Short for "powder," as in the snow condition ideal for skiing (or snowboarding). Pow(der), essentially, is snow that has not been packed down or blemished in any other way, and is thus soft and silky and thus makes for an orgasmical skiing experience. Even more ideal is virgin powder, that which has not been ski-cut AT ALL and thus makes for even better, whiter turns. To the elitists among the skiing population, a patch of powder is spoiled once it has been cut by even one ski or snowboard.

Varieties of Pow

Like everything else, powder comes in many varieties, the identity of which generally depends on density, which in turn depends on water content. Hyped up as the "ideal" thing is the dry, fluffy champagne powder found in places like the Wasatch and the Rocky Mountains, the "signature snow" of places like Vail and Steamboat. Such snow will generally have a water content of 5% or less. This cold smoke does have its advantages. But despite the popular assertion that it is unquestionably the best stuff out there, it also has a number of drawbacks. On the upside, it is very easy to cut turns through, and will also splash nicely so as to give better quality face shots. But conversely, it takes an awful lot of light dry snow to cover up the old packed-down crap underneath. Thus, a dump of 5" at Alta, for instance, will provide little more than loose snow to be kicked around, assuming it is on a base of pack or crud.

The other option is the sludge known as "Sierra cement", so named because of its commonality at coastal ski areas such as those found in the Sierra-Nevada. This snow is obviously much heavier, having a water content of up to 20%. As a native of Eaglecrest Ski Area, infamous for such sludge, I obviously have a bit of a bias toward this sort of pow. While it does take a bit more effort to carve turns through the stuff, it has a number of significant advantages, especially for those with snowboards or fat skis. For one thing, it only takes a little bit of coastal snow to go a long way. A 5" dump at an area like Whistler/Blackcomb will give you a whole morning's worth of nice stuff. But also, heavier snow clings to steeper slopes far better, which can at times mean less likelyhood of setting off an avalanche...However, I must also say that heavy, wet snow conditions can be optimal for nasty slab avalanches.

Many of the areas with a reputation for steep terrain are known for coastal snow conditions (Kirkwood, Squaw Valley, Whistler/Blackcomb, et cetera...although not Jackson Hole), as is the heavily-hyped Valdez heli-skiing scene.