Powder Pilgrims

Matt tries to kill me before I’ve even digested my breakfast.

Our first run of the day is a pole-gripping black diamond that drops through the trees and into a channel of menacing moguls. I clench a smile and skid my way downhill, tumbling once or twice but still making it alive.

“You’ve got good survival skills,” Matt remarks and decides that I’m ready to head up to the summit of Polar Peak.

Every ski hill has its big kids and Matt is one of them—forty-somethings going on sixteen who toss their bodies over icy ledges and play chicken with tree trunks. Skiers like Matt fall outside the generic skill rankings of I, II, III (beginner, intermediate, advanced)—they’re more like a IV (maniac), and they clearly suffer from a serious addiction to adrenalin.

But Matt and I do have something in common: we both used to hitchhike.

We swap crazy stories of past travels as we drive through Canada’s Kootenay National Park. I soon realize that we are both travelers who found our way in life by traveling.

A self-described ski bum, the tall and athletic Matt Mosteller left his Seattle home in search of mountains, but more importantly, mountains with snow—good snow. His wandering winter quest led him to ski hills all across the Rockies, where he tested slopes known and unknown, and soon grew pretty picky about the snow. Life was too short for anything less than the best and Matt was determined to find it. His high snow standard drove him north to Montana, and eventually thumbing across the border into the tiny mountain town of Fernie, British Columbia.

What he found in Fernie kept him there forever after—a pocket of perfect mountains far from the madding crowd, where powdery snow dumps are more regular than Monday mornings. Matt openly admits that he built his life around an interior weather pattern—now a married man with two kids, he still lives and works for these hills and the impeccable snow that covers them.

My first day in Fernie and I realize that I am totally ignorant in the science of snow.

I mean, as a kid I had figured out that wet, heavy snow was much better for making snowballs, while dry, fluffy snow was pretty much useless as a weapon. Powder has no currency in a snowball fight, but with skiing, it’s the gold standard.

Snow is water, but it is much, much lighter than water. On average, freshly-falling snow has a water density ranging from 8 to 12 percent, meaning that a given volume of fresh snow represents only 8 to 12 percent of the real weight of the same volume of water. For example, a foot of fresh snow will melt down to less than an inch of water.

Typically the humidity, temperature and wind will quickly reduce new snowfall into a thicker, denser pack—up to 30 or 40 percent water density. Such is “heavy” snow: icy, slushy, and simply no fun to ski in.

Powder is different.

When powder snow falls, it maintains its dendritic (“tree-like”) snow crystals that hold larger gaps of air between every icy, microscopic arm. This is what makes snow lighter and fluffier.

By definition, “powder” snow has a water density of less than 7 percent. That means one cubic meter of powder snow weighs only 154 pounds (70 kg) compared to a cubic meter of water, which weighs over a ton at 2,200 pounds (1,000 kg).

On my first day skiing in Fernie, the powder had settled to around 6 percent density, though Fernie is famous for powder dumps of 4 percent density. Scientifically speaking, this is the lightest snow on Earth, and skiers like me are denser (i.e. heavier) than the snow they are skiing on.

I learn this the hard way about halfway down Fernie’s Cedar Bowl when I tumble face first into the powder. Mine is a graceful somersault that disengages both of my skis and leaves me floating in the white. Like walking in quicksand, each step of my ski boot sinks me deeper into the pillowy cover, until I am up to my chest in the powder. The snow feels soft and I consider staying wrapped up in the cozy comfort of deep snow.

Getting out of the powder feels like too much work—like swimming inside a giant marshmallow pool.

Meanwhile, Matt breezes through the trees, shooting out floury puffs left and right as he swishes into the valley. He can’t help himself—this powder-covered mountain is part of his personal religion: born-again ski bum.

When I finally catch up with him, I am the poster child of powder snow, powdered from head to toe like a breakfast doughnut. Together, we ski the rest of the way through the untouched scenery of these hidden mountains, barely leaving a track in the blank white lightness of Fernie’s ultra-light snow.

December’s darkness comes too quickly and soon we’re back in Matt’s car, driving the short road from the slopes and into the town of Fernie. A hitchhiker appears in the headlight, with one mitten thumb stuck out in front.

He’s just a kid, young and red-cheeked with long, white-blonde hair stuffed under a wooly knit cap. Matt stops the car and we give him a lift.

Our hitchhiker is Nicolas, from Sweden. He’s not even twenty years old and as it turns out, a fresh new traveler. Two weeks ago he had never left Europe—but he worked and saved and bought a plane ticket to Calgary, then hitchhiked his way to Fernie.

“It took me 50 hours to get here from Sweden,” he says. “I heard about the snow and wanted to try it myself.”

Nicolas spent his first two weeks going backcountry and hiking by foot to the summit of Fernie’s peaks, then diving headlong into the powder below. He was not disappointed.

“In Sweden, it’s still too early to ski, but there is so much snow here,” he comments.

In Fernie, Matt drops off Nicolas—this kid from snow-filled Sweden, a kid who still lives with his parents but who left home to chase powder halfway around the world. We watch him disappear into the darkness and for a few seconds, Matt is totally silent.

“That kid’ll probably never leave here,” he mutters, philosophically.

Matt would know.

Comments

  1. Powder Seeker
    Rocky Mountains
    December 12, 2011, 1:07 pm

    This is simply one of the best stories I have read about the Ski Bum pilgrimage. I know as I did the same journey in my youth. Andrew truly captures what is like to be a 1st time skier on a journey with an old salt (powder Matt) Simply a well written piece that was very enjoyable to read. Thank you!

  2. A Town Called Fernie – Digital Nomad
    December 13, 2011, 12:45 pm

    [...] fact, the only abnormal thing about Fernie may be the snow — all 37 feet of [...]

  3. Monica
    Missouri
    January 21, 2012, 1:44 am

    I love reading your blog posts Andrew. You really should write a book about your journeys, you have an awesome way of making me feel like I’ve actually been there. After this post I’m thinking being addicted to powder can’t be a bad thing. :)

  4. Anna
    Fernie Bc
    February 9, 2012, 2:44 pm

    Love reading this little article. I came to Fernie as 19 year old girl from Sweden seeking bottom less pow. I was supposed to stay for 6 month, go back home and start a “real life”

    That was over 5 years ago. Im still in Fernie now married to a Canadian and planing on never leaving Fernie. Fernie is a beautiful little town with some of the most amazing people i have ever meet. Don’t know if you ever been in Fernie for the summer? Believe it or not, Fernie almost better in the summers!!!