14 Mar 2021
When I was a kid growing up in Tahoe a frequently heard proclamation was, “You know, Eskimos have 22 different words for snow.” Not sure if that was true, but Sierra snow aficionados probably have at least that many. While all snow is frozen water, the ski or walking experience is greatly effected by the temperature as the snow comes down, the temperature when you are sliding on top of it, and how long it has been since it last snowed.
Snow comes out of the sky in all sorts of different ways: as huge slowly dropping flakes, wind blown mini flakes, graupel that will sting your face if you walk into the wind, and we hope most often as Goldilocks just right sized soft and fluffy powder piling up several inches an hour. Sometimes your morning shovel feels like you are moving cement, other times it’s so light and fluffy you could sweep it off your deck.
Once snow has created a deep blanket of white it begins a process of transformation. It changes from powder, to sticky, to hard pack, to springlike: crust in the morning transitioning first to a few brief hours of corn, followed by sticky mash potatoes in the afternoon.
The first couple days after it snows you can stick a pole through the soft snow a foot or more, but then as the days without snow proceed a crust forms on the top. It starts out as a breakable crust that holds you some of the time, and some of the time your collapse through. This is when you are holding your breath as you cross the snow hoping it will hold. Finally, the freezing and thawing process creates a firm enough crust to allow you to flow over the snow while barely leaving a mark. This is time for skate skiing across the meadows.
Eventually, warm temperatures and a lack of new snow leads to the snow starting to get thin and it becomes icy and dirty in the morning. These translucent icy super thin sections turn into a mid-day slushy mixture that looks like a gray who knows what flavor Slurpee at 7-11. That is when it is definitely either time to pray for more snow, or get your bike and hiking boots ready for action.