What’s a Powder Days Worth? Mammoth Mountain, California [Jan 19th, 2006].

Today was one of the most magical snow days in my years of boarding. As I was going up the lift at 8.30am – when the mountain actually opened – at about 20F (-7 Celsius) I wondered how many of my friends that do not regularly come to the snow, would understand what a day like this is really worth.

First of all you must understand that a day like this, ‘a blue sky powder day’, it’s a rare occasion; even more if you consider that this is one took place mid-week, when a lot less people is in the mountain (you will understand later why this is so important).

On Tuesday evening it started to snow right after lunch. The wind picked up and visibility dropped. Everything (for a change) was according to the weather forecast. A winter storm advisory was issued for later Tuesday afternoon. Through the night and most of the day Wednesday the wind gusted ferociously and the snow fell incessantly. It’s a beautiful picture… the trees full of white snow flakes covering the leaves, the sound of the wind only interrupted by the chains when the snow removal tractor comes to take out the snow that otherwise would prevent us from moving the car. In all honesty we had no plans of leaving the house. We are well prepared. Good healthy food (obviously – Clara is in charge of the groceries for the snow), a video, the wood fire burning and cracking, and as if this was not enough, the Australian Tennis Open on TV. You get the picture! It’s a fantastic day only disturbed by brief yet frequent rushes of anxiety – the thoughts of the snow coming to interrupt my photography studies.

Before going to bed we make the important agreement of the wake-up time. Our morning ritual somehow has gone from 2 to 3 hours, the minimum required before we can actually leave the house. You know… the typical things; yoga, meditation, breakfast and the ritual of getting dressed for the snow that is a process in itself. Given my strong requirements – only as strict on powder days – we need to be there before the lift opens. This means that tomorrow we will wake-up at 5.30am. The night is mainly pleasant, only altered by a somewhat brief occurrence of insomnia at 3.00am due to the excitement of the day to come.

At 6.00 I call the Snow Report line and everything is as expected; over 18 inches (70 cms) of fresh powder, blue skies and no wind. I mean… what else I can ask for. Diligently we undertake the morning ritual to ensure we make it on time to the lift opening. I run through the parking lot and when I am finally out and ready, of course there is a line on chair 8. Somehow there seems to be always, someone even more anxious than me. As I go up the mountain the view is fantastic. ; fresh powder sitting on the mountain like a white cake cover, perfect, smooth and untouched.

The few minutes that it takes to get to the top of chair 8 feel endless. In the distance I begin to see people making tracks in the fresh powder. The guys in front of me yells (half serious half jokingly) ‘Dude… get out of my powder’. Even though I do not share the approach, I do feel his pain. See, this is what powder is all about. It’s all about the ‘freshies’. It’s guaranteed that at some point while waiting in the lift you will overhear this conversation between two ‘dudes’ dressed in oversized boarding clothes… ‘man… did you catch some freshies coming down 22?’

I finally get off, but this is only a transition lift. I have carefully planned the first runs of the day, to ensure I can maximize the freshies. I’ve taken into consideration the snow fall, the direction of the wind (since it will wipe some areas of the mountain while filling others) and carefully chosen the lifts that I expect will have less people due to difficulty in access. Yet, this is a challenging task. The many years of strategic planning do not prepare you well enough for this situation, because you also have to add the variable of the time each lift will open. Some take longer since snow patrol is dynamiting the mountains to prevent avalanches. Nothing can be worst that riding to your carefully selected lift to find out that it will be closed for another hour, while feeling in your heart how the rest of the fresh powder is eaten away by hungry and passionate boarders and skiers.

I am finally at the base of 22, which is the first destination of the day. This will open the right side of the mountain to me, providing incredible elevation and steep rides to fully enjoy the powder. As the operator opens the lift the mood changes. The relaxed ‘dude’ talks all fade away as there is only one thing in mind now: to keep your spot in the line and go up first. Much like the start of a car race, when you hear the motors roar, you can hear the boards and skies moving forward and squeezing the powder, creating a sound similar to the one made by the ropes of a boat that is docked.

The feeling of riding powder is hard to describe. It’s similar to sliding effortlessly over shaving cream. The background is the almost unreal silence and beauty of the mountains in high and remote elevations. On top, is the faint sound of the board gracefully cutting through the powder and the involuntary screams produced from the unlimited pleasure and excitement that comes from this experience. I used to think that it was only me that experienced this necessity to scream while going down the mountain, but a brief talk with a few boarders on the lift reveals that it’s a common need, only natural due to the rare circumstances.

This is the beginning of a fantastic day; a day with mixed feelings. You know that a short while from now not much will be left to ride – everything will be tracked down. Finding freshies becomes more like a hunt through the trees in not so frequently used lifts. But it’s all worth it. Every minute, all the anxiety it’s worth it… just for the few rides that I get to make my own tracks over the fresh white blanket that the mountain has provided.

As if the day could get any better, I get back to the lodge to find that Clara has loved the powder. Getting her to board has been an ongoing balancing act of dealing with my expectations. Needless to say the idea of riding together crosses my mind often, but I know better than to expect anything… it prevents disillusion! At least for today it has been great. She loved it and she is making carefully crafted turns at unforeseen speeds as she goes down the hill… What else can I ask for? I really feel really privileged to be living the life I am living. I am extremely grateful!
Until the next adventure! Take care. Martin.