Different Types of Snow as There's no such thing as bad snow, only bad skiers?

Wind affected crust polystyrene snow

A Guide to the Different Types of Snow From Powder Through to Spring Snow & How Best to Ski Them

The vast percent of skiers are happy to just ski the piste, though that too can change from day to day - and often during the day. Off-piste can be dream-like or a nightmare depending on the snowpack encountered, the temperature and the time of day.

This Guide will explain the different types of snow, from corduroy on the piste to champagne powder off-piste. Skiing can be a dream, but there are many times in reality when it's hardpack on the piste and wind-blown crud off-piste and you have to know how to adapt your skiing to the snowpack.

The picture above is the author with a nigh-on 10cm thick crust of snow that certainly is not easy to ski on; luckily he was climbing on skins (ski-touring) instead!

Mountain folklore/legend has it that the Inuit (Eskimos) have over 52 words to describe snow. 

In his book, The Language of the Inuit, Louis-Jacques Dorais writes of 25 basic terms related to snow, including 'matsaaq' (half-melted snow on the ground), 'aumannaq' (snow on the ground about to melt), 'illusaq' (perfect snow for building an igloo) and 'qannialaaq' (small soft snow).

In some Intuit dialects, expressions refer to 'packed, melted snow, where a dog slept', 'the first snow of autumn' and even 'snowbank formed by a south-easterly wind'. 

Skiing in France over the years I've found that the French do seem to have many more descriptions for snow; not bad for a language that does not have a word for 'faff', which features in so many skiers' vocabularies :)

Currently, whether it's a sign of climate change (which I think it is) or it's the effect of El Niño for this season's spring like temps in January, it's like the end-of-season piste conditions in front of Style Altitude's HQ here in Serre Chevalier, with hard icy corduroy first thing in resort, giving way to huge moguls of slush early afternoon.

This feature is primarily focused on off-piste/backcountry snow-pack, but first, a few paragraphs on the types of snow you might well ski on the piste, and the reasons for them.

Manchester* / Corduroy / Groomers (Damée) - the result of the overnight grooming of the a piste basher (une dameuse) that you'll see working up the hill into the early hours.

Groomed Manchester Cordoroy different types of snow
 

The perfect corduroy is bashed fresh cold snow that has just the right amount of grip to let you rip on your GS carving skis with temps hovering around zero. But be warned these nigh-on perfect conditions do not last for more than an hour or so if the resort is busy and will quickly become skied out, so the best option in high season is to get first lifts and head to those pistes that offer the best gradient to get your Carv IQ up.

 

*What the Scandinavians call cordouroy as it was produced in Manchester!

However be warned, should it rain after the pistes have been groomed and then re-freeze overnight, especially for lower runs back into resort, then just trying to get any edge is nigh on impossible.

Boiler Plate / Hardpack is often the result of the piste being skied out, which occurs in the busy holiday periods combined with a lack of fresh snow, as the groomed snow is swept away to the sides of the piste leaving the hardpack snow underneath, which is often artificial snow, and is far more resilient to melt cycles, which brings us nicely to...

Ice which is created by the hard snow melting in those areas in direct sunlight enough for it to transform to ice when temperatures drop and it re-freezes.

And then later in the day should temperatures rise...

Velcro is when you can be skiing down perfectly well on a flattish trail (green run) and suddenly your skis slow right down and your knee-caps threaten to blow out with your lack of momentum. Basically your skis can't cope with the sudden temperature change in the snow resulting in you slowing up. If this is the precursor to the trail opening up maybe on a steeper pitch (blue) in more direct sunlight, you'll then be skiing Slush (Neige Fondante / Neige Fondu), which, with the passage of many skiers, will transform into substantial moguls proving challenging for beginner/intermediates though quite good fun on a snowboard!

Piste skiing can be transformed with only 5cms or so of fresh snow on groomed, often wrongly referred to as Dust on Crust, and for many, the ease of skiing fresh on the piste is the start of the journey to seek out fresh snow, and then referring to all fresh snow as Powder :)

What is the life cycle and subsequent terminology of fresh snow that has fallen?

That freshly fallen cold light-dry snow that doesn't contain moisture (Powder), when temperatures are well below freezing; is frustrating for children in that they can't make a snowball or a snow-person :)

One way to look at the different types of snow is to consider the time of year/temperature of when the snow actually falls

To truly get that *Champagne Powder you need temps close to -10C or more (colder) when it's snowing.

In the majority of European ski stations that is quite rare, hence hard-core skiers will travel to find that perfect Pow, with the obvious destination being Japan, and JaPow, as well as Colorado, and, in the past, I've travelled to Siberia in search of it!

*Champagne Powder® is a trademark registered by Steamboat Ski Resort. It was local rancher Joe McElroy who coined the phrase back in the 50s, declaring that the light powder tickled his nose like champagne.

Closer to home I encountered the Italian Folletti  (goblins), which delivered fresh powder every day, so light it was Italian Fairy Dust / Smoke, on a memorable trip to Val Maira. On that day, my good friend, mountain guide Per As was skiing in Abries Queyras, where he said that it was his best day skiing ever, anywhere in the world including Japan!

