Wind, for many skiers, is a four-letter word. They see it as an indefensible day-ruiner wherein icy blasts plunge daggers into the soul, shut down preferred lifts, and muss up hairdos. But maybe it’s time to rethink that. In reality, there’s gold in them there gales, and it is the enlightened skier who mines it obsessively. Skiers in the know call this treasure wind-buff, and it can be better than powder snow. Those of us jaded by the pursuit of surface perfection—and definitely most Rockies skiers—go in restless search for freshly filled-in nooks and crannies.
Skiing this type of surface often achieves a near-religious dimension, little wonder when you consider that most ancient peoples forged an active relationship with their wind gods. The Greeks took it furthest by engaging an entire pantheon of them, a level of fixation only matched by
powder-focused skiers suffering through a precipitation lull. Aeolus, the wind boss, posted a sub-god to each of the four cardinal directions, including butt-freezing
Boreas from the north and Notus from the south, master of weather chaos. He even hired four more for the points in between.
In our North American latitudes, aficionados of blow-in snow owe their greatest appreciation to Zephyrus, the fair-haired god of the west wind. His magic is famously on view at Mammoth Mountain, where upper slopes can go from jagged Sierra cement to carvable smoothness in a matter of hours. Though some skiers seem to regard it more as a consolation prize—not what you came for, but what you’ll grudgingly accept.
You’ll find a more welcome example of eastward snow transport at Castle Mountain, Alberta, where redeposition is a beloved way of life on the leeward side of the continental divide. Locals call it wind-sift, underscoring the fact that when it tumbles over Castle’s ridgeline, which lies perfectly transverse to prevailing Chinook winds, the secondhand pow remains darn near as arid and light as the first day it fell. So powerful is the effect that you can ski shin-deep all across the upper bowls on a day void of new precipitation. Of course, the true windfall artist has a plan for every swing of the weather vane, not just the obvious one. Faced with fleeting, ever-swirling snow conditions, skiers know it’s always a matter of determining which aspect will be worth the schlep, and even which subset of a run can best yield maximum cushioning.
Pity those who pay no heed to the wind direction, or can’t read a compass at all; they’ll spend the day staggering along on crunchy corduroy. Good. All the more puff pastry for those of us faithful to the Aeolian cult. And then there’s Caecus, the northeast wind, feared by the Greeks as the deliverer of blizzards. Indeed, many resorts experience their biggest storms appearing from exactly that direction. On such a howler of a day, a deftly positioned snow fence will fashion a ragged line of hippo-shaped drifts, although with wildly variable ski penetration that can make you look very silly—or very cool; when the wind gods get it just right, those lines ski like somebody shot party foam into a bouncy castle.
Best of all, counter-clockwise cyclones often guarantee refills on every lap. Unlike finding a secret spot, being wind-smart is something anyone can do. Plus, for the not-exactly-hardcore, it’s a comforting way to reassure yourself that you’re still getting the goods. After all, you slept in. No need to tackle exhausting hikes for the goods. Your ability to sniff out molecules of softness on any line will provide constant redemption. Here’s a pro tip: Dial it down, champ.
During any given hellstorm there’s a greenish-blue run somewhere with an unexploited layer of upholstery. Not to denigrate backcountry snowpack, but three times out of 10 that line will ride better than much of what you get from heli skiing. Surely you’re not too proud for that.
From January 2022