The Survivor’s Guide to Skiing and Stoke in the PNW

Skiing the West coast is nothing short of unique. Curated expert Virginia G. explains why you should bump it up on your bucket list.

The summit of snow-topped mountain rising from the clouds

Photo by Ryan Stone

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I grew up skiing the East, spent my youth on resorts across the Western states of Montana, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming, and then landed in Colorado to advance my ski bum career in adulthood. All I ever knew was ice, champagne powder, and the various forms of crud in between. After spending three seasons spoiled by light fluffy snow that never seemed to lose its luster, no matter how many days it sat around without a refresh, the Pacific Northwest came calling and it was time for yet another Westward ho.

When relaying plans of my impending move to Washington, every reaction was laced with a disparaging comment about the perils of Cascade concrete or Sierra cement. The way people described their west coast snow experiences, you would have thought they had skied across a battlefield and lived to tell the tale. I thought, “How bad could it really be? There’s no way the snow can be THAT different”. Well, I am here to tell you with great certainty that it is in fact THAT different… which is also what makes it diabolically awesome. It demands a respect and consideration that the snows of the East and West let us skiers very loosely observe.

Sleepily grabbed your narrower skis instead of your powder planks on a Colorado snow morning? Have no fear, you’ll still be flying across those mountains with a smile! Forgot to pack your base layers on a Northeast road trip and had to grab some cotton T’s at Walmart? No worries, you'll be freezing and unable to sweat all day anyway!

The PNW does not allow for such mistakes. Its lower elevations, combined with higher temperatures and humidity offer warm, damp days and heavier-than-lead snow that will leave even the hardest of core wet, exhausted, and begging for a break. So let’s take a look at what the PNW asks you to consider if you’re planning on gracing it’s slopes, lest an epic day turn into a disaster.

Must-Haves

Waterproof Outer Layers!

It WILL be raining at the bottom of the mountain and your ski pants WILL soak through on the chairlift. You know how snow usually stays in “snow form” and picturesquely rests in your jacket and pants’ creases? Out there, it will melt into a puddle faster than you can unzip your pit vents. Gore-Tex reigns supreme but it also comes with a high price tag. Luckily, there are more budget friendly material alternatives like eVent and Patagonia’s H2No, and with technology ever improving, the list goes on!

Moisture Wicking Base Layers!

You WILL sweat bullets. One top-to-bottom leg-burning run or climb out of a snowbank and you’ll be dripping. Think merino wool or other wicking synthetic, like polyester. Check out Craghoppers Merino Base Layer Pants.

A Boot Dryer!

Again, with the sweat...

The Right Skis!

That mid-waist one ski quiver you’ve toted to every mountain along your cross country jaunt just might not cut it when you finally make it past Idaho. If blessed with a super deep day, you could be sunk, quite literally. Some awesome powder sticks to check out are the Moment Deathwish Skis and the Fischer Ranger 107Ti Skis. I or any of my fellow Ski experts are happy to help you find your perfect setup here at Curated!

Prepare For

The “11 AM Soak”!

This term I coined as the best way to describe what happens, like clockwork, approximately 2 hours after lifts open. In my mind’s eye, a team of elves emerges and armed with water hoses, gives the slopes a quick, solid soak, thereby enhancing the snow’s cement-like quality nearly instantaneously. So wake up early, grab first chair, and don’t take a break until your legs turn to mush. Some may consider this phenomenon a drag, but I’ve embraced it as an excuse to ski hard and quit early without the guilt and pangs of FOMO… Who doesn’t love crushing out some laps and having a whole day remain for late morning coffee and early afternoon beer?

Prepare To

Sleep in a Parking Lot!

Many resorts sit at the end of one lane roads or on the side of a mountain pass, so if you want to make sure you're riding on a powder morning and not sitting in traffic behind a plow, you best make sure you’re already on the hill. Luckily for us, most mountains offer overnight lots at minimal cost and a chill car camping vibe.

Just Send it!

DON’T STOP… even when your legs are burning and you feel like you have nothing beneath you but a pair of pathetic noodles, just keep skiing. Because when it’s deep, and you stop to take that break in the middle of that run because the alternative might be to collapse, you will come to a dead halt, unable to escape from the wet, heavy, snow-walled hole that you just created for yourself. In this moment, momentum does not exist and you will be humbled to the point of questioning the entirety of your skiing ability. And yes, I know this from personal experience.

So now that you know the pitfalls of skiing in the Pacific Northwest and how to avoid them, let’s get back to that diabolical awesomeness so you might actually be stoked to explore it! Did you know that the sound of PNW snow is like that of nowhere else? Imagine “hearing” it’s weight as you slice through it with your skis, creating a thunderous squeak of compression. As you bounce from turn to turn, a gutteral whooshing sound follows your trail, and you can’t help the propulsion to exclaim, “woot woot!” You’re never really floating above the snow, you’re floating in and through it, forging a tunnel that you pray gets you to the bottom before you have to stop… and when you do, the satisfaction and glee ignite as you turn around, look back up, and say to yourself, “that was awesome”.

The Pacific Northwest often gets overlooked in the ski community, with a combination of factors contributing to its lesser reputation; the mountains aren’t as “impressive”, the snow is “imperfect”, and the resorts offer less vertical, acreage, and amenities. It lacks the allure of those Western destination resorts which populate the pages of ski magazines, and it never went on to adopt its own version of “Ski the East”, a brand, phrase, and regional culture that not only fuels the pride and loyalty of its own skiers but entices those to visit from the outside. But I’m okay with its lesser reputation because that betters our chances of enjoying it in solitude.

From where I’m sitting, a day skiing in the Pacfic Northwest can be nothing short of epic. The rush you get from dominating waist high concrete is unparalleled; it has a locals only energy, consistent and significant snowfall, and the lower altitude and warmer maritime climate mean you’re never cold or short of breath (and let’s be real, that’s a really nice feeling).

And now that you’re armed with survival tips and stoke, dial up your google maps and start studying those states furthest up and over to the left. You’ll see a bunch of red bubbles appear on mountains you never knew existed and are so worthy of discovery.

If you have any questions or are looking to find the right gear for your next PNW adventure, please feel free to reach out to me or one of my fellow Ski experts here at Curated.

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Written By
I grew up skiing with my dad and knew by the age of 15 that I wanted to be a ski bum. After graduating college and dabbling in a variety of vocations I moved to Telluride, CO to fulfill my dream. While working for 3 years as a lift operator and ski coach I developed a deep passion for the mountain l...

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