The picture below is when I encountered the Italian Smoke / Fairy Dust.

Style Altitude Italian folletti fairy dust different types of snow
 

More often than not in Europe, below 2,000m the snow will be a little heavier as it falls, as temperatures are nowhere near as cold, so yes it will be powder, but very rarely *Blower Pow delivering face-shot after face-shot. Often when storm-riding you are restricted to the lower altitude slopes/forest due to avalanche risk, and you'll often find that the snow is heavy, requiring a steep gradient to be able to ski, or you just straight-line it.

*Blower Pow or Blow Pow is any fresh snow that when blown off the palm of your hand magically hovers in the air.

As for how to ski Powder, when it's as light as that in the picture above it's easy. In fact we've taken a crew to Japan to learn to ski powder, some who prior to going were paranoid about skiing off-piste. By the end of the week they were skiing thigh deep JapPow!

However back closer to home, I've witnessed skiers who only really skied in Japan come face to face with EuroPow and they found it really hard going.

Because the Powder is not as light you have to be more precise, mentally developing a technique and thinking about how you are skiing. It's far more of a learning curve than skiing JapPow. Many on their one week vacation might not encounter pure Powder in their skiing lifetime, unless they go to Japan.

Ski choice is important, I would always recommend a ski with a waist of around 110 to help with that all-important float. The most dedicated off/piste freeride skis now have exaggerated amounts of tail and tip rocker, again to help with the float.

Sometimes when stormriding you have to accept the limitations on offer, namely lack of visibility and your technique. That's when tree skiing is the way to go, but not so good, if you're still trying to master off-piste.

So what happens after that initial winter snowfall?

 

 

One thing that we hope for after a decent dump in Europe, is that the sky will clear overnight into the early hours and temperatures will drop and some of the moisture of the fresh snow will be sucked out producing a much lighter snowpack, as close to Champagne Powder as we can get!

So, even in the depths of winter the fresh snowpack evolves, sometimes very quickly, but it is only at altitude in the lee (protected) of the wind on north-facing slopes that the powder will remain. This will metamorphose into cold snow and various sub-sects of that.

So if there's not too much wind, the snow on north-facing slopes will evolve from:

  1. Fresh light dry Champagne / Fairy Dust Powder/Duvet 
  2. Cold Snow / Powder / Fraîche
  3. Cold snow 

Sometimes the wind, and more about that later, can almost add to the cold smoke effect of skiing powder as you can see in the video below, and look how windy it is on the ridge above!

 

And then on south-facing slopes, it is very different as the sun has an effect, even in January when it is low in the sky. The cold snow will quickly transform depending on the gradient and aspect. 

  1. Fresh light dry Champagne / Fairy Dust Powder quickly transforms to...
  2. Creamy Powder (Crémeuse) that then freezes overnight to produce a...
  3. Breakable crust

However, if you time it right then that Creamy Powder is an absolute joy to ski and even if you find yourself ski-touring up on Breakable Crust thinking this is not going to be good, if you're in luck with your timing, the crust will melt (until it refreezes again) and you're left with a delicious creamy snow that is easy to ski and very forgiving.

 

And then the spanner in the works, the wind

What happens so often is that, as the weather front that produced the dump tracks through, it is followed by another colder front (clear night) and that can be accompanied by strong localised winds, which trashes the snow off-piste. So you get off the lift in the morning to be faced with this :(

Style Altitude Italian folletti fairy dust different types of snow
 

This is when off-piste skiing becomes very different/difficult, as the snowpack sucks the confidence out of you, especially if you've been injured skiing before. There are many names for the snow affected by the wind (Soufflée), with the most dramatic being Sastrugi, which are the more obvious wavelets of snow created by the wind. These are fairly easy to spot and best avoided as they are just not fun to ski on. However sometimes you do have to ski over them to get to the better snow, just don't try to turn too much. :)

Windblown Snow (Powder) that's been blown into gulleys can be good to ski if you can find the right aspect and ski in the lee of the ridge/gulley where it has been less affected or where the snow has been blown into.

Transported snow deposited by strong winds is the precursor to an increasing risk of avalanches, as the wind trashes the snow, the crystals lose their cohesion and create an unstable snowpack with a weak layer, and deposited snow on top of that will form a slab, and if the gradient of the slope is greater than 30° (sometimes less) the slab can release naturally or by way of a skier, or just a large accumulation of snow on top of hardpack snow is equally dangerous.

Style Altitude avalanche different types of snow
 

And just to put it into perspective!

Style Altitude avalanche crown different types of snow
 

More often than not, due to the trashed nature of the crystals (Grésil), they can quickly become Hardpacked snow / Neige dure, similar to artificial snow found on the piste, and along with Sastrugi can last long into the season as they take a long time to melt.

The below image of a skin track shows the effect of compressed snow from the weight of the ski-tourers and how it's more resilient to melt and wind compared to the surrounding snow.

