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How to Plan Your Powder Day

Jeremy Swanson, Aspen Snowmass Jeremy Swanson, Aspen Snowmass

I love it when a plan comes together. John Hannibal Smith, The A-Team

By R. Scott Rappold

Ive driven 150 miles on twisty highways, over three mountain passes, far from the places I usually ski, to be here at this place at this moment in time.

Outside the window of the bed-and-breakfast/hostel, the snow is coming down heavily. Puking. Nuking. Choose your verb. Around the fireplace, spring breakers who spent the day ripping the groomers are discussing the need for fatter rental skis.

Its March 14 and after a painfully dry stretch, winter has returned to the Colorado high country. Well, parts of the high country. Thats the problem.

While it would be great if every storm cycle would spread the snow around democratically, thats rarely the case. Were a state of many mountain ranges, and any given storm can impact them in wildly different ways. Ski areas just a few miles apart can have huge differences when ski patrol checks the snow stake before dawn.

So sometimes the serious powder hound has to hit the road to find the goods. This is how I chase powder.

Rule 1: Have a plan

I came from the San Luis Valley to Summit County not for the nightlife or mountain-town charm. I came because theres a hostel where you can lay your head for $50 within striking distance of a slew of ski resorts.

My planning for this trip began days before. The website, founded by Boulder meteorologist Joel Gratz, has long been a regular winter stop for me. Gratzs daily weather discussions are usually spot-on and a great way to plan a trip long before the National Weather Service has issued any winter storm warnings.

With little else to talk about during the dry stretch, Gratz had been hyping this storm for a week. While guesswork is still a big part of meteorology, clearly the computer models indicated the snow would favor the northern mountains and leave my home mountain, Wolf Creek, high and dry.

I cleared my schedule, waxed my skis, gassed up the car and checked the ski area webcams obsessively. And waited.

Rule 2: Keep the plan flexible

Despite the long advance notice of the storm and the fact it was spring break and rooms were already scarce, I resisted the urge to book my lodging. Forecasters sometimes dont have a good sense of where the snow may hit hardest until 24 hours out, and a slight change in the track can mean a big difference in snow totals.

Clearly Im not the only one who follows this rule. After the weather service issued the winter storm warning for Summit County, Hotwire room deals began disappearing faster than I could key in my credit card info. Good timing and a sense of panic got me the last bed in the hostels bunk house.

Satisfied I had done everything to get myself in the storms bullseye, I hit the road. Four hours later I was cozy around the fire watching the snow pile up.

Rule 3: Have a ski quiver

When the rustle of other skiers stirring in the bunkroom awoke me at dawn on March 15, I knew I had done it right mostly. Winter Park reported 13 inches, but a long drive would mean missing the crucial first couple of hours. Fortunately, Arapahoe Basin did nearly as well, with 10 overnight, so I dug out my car and braved snowpacked roads.

Ill long remember this as one of the most difficult yet rewarding days of my skiing life. I love A-Basin. Here is where the young skier in me learned to terrify himself on black diamonds. The snow was dense, more Cascade concrete than champagne powder. But fresh tracks are fresh tracks, so I switched from my light powder-day skis to a slightly skinnier but heavier underfoot pair of all-mountain skis.

Thats why the powder chaser should always have more than one pair of skis. You never know what conditions will be like, and having the extra carving force made a world of difference.

Visibility was a bigger challenge. As one round of snow gave way to the next, clouds restricted visibility to just a few feet high on the mountain. Skiing by braille, I like to call it. Yes, everything under you is powder, but the sensation can be disorienting, to say the least.

I called it a day by early afternoon, cold and tired but satisfied to have finally sunk my skis into some fresh powder. Back at the hostel, skiers from Florida to England swapped stories about the days adventures, even as the next wave of snow undid all the hard work of the plow drivers and sidewalk scrapers.

Rule 4: Know when to throw the other rules out

Sometimes the snow totals dont tell the whole story.

On the morning of March 16, Summit County ski areas were reporting another 5-9 inches. I rarely choose to chase the lower totals, but it had been too many years since I had been to ski area Copper Mountain. So on I went.

What a day. The dense snow of the day before had done a great job laying down a base, and the 5 inches that fell overnight left the back bowls skiing like a dream. And what a difference it makes when you can see where youre skiing.

When youre a dedicated ski bum, the dry stretches can seem interminable. This road trip restored my faith in winter.