The semantics of snow

Eric Kendall, 09 October, 2017
Inntravel route-finder, ski guru and all-round trusted wordsmith Eric Kendall delves into his vocabulary to provide the low-down on various types of snow, from slush to snorkel...

In much of the modern mountain world, skiers have monopolised (and even invented) many words for snow, most of which denote particular snow conditions in relation to their skiability, from the most pleasurable to the most challenging. Sub-divisions differentiate between natural snow and the various forms you might find on the prepared pistes of a ski domain, while there’s another glossary to pick from when describing snow conditions and types relating to avalanche – a subject of interest not just to skiers, but snowmobile riders and snowshoers too.

But it was the Inuit who over millennia were famously thought to have developed fifty words for snow. (Or was it one hundred, or a thousand?) In fact, the observation made by anthropologist Franz Boas in 1911 was that they had just a handful. Strictly speaking, they weren't different words for snow so much as words which differentiate between, say, falling and settled snow, or the state of snow, such as snow-drift. By the same token you could make a case for lake, river, stream, etc – all being English words for ‘water’.

Whatever. When heading into the mountains in winter, it doesn't hurt to have a few snow words up your ski-jacket sleeve, whether simply to talk the talk, or to make useful distinctions about the conditions you might find on a walking trail or cross-country ski track. So here are some of the most useful terms:

Powder (Pulverschnee – German; la poudreuse – French): the holy grail of skiers, it’s also the most beguiling for everyone else on account of the lightness as you blow it like feathers from your hand, and the almost inaudible swish as you walk through a freshly blanketed forest. Though it can vary substantially, the water content of true powder snow is below 10% (which may be why skiers feel that they fly through it – it’s mostly air). The further inland you are, the drier it tends to be, while the very driest and lightest of all is precipitated by dust in the atmosphere at much lower levels of humidity than would otherwise produce snow.

Loud powder: a euphemism for snow that’s practically solid ice and as bad to ski as powder is good.

Snorkel: required on a really deep powder day.

Packed snow or ‘hardpack’: fresh snow achieves this state from the passage of animals, people or machines. Its vital quality is that it supports you when you try to cross it, and as such shouldn’t be confused with what is simply old snow that has settled and consolidated but collapses unexpectedly if you step on it – painful when deep.

Crud: mainly of concern to skiers, this is what happens to fresh snow once it has been skied through and churned up. The varied consistency – packed in places, piled up in others, and occasionally powdery – keeps you on your ski-toes and can send you ‘over the handlebars’ before you can say ‘Hahnenkamm’. The unpredictability makes it good for your technique and it’s surprisingly fun, though nothing compared with pure powder.

Spring snow (Firn – German; neige de printemps – French; corn – American English): typically seen during spring conditions, after daily cycles of freezing and thawing. The strong Alpine sun plays a big part in the transformation of the snowpack, and for skiers – either downhill or cross-country – there is a magical moment in a spring day when previously rock-solid snow develops a surface like warmed butter which makes a wonderful surface to slide over. Once the moment has passed, particularly on south-facing slopes, it’s less fun and people tend to stop for lunch.

Corduroy: firm snow, finely ridged by a piste-grooming machine. On narrow cross-country skis, novices may experience a sensation of being trapped by the ridges or even tripped; if the corduroy is frozen solid, the result can be memorable in a bad way and require the application of hot chocolate or even glühwein (to the subject rather than the site of impact).

Crust: can be formed by sun and/or wind and is no fun on snowshoes, skis or on foot; you tend to punch through and capsize (not good – see above).

Slush: heavy, wet and not fun to walk or snowshoe in; it has a bad reputation with skiers too, though that’s just because they’re doing it wrong. At the right time and in the right place, it’s magnificent. After a good snow year, you might think that there would be almost infinite amounts of slush as the snowpack melts away, but in fact snow and ice are substances which undergo sublimation – the direct passage from solid to a gaseous state – as well as losing volume by melting into an ever-wetter state of slush before becoming a stream.

An honourable mention should go to German-speakers for having a specific word, Spiegelfirn (mirror-spring snow), to describe one of the most beautiful, intriguing and relatively rare forms of snow which apparently has no English (and possibly no French) equivalent – though it certainly appears in countries where those languages are spoken. Spiegelfirn describes a thin glassy frozen surface, raised above the main body of snow by as much as several centimetres. It forms through just the right amount of solar radiation and a certain temperature, probably over several days, first creating a glassy surface and then melting away the snow beneath. The elevated veneer of ice remains intact until a skier or animal comes by, at which point it shatters into a million pieces, sliding in rivers of tinkling ice down the hillside in an entirely non-threatening avalanche of fragments.

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