Tahoe Cross-Country Skiing… well it’s about time!

Tahoe Cross-Country instructor and resident everything Tim Hauserman contributed this update on Tahoe’s Nordic conditions. Read on to find out about all the types of snow one can encounter on the trail.

Finally, on Monday January 23, the ski season began for cross-country ski areas in Tahoe. It had been a long, strange trip where instead of skiing in December and January local folks were hiking on dirt trails to ice skate on frozen lakes in Desolation Wilderness. They were bike riding, hiking, paddleboarding, sitting on beaches… and some of you, and you know who you are, even became famous for bikini ice skating on Tenaya Lake… bikini ice skating… sorry, I lost my train of thought. But then just before it got better, it got worse. Several inches of rain—water that should have been frozen—came pouring down one particularly depressing evening, leading more than one of us to consider hari-kari. And then finally, it snowed a foot and a half at lake level, and we were in business.

Now, 10 days later the cross-country skiing, especially the skate skiing, is quite good. With one major caveat: while the snow is good, it is pretty dang thin. Tahoe Cross-Country has been keeping the trails as good as they can be with the help of a cadre of volunteers who have been shoveling gobs of snow onto the vulnerable spots. So the skiing is good…but given the lack of a big storm in the forecast, you best get yourself out there pronto.

Speaking of snow, mountain people look at snow as a lot more than white frozen water. Here is an excerpt from my book Cross-Country Skiing in the Sierra Nevada, published by the Countryman Press, with information on how a cross-country skier looks at snow.

Know Your Snow

There is a great American myth that Eskimos have 22 or 100 or 1,000 words for snow (depending upon who is spreading the myth). While I have no idea how many words Eskimos have for snow, those in the skiing world have come up with a few choice words as well. A number of factors determine what kind of snow you will encounter when you reach the trailhead, including how cold it was when the snow came down, how long it has been since it has snowed and whether the temperature has reached above freezing during the day. Over time as snow thaws and refreezes at night it changes its consistency. After a few days of this cycle the snow tends to be frozen and hard in the morning, turning softer as the day progresses. Cold, dry snow has lots of sharp crystals which make your skis go slower. Wet snow that has frozen is very fast, while wet snow that is melted and soft is slow and sticky. At groomed ski areas, snow is affected by the grooming that is performed daily.  In the springtime, grooming machines operate in the evening, which allows the freshly groomed track to “set up” overnight. This leaves a nice, smooth and firm surface in the morning. During snowstorms, however, in order to provide groomed trails, the machines have to go out in the morning, and sometimes keep grooming throughout the day. If it is a major snowstorm, the groomers often can’t keep up with the snow and then you will be skiing in soft powder, which is great for downhillers, OK for striders, but not so good for skaters.

While I am sure there are a number of sophisticated terms scientists would use for all the different types of snow a skier in the Sierra will encounter (and a few words that cannot be repeated in front of the children for the snows of the Northeastern United States), skiers have developed their own names. Here is my list for the different types of snow a ski skater may encounter on the trail in the Sierra Nevada:

Boilerplate – This is that rock solid, hard as a rock, shiny as a piece of quartz snow. Snow might actually be a misnomer as it is actually close to ice. Boilerplate occurs early in a ski season when you a) have not had much snow yet and b) even the little snow you received was a few weeks ago, and c) it is cold. This icy snow is hard to get an edge and requires you to ski right on top of your skis. It can be pretty dangerous, especially on steep sections. The only way to avoid boilerplate is to ski later in the day when it has had a chance to soften up. Better yet, stay home and pray for snow.

Hardpack – One step towards softness from boilerplate is hardpack. While still firm and icy, you can usually get a bit of an edge and are less likely to slide off the trail into a tree. In the springtime, hardpack is often called “crusty” or “morning crust.” Skiers who like hard pack call it “fast,” as in, “yeah the conditions were fast this morning.”  Skiers who don’t like hard pack conditions, call it boilerplate.

Firm – Next in line on the firmness scale is what I call firm. For skate skiers firm is usually pretty good skiing. It is hard enough to be fast, but not so hard as to be unforgiving.

Soft and Buttery, Silk, Butter, Just Right, Awesome, Corn – The better the snow for skiing, the more names it has, and for cross-country skiing, this is as good as it gets. Not too hard, not too soft, but right in the middle and just right. Often it will be very firm, then firm, then just perfect as the day progresses. The just-right snow can also be known as butter or silk. It is fast but forgiving and will always put a smile on your face. The problem with just-right snow is that it doesn’t last long. Once the snow becomes flawless, it soon will change to soft and sticky.  Often as you are skating along in the morning you may ski over every type of snow. Hard pack under the shade of the trees, soft and buttery in some sections where the sun just hit, and soft and sticky in the areas that have been sunny all morning.

