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Season Diary - Day 6: Dancing on Ice

Updated: Jan 28

Well. Today was certainly an experience. Some of the worst skiing imaginable was found out on the slopes of La Clusaz, as a perfect storm of conditions conspired to create snow that was more like a marble counter top than anything skiable.


The origins of this began back on Monday, when pouring rain fell on most slopes below about 2,000m. This pouring rain saturated much of the snow already down, increasing its moisture content or the "Snow-Water Equivilancy" (SWE) a bit of a nerdy term used in avalanche forecasting to measure, basically, the volume of water you'd get if you melted a measure of snow.


It rained because it has been warm. Really warm. +10°C on occasion, beginning to melt the snow further down the hill. Furthermore, a lot of the very bottom slopes at the Massif du Balme, where we have been doing much of our skiing, has been maintained using artificial snow.


Normal snowflakes, like the stuff that falls from the sky, is formed around dust particles; it is these particles that form the backbone for the beautiful snowflake patterns we all cut out when we were children to decorate for Christmas. Artificial snow, such as that found at indoor snow centres or from snow cannons in ski resorts, is different from normal snow flakes; it is just frozen water. As such, it bonds and freezes and melts in different ways, and creates a much firmer, more dense snow pack.


Finally, things actually turned cold over Wednesday night and into Thursday. This took a weak, wet, dense snowpack, and froze it solid, creating a snow surface as smooth and solid as a granite counter top.

 

You can see the sun reflecting off the hard pack snow on the piste in the forefront of this picture from today.

 

So how do you ski on such horrific conditions? Well for most people, you don't; stay inside, have a hot chocolate, maybe wander around town to grab some local cheese, wine or saucisson.


But there are a couple of tips and tricks if you find yourself skiing "boilerplate" snow.


First of all, give up on your edges. Where normally you are using your edged to control your speed and turn you where you want to go, in these conditions you edges just won't grip unless you are powering along on hard-core race skis with more edge than a 14-year-old on the Internet.


Instead, let the skis slide. Sit up slightly and manoeuvre the skis gently beneath you. You'll be doing something similar to side slipping that you would have done in ski school, where you let your skis slide down the hill sideways, pointing perpendicular to the fall line.


Finally, take it slow. This is not a day for speed. It is a day for control.


The other thing you can do is wait. There is a really good chance that these conditions won't last all day. This is especially true where you know the sun will eventually hit the slope; the sun's heat will begin to soften up the snow very quickly, providing a much friendlier surface to ski on. In shadier places, as the mercury ticks up over the course of the day it'll have the effect.


Be prepared, however, for these conditions to return later in the day. As the sun sets or disappears behind the mountains, things will turn colder. Expect the snow to freeze again across the last hour or so of the skiing day, bringing these conditions back into play.

 
The warm conditions have melted the snowpack in places.

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