Style Altitude wind blown different types of snow
 

The term Variable/Varied Snow Pack is often used to describe the types of snow you could well come across, especially when ski-touring; after a period of no recent snowfall, warmer temps and obviously where the wind has been active but that is way too vague a description and does not encapsulate how difficult or not the terrain might be to ski.

One advantage of ski-touring is that on the way up you can spot the best snow to ski, but even then what looks perfect can deal you an unpleasant surprise!

Style Altitude wind blown different types of snow
 

More often than now the skill when skiing off-piste is not so much the skiing but being able to identify when windblown snow might be good to ski.

What is, unfortunately, more prevalent and looks innocuous is wind-affected snow, which has a number of names, with Crust /  Polystyrene / Croûtée / Cartonnée and sometimes it's not until you start skiing it, that you quite realise what you've let yourself in for. 

Basically, the top layer which can be anything from a few centimetres up to 10cm, covers the soft snow underneath. Skiing it, we describe as technical, and often it's not very pretty. Telltale signs can be skiers' tracks which resemble a pair of tram lines and far wider (safer) turns, as the crust has a nasty habit of catching a ski.

A wide heavy ski I find works well. Try to ski aggressively, which for me at least plays havoc with my knees.

 

Telltale tracks of Croûtée

Style Altitude Crust Croûtée tracks different types of snow
 

The other obvious sign is the amount of chunks of crust that are thrown up, which we refer to as Shrapnel.

So that was winter what happens in spring?

As we live in Serre Chevalier at 1,400m we're not blessed with too many 3,000m peaks with relatively easy access from lifts such as in Verbier, so we have to make the most of what we have. We're extremely lucky to have great accessible ski touring terrain close by, and some of our favourite ski tour routes are best in the spring offering Spring Snow that's up there with PowPow

When you ski and stop you hear the sssssh noise of the sugar-like crystals rolling down after you, superb!

Style Altitude Spring Snow different types of snow
 

Spring snow has many names and derivatives, and in any one day you can encounter different types, depending on time of day, temperature, wind, cloud, aspect, gradient and some luck :)

The best spring snow (Corn) is as smooth as a carpet, no ripples. There's hard crust first thing before the top 5-8cm of the surface slowly melts, with a relatively hard layer below. You don't want to be sinking straight through, as that's called Rotten Snow/Neige Pourrie.

If you're venturing out on a classic spring ski tour you could well encounter a number of different snowpacks and witness the all-important transformation, which is what spring snow is all about, the freeze/melt cycle from one day to the next. The freeze/melt process depends on low temperatures for the freeze and warmer temps for the melt with altitude and freezing level playing an important part of the equation.

If the snow hasn't frozen sufficiently or doesn't melt then it's game over, so checking the forecast is critical.

Starting out early on a ski tour you could well encounter the following from the start, again depending on aspect.

Frozen snow ice / Neige Glacée, requiring ski crampons to skin up
Transforming snow Velcro / Carpet / Moquette
Transformed snow Corn / Décaillée
Heavy/Lourde Sticky/Collante Wet/Mouillée
Rotten Snow/Neige pourrie

The Carpet just about cooked/transformed, ready to offer great skiing.

Style Altitude Spring Snow Transformation different types of snow
 

Quite often you will still come across the remnants of Sastrugi in spring, now smaller wavelets but still not too much fun to ski on even when they've softened up. The only hope is that they'll eventually melt away but that is not always the case. 

And what about Janvril snow falls?

The snow doesn't stop falling in spring, it's just that you have to deal with a very different snowpack off-piste as it gets heavy very very quickly, often referred to as Cement as it warms up so fast. For sure you might be skiing powder if you get first lifts and stick to north-facing slopes but by 11:00 it can be too heavy the only option being to go high as possible.

We can have 25cm on the terrace overnight and by noon it's gone.

Also when ski touring you have to know when to call it a day from a safety view, as once the snow starts melting, huge wet snow avalanches are a common and dangerous occurrence.

Style Altitude Comveynot Avalanche different types of snow
 

And what other terms for snow are there?

One of the most obvious is Crud, and or Chop, which refers to tracked-out cold snow that's often quite heavy, not great fun to ski with bad knees but learning to ski off-piste it's essential to give it a go as it will help you be a better skier.

And much-underrated snow, Chalk, which is cold snow, often found on the piste as well as tracked out off-piste.

French do have many other phrases, such as Tracée, which is when a few people have skied an area, but still plenty left, and then Trafollée, which is frozen tracked out snow not a lot of fun to ski, also known as Béton avec rails (Concrete with rails).

Soupe or Polenta are other names for soft wet snow close to Rotten Snow.

Roulée or Grésil are small frozen goblets of snow that are known as Facets and often form a weak layer in the snow. 

And then  Fondante which is Corn snow in an advanced state of the melt cycle (nigh on slush), which is better on a snowboard than skis.

 

 

Other factors that can produce a memorable different type of snow is that of Saharan Dust transported by strong winds from Africa and then falling as rain on the snow, and the snow-pack takes on the Orange tint that you can see, also referred to Neige de Sable.

Style Altitude Neige de Sable different types of snow
 
Style Altitude Neige de Sable different types of snow