Powder. It's basically the best kind of snow to ride, unless you're from Finland - in which case you're welcome to your ice... The recurring wet dream of snowboarders from Sheffield to St Anton is to ride as much as you can fill your greedy gobs with it, yet with successively shit winters the old cherry cherry has become all the more scarce. While prayer, virgin sacrifice and developing methods of cloud seeding have an outside chance of working, there are some more reliable tips to ensure that you get the best chance of scoring the goods...
1. Load the dice
Tip the odds in your favour by actually being in the right mountains at the right time of year. Ok, that's sounds like shit advice but hear us out... If you look at making your trip at the classic, mid-winter times of between January and March you statistically have a better chance of coinciding your stay with the arrival of a major snow storm.
But the wise powderphile will get deeper by looking at the historical records of different areas to see if there are any patterns to when snowfall there is highest. Then, of course, you also can look at heading to areas that have a long tradition of high, regular winter precipitation - save your coin and head to Japan would be the first option that springs to mind – and we helpfully luckily pulled together a list of other places that tend to receive an embarrassment of riches in the powder department. Just blame science or chemtrails if you get there and it's dry, though. Don't shoot the messenger...
2. Get high
Look at areas that have high-altitude riding. If the weather's warmer and a storm rolls through, it could very well rain at lower elevations but if your resort has a few hundred metres of extra vertical on it, that rain should fall as snow – plus the colder temperatures will keep powder pockets fresher for longer.
Resorts with glaciers are great for this, but beware riding on glaciers - you'll definitely want to know where you're going (and there will be no trees to help you in low visibility) and you'll definitely definitely not want to fall into a crevasse.
3. Become a weather nerd
If you have the opportunity to decide at the last minute where you want to go ride, nerding out over weather forecasts can pay dividends. As everyone knows, weather forecasting is an imprecise science, but the closer you get to the day of forecast, the greater the accuracy as the chaotic becomes more predictable.
Scouring sites like bergfex.com and snow-forecast.com has become something of an annoying, yet integral part of our lastminute.com trip destination selection process over the years, as has been checking resort webcams. Also bear in mind that storms can hit neighbouring valleys differently – last season we scored the goods in Alpbachtal while one valley over in Mayrhofen conditions were significantly less awesome – which makes for all the more reasons to get your geek on.
4. Avoid bigger resorts
The big, well-known European resorts have motorway pistes, 7465.333 kilometers of linked runs and party scenes that could leave even Pete Doherty ruined. You don't want any of this if you wanna ride pow, and avoiding both punters falling down through the white gold and grizzled powder huntsmen will result in more good stuff for your good self.
For example, Chamonix has epic terrain when it's on, but there are just so many clued up powderphiles that most zones resemble sandpits after a couple of hours and the lift line hustle is, frankly, a nightmare. Contrast this with experiences in smaller, less well-known spots where you can easily score first tracks days after a dump and we know what we'd prefer.
We've had some of our best powder days in tiny, family orientated resorts where there are just a few lifts and these are mostly filled with holidaying families who just snowplough the slopes. In such places, there's no mad rush to lap lines before they're tracked, plus they have the added advantage of tending to be a lot easier on the wallet.
5. Be quick
Regardless of whether you're in Val d'Isere or some tiny Bavarian backwater resort, it's a case of the early bird catching the worm - or worms. It goes without saying that the more time you're on the mountain, the more powder you can ride – though you should always give the new snow time to settle before hitting anything remotely steep (check the avalanche danger before you do anything).
Being first to the lift means you'll be guaranteed first tracks after a dump so make sure you peace out of the afterski early the night before, set your alarm for the crack of dawn, and get on it. Also, on the subject of being quick, literal speed on your snowboard is also important to have - you'll have more runs that way, plus you'll kick up bigger roosters and won't get bogged down and spend valuable riding time shuffling yourself out of flatspots (worst thing ever on a powder day).
Lift-accessed powder is great and all, but nine times out of 10 you'll ride better snow if you earn your turns and get your hike on. Even a short bit of bootpacking can allow you access to a bunch more pow with a bunch less tracks, so it is certainly worth the effort. Of course, we're by no means suggesting you should head off following tracks blindly into the unknown - you should always know where you're going, what the run will be like, and where it will deposit you - and you should always know the conditions, pack the avvie gear (and know who to use it) and ride with a homie if you're venturing into the beyond.
Basically, don't be this guy. Skip to 12.42 for the fall, but to this day we have no idea what he was thinking heading off into the unknown alone. Lucky dude.
