Tiger Tail—a nearly 1,000-vertical-foot trail with fairly sustained 40-degree steeps, he turned to us and said, “Go for it.” With the sun fully up, I bounded through the deepest snow I’d ever skied. I couldn’t help but yelp. 

From then on, I’d never go too long without a powder fix. I was officially a powder chaser. 

Through the years I’ve chased storms all over the world. I went to Japan, where powder skiing is virtually guaranteed. From December to March, cold air from Siberia blows across the Sea of Japan, picking up moisture and consistently depositing it on the country’s mountains. That weather pattern is rumored to dump some 1,200 to 1,500 inches of snow on parts of the country, and while I was there, the snowstorms never stopped—every run I skied was full of bottomless powder.

The Hokkaido ski area is known for deep powder snow, which often piles onto chairlifts and buries trees. (Aliaksandra Ivanova/EyeEm/Getty Images)

Even after moving to Jackson, Wyoming, where I was frequently blessed with deep turns, I continued to chase storms in Utah—and for good reason. The state’s claim to have the “greatest snow on earth” is backed up by science. In 1962, Edward LaChapelle, an avalanche researcher, mountaineer, and skier, wrote that, “the best deep-powder skiing is not found in the lightest snow, but rather in snow with enough ‘body’ to provide good floatation for the running ski.” According to Jim Steenburgh, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Utah, these optimal conditions are achieved when storms generate at least 10 inches (25.4 cm) of snow, producing flakes that become gradually less dense, so that lower density snow sits on top of higher density snow. “Those are ideal circumstances for ski floatation,” he says. “And because storms in Utah often start out warm and become gradually colder, they bring in high density snow followed by low density snow. So these types of storms occur frequently in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains.”

A skier makes first tracks in the Teton backcountry just outside Jackson Hole. (Jay Goodrich/TandemStock.com)

In April 2015, when it appeared that a huge front was headed toward Alta and Snowbird, I jumped in my car and sped toward Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon. While most people were filing their taxes, I was at Alta, making some of the best powder turns of my life.

These days, with better weather forecasting and multi-resort passes, chasing powder in North America is easier than ever. But as I get older, I prefer far-flung adventures. So when I was writing 100 Slopes of a Lifetime, a guide to some of the best ski trails in the world, I was sure to include plenty of international runs specifically known for their great powder skiing. 

That includes Laub, a wide-open, 40-degree, fall-line ramp in Switzerland that descends for a remarkable 4,000 vertical feet. “It doesn’t have rocks and trees, so you can make auto-pilot giant slalom turns without ever breaking your rhythm, looking out at views of Lake Lucerne in between face shots,” says Sven Brunso, who SKI magazine called the most photographed skier in history. “It’s the ultimate powder skier’s heaven.”

Skiers hike a ridgeline to reach a fresh powder trail in the resort. (Scott Markewitz/Cavan Images)

While researching the book, I also became obsessed with Gulmarg, a little-known ski area in northern India that gets 550 inches of snow each year, the same average annual snowfall as Alta, Utah. The mountain is full of huge bowls that are consistently loaded with light, dry snow—“reminiscent of Utah’s snow,” professional skier KC Deane told me. “And all the bowls have these big, long spines that run along either side of them, sort of turning them into big natural half pipes. It’s one of the coolest ski experiences in the world.” 

Powder chasing can have its downside: sometimes the weather shifts and you get skunked. But even if you’ve flown to Chile to ski La Chiminea, a chute at La Parva that professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones told me is a “magnet for powder,” and the snow gods are unkind, the chase is never a total waste. Skiing groomers while looking out at the Andes and stopping at trailside huts to sip Chilean wine is decent consolation.