Soft and Sticky – Once the sun really hits the snow it can get very sticky. The right wax can help, but it is best to be off the trails before the snow gets sticky, as it is hard work and not much fun. The initial phase of soft and sticky snow is still pretty fast and fun to ski in, but as the hours progress the snow slowly turns into the dreaded…

Glob-Mashed Potatoes-Glue – This is the snow that really fits its names. Very soft, dirty, sticky, gluey, messy… Yeck! Best to be avoided if possible. This snow is also known as Sierra cement. As with boilerplate, it is time to pray for snow.

So when your prayers are finally answered and a big storm brings in a fresh new load of snow (also known as a major dump) it is time to experience several other types of snow:

Groomed Powder – During or right after a big storm the snow is cold and dry—beautiful but slow conditions for a Nordic skier.  If you are both a downhill and cross-country skier, this is probably the day to hit the downhill slopes, giving the snow a few days to set up on the Nordic trails. If there has been more than a foot of snow and the trails have only been groomed once or twice, you may “punch through” the snow. This means that your skating skis don’t stay on the top of the snow, but punch through several inches. Slow, slow, slow. It is a great workout, however, and if the snow is really coming down, it can be spectacularly beautiful.   Just don’t expect to set any speed records.

Firm Powder – A day or two after the powder, when the snow has been groomed at least a few times, you will find firm powder.  The downhill resorts call this Packed Powder, of course they still call it packed powder three weeks later when it has progressed to boilerplate. While firm powder is not as fast as hard pack snow, it has sped up a bit and you will no longer punch through. This is a great time to be skiing.  Especially if the trees are still laden with snow and the air is crisp and cool.

Other types of snow:

Off-piste Corn or Silk – Skate skiing is best done on groomed skating lanes at Nordic centers, except for a brief period when the off-piste (off trail) conditions set up perfectly.  If it hasn’t snowed in a few weeks, and it is freezing at night and above freezing during the day, the flat meadow off-piste areas can firm up to the point where you can ski all over the sunny, flat areas without sinking into the snow.  When the opportunity arises, be sure to take full advantage.  Some great off-piste areas to skate ski include Antone Meadows, Spooner Meadow, open areas at Kirkwood, Euer Valley, Devil’s Peak area and Big Meadow at Montecito-Sequioia.

Sun Cups – Late in the spring, after lots of warm days and cold nights without any snow, the snow surface starts to look like a giant golf ball. The sunny flats and slopes are covered with these little round dimples in the snow known as sun cups. They can be anywhere from a few inches deep to a foot or more. Skiing across a meadow full of sun cups is a rough and bouncy affair, sort of like water skiing outside the wake on a really rough day. Since sun cups occur late in the spring when much of the snow has melted they are natures way of telling you to tune up your mountain bike.

Frozen Ruts – Ruts are a springtime phenomena caused by the failure of the cross-country center to groom a trail the night before. In the spring, skiers make deep tracks in the mashed potatoes during the day, and then those ruts are all frozen in place overnight. This is perhaps my least favorite snow condition. The ruts catch your ski and are treacherous to ski over.  Nordic centers have the cure for frozen ruts: they groom the trails at night and then prohibit skiing on their trails after the grooming machines have started working in the evening. My advice for morning skiing in the spring is to only ski the trails that were groomed the night before.

Sugar – If snow has been groomed many times and the temperatures are still cold you get what is called sugar. It looks and acts like white sugar granules (except it may not improve the taste of your coffee). While skiing downhill or on the flats through the sugar is fun, if the sugar is deep and you are going uphill, it can be a struggle.

Now that you are a snow expert, you can plan your ski day:

Early Winter – If there has not been much snow yet and the days are cold, watch out for boilerplate. Ski later in the day and hope for a big dump of some freshies.

Midwinter – After a big storm, you may want to stride the first day, and then skate after that. In the middle of the storm, try to time it so that you are skiing after the grooming machine. What time of day you are skiing is less important than how long ago the grooming machine went by.

Springtime – Get out early, but not too early. You also want to make sure you enjoy that brief period of butter, but be close to home by the time it turns to glob.

Do you have a favorite type of snow, or an update on Tahoe cross-country conditions from other ski areas? Let us know in the comments.

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