Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some great powder turns. I’ve skied the long steeps of the Chugach Mountains of southern Alaska, one at a time, each of us waiting until the skier in front reaches the glacier floor 800 metres below. It’s steep enough to see them gathered like ants on the flat. Starting out, the settled snow gives constant feedback to your turning soles, the sluff competes with you after every four or five turns and you’re tempted to play with it, but think better of it and cut out to take a line further to the side: 800 long, sweet vertical metres, non-stop.
I’ve skied big ‘shrooms in Canada, each landing lifting enough powder to close the world in white, trusting each launch to exuberance alone, lifting into the sunshine briefly before the next drop and explosion. Fresh deep on steeps, where so much snow is moving with me that I’m skiing each flake more than once, catching it again on the turn back into the fall-line, dropping so fast that it is no longer an elevator as much as one great, foaming flush. And, I’m not convinced that powder is worth it.
First, good pow is getting as hard to find as a winner to the National Lottery. Unlike the lottery, you can lose in powder and losses can be huge. Pro-rider, veteran guide, senior with 50 years of off-piste experience, even the best readers of snow get caught. Most of us are too human to wear the airbag every day. When was the last time you dug a snow hole?
Skis have come a long way. We used to ski powder on 210 Kastle RXs, stiff from tip to tail, skinny and only prepared to turn under orders. Today, everyone has fat, rockered skis that float on crust. This has opened the backcountry to every badger gasser and shoe clerk who can afford a lift pass.
The old timers hanker for the old days, when only the rich and the locals skied powder. Yes, the first lift still gets the fresh, but within four hours, most of the good lines are gone, tracked out, and tomorrow I’ll need my skins.
If you are prepared to put on the skins, you can out distance most of the punters, but too often, I have laboured with a guided group seeking powder three days after a snowfall. The sorry, end of day, guide story that those eight turns in settled powder at 15° made it all worth the effort isn’t working with me anymore.
Back when I was a kid, there were no piste bashers, in fact, there weren’t really pistes. I think European pistes started getting marked in the 80s. Before that, everything was off-piste. Imagine, wooden skinnies with bear traps on crud. Most of the time, there were two techniques: big, wide open turns or a quickly-slammed snow-plow to negotiate a danger point. In steeps, one had to be good at kick turns. Over days of skiing, enough skiers would pass to form partly-packed slopes. You would welcome those patches and rolls where you knew a tight parallel would hold together.
Snow conditions are rarely perfect for that light fluffy stuff we dream about. As the day count since the last fall grows, guides take us further and further out, and the snow deteriorates. When someone falls, they almost invariably say, “I should have brought fatter skis”.
Back on-piste, the piste bashers came and made things easy. Was that the moment we decided that skiing had to be easy to be fun? When was the last time you heard someone say, “if you’re not falling, you’re not learning?”
Pistes were too flat to provide natural turn-initiation over a mound of snow or a small roller; sidecuts became necessary to make turns. Sidecuts allowed us to initiate that perfect carved turn and follow it with another perfect carved, same radius turn, yo-yoing effortlessly down a butt flat slope mesmerised by centrifugal forces, grinning like a fool on weed.
Skiing mesmerised would be OK, if it weren’t for the speed freaks. Pistes are so groomed that they never found a reason to learn to turn.
You want challenge today, you could head for the bumps and run the rut line. Think about those words ‘rut’ and ‘line’. Is it really fun mindlessly following in the path of the dozens of other mogul bashers? Remember the definition of cults? Tantalising ruts for confused people.
So, powder is for wussies, the piste is boring, and moguls are for crazy people. So, where am I to turn? In between the untracked open lines and the ultra smooth piste is a new world to discover, CRUD. Try it. The good news is, almost no-one else does.
It takes a lot of learning; much more than pistes or pow did some years ago. Are you up to it? Good crud ranges from tracked light powder to sopping slush bumps in the late spring. To be good, it has to have been skied.
It is not easy and the common cruisers will think you a fool, but you won’t believe what rushes await. Start off in the tracked pow, intentionally avoid the untracked (crazy, eh?). As you ski it, read the tracks; what combination of tracked and untracked gives the best initiations?
Crud takes some pace; momentum is your friend. Take a more centred, wider stance and a willingness to go from full compression to full extension while you’re waiting to touch back down. Regular turns are out; your descent will require reading the snow ahead for opportunities to take off speed with a turn; the mountain will decide when and how tight. Push a bit on your completions for air between turns. Each time you come out of the snow between turns you celebrate life.
Take these skills steeper, turning into the air and drops, collapsing your body to absorb the landings before rolling forward and sideways over the tips of your skis to initiate the next. Piles of snow and old moguls will launch you. If you can’t absorb them fast enough, the next turn will be tougher. If all starts to buckle, a ‘big wide, pro-rider, I am too cool to turn’ run-out will usually take you to safety.
If not, the crashes are spectacular. You’re on crud so the landings are cushioned. Also, you have enough forward momentum to allow a few forward rolls and perhaps a vertical ejection before coming to a halt. Like getting dropped by a dumper while body surfing in the waves off Kuta beach, you just have to relax, absorb and laugh.
Last spring, I was so overcome with exuberance on crud bumps that I failed to notice that the slope below had slid to the grass. I crashed face-first onto the grass, sliding some distance before coming to a stop. I limped home grinning with grass stains on my front and all my zipper pulls missing. That is living!
But, no, you haven’t lived until you have taken face shots on slush bumps. The snow alternates between slidey and grabby, the bumps between icy smooth and deep slush. Some bumps allow an initiation, some an edge and some a brief touch on the outside edge of your inside ski, while your outside ski is waiting to touch down again. You’ll slap across the tops of the smaller bumps, dropping in a valley to cut a turn will splash up a bucket of cold slush and those big VW beetle-sized rollers will throw you around like your Y-fronts in the tumble drier. Absolutely glorious.
Crud is everywhere, in just about any weather conditions, and almost no-one skis it. Imagine, no lift lines for life. Jump in; Crud-you-like.
For more features like this one, subscribe to Fall Line Magazine and receive our upcoming piste issue. In these pages you’ll find reviews of shiny new kit put to the test, along with the world’s best ski runs, where to night ski, the evolution of park tricks, as well as carving and freeski tips from Dave Ryding and Woodsy.