7. Know your lines
Knowing your line is important to maximise both the amount of powder you can score, and your lifespan. You should have a clear idea of what you're about to ride so you know of any obstacles that could potentially hold you back from riding as much powder as possible and/or kill you. Note cliffs, rock bands, bergschrunds, thick forests, bushes and the like and make sure you know how navigate to avoid them. Making sure your exit point is as close to the lift – or bootpack or trail – as possible will also significantly boost the number of faceshots you snag in one day.
The risk of physical harm or plain death aside, there's nothing worse than watching the rest of the mountain score pow laps like Lewis Hamilton on a cocktail of amphetamines while you're busy spending two hours hiking out on a 45-degree face through tit deep snow because you took a wrong turn and got stuck on the only cliff in Les Houches. That's experience talking.
Either use a resort as a starting point before heading into the wild or dispense with resorts entirely, find a trail that leads to an attractive-looking peak, and get your split on. Split boards certainly aren't cheap, but for folk of a certain age or mentality it's certainly a better use of your money than a paying for bunch of day passes to ride hardpack or watch children perfecting stunts in the park as you gamely remember 'the good old days' on the rookie line.
Even if it hasn't snowed for a while, after a few hours of splitting you can still find yourself strapped in and ready to carve up a virgin powder field, and despite conditions weren't exactly great we've still had some of the best crap powder days ever after a bit of splitting. Plus all that skinning up will keep you fit as a fiddle, get you out into nature and allow you to bore your friends with how zen you are.
9. BUFFALO GIRL
Go round the outside of lift queues. Don't ask us why, but the inside track of a line to the lift is rarely the quickest and no one in their right mind would want to be in the central throng of dribbling fools. In our experience, taking the long way round more often than not lets you skirt any clogs in the queue, meaning you'll be back on the lift quicker and therefore bag more runs.
10. Befriend a local/Be a local
As we mentioned before, when riding powder knowing where you're going and knowing your lines is heavily important in the 'riding as much pow as possible/not dying' stakes. The easiest way to get up to speed is to get tight with a local steeped in knowledge of the resort and get him or her to take you to the best spots.
As they've no doubt been ripping pow on their home mountain since childhood, locals will have a sixth sense of where to sniff out the best conditions, will be tuned into the mountain and its quirks more finely and will know some hidden secret gems. They won't give these up willy nilly to some gobby, demanding punter, so you'll have to not be a dick, be chill and let the offer come to you. Then, make sure to respect omerta and don't tell anyone where you got that powder grin from.
There are even rumours that have passed into legend of people who know the local lifties so well that they've been able to sneak on to the earlybird workers' lift straight after a night of dumpage, that heads up a good few hours before the lifts open properly, allowing them the entire, untouched mountain to be for them and them alone. The long way round this approach is to ditch whatever it is you normally do, move to the resort and become a local.
11. Don't overlook small lines
Your eyes might naturally be drawn to the big, peak-to-valley powder runs, but there's something to be said for not forgetting about the little guys. Rather than battling it out with men with beards for the 'best' run of the day, fighting queues and hiking till your lungs bleed, you could try turning your attention to smaller, more innocuous faces that are served by a lift and require effectively zero effort.
Taking this approach, it's possible bag yourself more faceshots per day than going all in on trying to hit a big line. We've had plenty of epic days eschewing sketchier runs and just lapping Mayrhofen's Baby Tour cat track, popping off to slash the smaller powder fields between the switchbacks.
12. Embrace the whiteout
If the weather's shithouse, make sure you still go up, use the Force to find the trees, and get busy. Even in the whitest of whiteouts, visibility in the trees will be more than adequate to let you rip pow for hours of socked in bliss. Just know where you're going and try to find the contrast of the forest as soon as possible.
13. Get fit
Few things suck as much as having a perfect bluebird powder day with only a few people on the mountain, and having to call it a day around lunchtime because your body has given up on you what with all the hiking, back leg burning and digging yourself out after an innocuous tumble.
Get your lazy ass to the gym, cycle to work, go running, skate a bunch, and steer clear of too many pies and beer in the few months before you flick on shred mode, and you'll be able to go harder, faster, stronger and longer. More pow guaranteed.
14. Get rich
If all else fails, getting rich will certainly enable you to ride more pow. Not only will you not have to work and therefore be able to take advantage of any powder day that comes, you will be able to fly your private jet to wherever the hell it's good on the planet and score.
But this is only half tongue-in-cheek. For many, the pinnacle of maximising epic powder runs is to go heliboarding, but we'd have to say that you're better off spending your hard-earned cash (or abundant wealth) by going catboarding instead. Unlike helis, cats aren't as subject to the weather conditions as to if they can operate or not, plus you'll get more virgin descents per day too. They also work out cheaper (though not cheap) and your cost per faceshot will be significantly lower than if you get a ride in the ghetto bird.
Save your sheckels, book into Baldface, Big Red Cats, or any of the other respected cat operations, and it will be the best money you've ever spent.