The true skier does not follow where others lead. He is not confined to a piste. He is an artist who creates a lovely pattern from virgin and uncorrupted snow. What marble is to the sculptor, so is a ridge covered in powder to the true skier. Snow whose beauty has been destroyed by a multitude of piste skiers does not record the passage of another. Only soft snow records the movements of individual skiers, and it is only in soft snow that the real artist can express himself. — Arnold Lunn, The Mountains of Youth, 1925
As we await the descent of another winter, my mind tends to revisit unfinished thinking. One thing that has always intrigued me is the outdoor industry that has grown up around the notion of "soul" — who has it, who doesn't, where it's found, why it's there. Naturally, the sports with the longest histories trade most in these profundities, laying claim in movies and magazines to being soulful pursuits — surfing, climbing, and skiing top the list.
But while soul may be omnipresent, it's also transient, and so more readily found, more often, in certain corners within a greater realm. Within snowsports, that special place is riding untracked snow — powder, nieve polvo, pulver schnee, le poudre.
Just as getting barrelled is the most sought-after experience in surfing, face shots are the Holy Grail of powder — or some the virtual currency of soul. But you'll also find a healthy dose in the places people go to chase powder down, as well as worn on the sleeves of those sharing the experience. This is what those who increasingly look beyond the confines of the ski hill feel compelled to seek. Or maybe it's the spectre of climate change and a worry that we don't have much time to enjoy the phenomenon of fresh snow. Or that powder, as goes a tired cliché, is a powerful drug which once experienced engenders the search for more. Whatever the reason, We Want Powder is the new We Want Fast Lifts, a rallying cry in many corners of the snowsports industry. "Powder to the People," as a magazine once famously said.
There is, of course, a lot about skiing powder snow to recommend it. It's natural, for one thing. Fresh. Clean. Sparkly. And it doesn't hurt so much when you fall. But true aficionados will tell you it's more about a certain transcendence that cuts to the heart of the entire ski experience, something that can't adequately be explained but ultimately must be experienced to fully understand. But I'll try anyway.
Powder skiing is about words, being unable to speak. About telling, but being unable to describe. About the surrounding silence that amplifies the pounding of your heart, the rasping of your breath, the wind in the trees. It's about grunts of effort and squeals of delight. It's about inspiration and desperation. Bad poetry. Broken marriages. Grins. Silliness. Frozen toes and ice-cream headaches. Magical turns. That sinking feeling and momentary weightlessness. First tracks and lost skis. About trudging, navigating and riding over, through and around no end of alpine garbage just to get to the good stuff. It's a way of life. A way of feeling. A way of sharing.
That last bit is important. Powder doyenne and philosopher Dolores LaChapelle said that if joy is the response of a lover receiving what he loves, then this is the joy felt when skiing powder with friends. An overflowing gratitude for a shared experience that produces the absolutely absurd smiles flashed at the bottom. You never see these kind of grins anywhere else in life — a reflection, she believes, of "life fully lived, together, in a blaze of reality."
Not bad for the price of a lift ticket or a couple hours spent climbing.
Many of us love the feelings engendered by powder so much we travel the world to experience it in as many different places as possible. But how did that all get started?
The sage of ski writing, Arnold Lunn, had plenty to say about powder, but the torch wasn't readily taken up as skiing struggled through the vagaries of equipment and technique to become a de facto sport during the early part of the 20th century. The Americans, however, knew how to pick up a ball and run with it. When Dick Durrance invented the dipsy-doodle (a bouncy step-turn for maintaining control in deep snow) at Alta ski area in the early 1940s, powder skiing was born.
When you make a pilgrimage to a new land and a new mountain range you're looking not just for exotic snow, but to stir the culture of the moment with the friends of the day — another experiment in the laboratory of winter. Whether Europe, Alaska or Kamchatka, the basic ingredients of rock, ice, peaks, and snow are the same — and yet all so deliciously different: unique local light, strange trees, interesting weather conditions. Tracking the soul of riding involves following these footprints through the snows that wrap around the globe.
Resorts have been leveraging this theme for years, but many players in the deep-snow sweepstakes chose to keep themselves a secret. That's changing as travel operators tap into an appetite for unique destinations, wilderness, and untracked powder. Traditionally sleepy places like Japan and Bulgaria host ever-increasing numbers of international powder-seekers. European resorts have opened up special "freeride" areas to accommodate the influx of powderhounds. And the explosion in backcountry operations — lodges, hut-to-hut, cat- and heli-skiing — is unparalleled. In B.C. alone, demand exceeds a capacity that more than doubled in two decades.
Compare the clamour for powder to the glut of spas in ski country that can't always be filled (not in Whistler, of course). I'm no salesman, but I'd call this pretty good advertising: the restorative benefits of a slap in the face with cold snow might actually exceed those of aromatherapy and a line of hot rocks down your back.
Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.