How to Ski the Best Snow on the Mountain Every Day of the Year
Learn the secrets to finding the best snow on the mountain from ski expert, Thomas Harari.
As someone who skis the same resort at least a few times a week, I’ve learned how to find the softest snow on the mountain every day. There’s much more to it than finding untracked powder. How do you find good snow when there is no fresh snow to be found? With a basic understanding of the movement of the sun and Earth, you can start to make informed decisions and be strategic in your run choice to ski the best snow possible every day.
Disclaimer: This is specific to skiing within a ski resort, not in the backcountry. The same strategies can be used in the backcountry, but avalanche danger must also be taken into account. The snow conditions described below are most specific to an intermountain snowpack.
Factors to Keep in Mind
The Earth’s Direction of Rotation The Earth rotates counterclockwise when viewed from the North Pole. This means that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, which in turn means that east-facing slopes get more morning sun, and west-facing slopes get more afternoon sun. Afternoon sun is typically warmer, as the warmest part of the day is usually in the afternoon.
North-Facing Slopes Because of the curvature of the earth, a north-facing slope in the Northern Hemisphere will not get much sun during the winter. Check out the below diagram. That red slope will not actually see the sun at all, while the black one will have pretty direct sun all day.
The further north the mountain is, the less sun that slope will get. This means a north-facing slope in Alaska will get far less sun at the same time of the year than a north-facing slope in Utah. Conversely, a south-facing slope in Alaska will get more sun than a south-facing slope in Utah.
How the Sun Affects the Snow When the snow is still in powder form, even if it’s skied out or packed, the sun will cause some melting, causing it to later refreeze and become icy. If the snow has already been refrozen once, the sun will soften the snow and make for better skiing.
Slope Steepness and Elevation The steeper the north-facing slope, the less sun it will get, but a steeper south-facing slope will get extra sun. This means that the most shaded slopes of all time will be north-facing and as steep as possible.
The higher you are in elevation, the colder it gets. This means that snow will stay frozen at higher elevations longer than at the base of the mountain. At some resorts with less vertical feet of skiing, this is not really noticeable. At resorts with 2,000+ feet of skiing, this can be a gamechanger!
Temperature Swings The temperature is always going to fluctuate in the mountains, but you will want to watch the temperature specifically since the last snow to see if it has thawed or refrozen.
For the most part there are two different scenarios:
- Cold Temperatures - It’s stayed cold or relatively close to freezing with not much direct sun. There is no new snow and the mountain is firm or icy. Look to north- or east-facing slopes where there has been little sun to see if there is still soft snow that hasn’t seen the sun yet! If it warms up above freezing, check out some of the south-facing slopes to see if the extra sun they are getting causes them to soften.
- Warm Temperatures - It’s been spring skiing in soft slushy snow. Each morning the mountain is rock solid, but throughout the day it warms up. In the morning, check out south-facing slopes that have been getting sun as they will soften sooner than others. If you find that these slopes get too soft and slushy, transition to more north-facing slopes where there is less sun.
The Wind Wind can carry snow from one area on the mountain to another. On windy days you may find some areas to be especially icy. Follow the wind from these areas to see if you can find where all of this snow is blowing to. If the snow has stayed cold and dry, these windblown pockets can feel like skiing fresh powder (and even refill themselves in between runs). If the snow is wetter, these pockets may be very challenging to ski, sometimes the consistency of wet sand (not so fun).
Scenario 1: Cold and Dry - No New Snow It hasn’t snowed in a while and been in the teens for a week! Things are super firm. Check out those north- and east-facing slopes to see if there is softer snow left, and see if there is anywhere the wind has deposited it!
Scenario 2: Spring Skiing Check the overnight temperatures. Did it refreeze last night? If it did, ski some south-facing slopes first thing as they will soften the quickest. If it gets warmer and too soft and slow, move over to some north-facing slopes. If it didn’t refreeze, things will already be soft in the morning. It’s likely that some of the south-facing slopes will become too soft too quickly, but north-facing slopes will remain a bit more firm. It’s unlikely any windblown snow will ski well in these conditions.
Scenario 3: Dust on Crust You got new snow overnight, but previous days have created some serious ice underneath! If it has been warm recently, head to the south-facing slopes where the snow underneath may not be as frozen. If it’s been cold, try and find the most shaded north facing snow possible. Hopefully the old snow underneath didn’t melt and then refreeze!
The snow changes every single day, and even throughout the day, so sometimes part of the game is chasing that good snow! Ever wonder how some people can ski three to five days a week at the same resort? This is what keeps us entertained!
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