One Hundred Words for Snow

But not a single one to explain powder

Marquee photo: Ian Coble

“OK, I have a question,” said Caity, in Jackson for the first time, as she put her glass down on the bar and looked around. “What is powder? Like what actually is it?”

Joe laughed and opened his mouth to explain, but all that came out were silent fish faces and some awkward giggles. None of the rest of us, all skiers who have spent a lot of time, effort, and brain power toward the pursuit of powder did any better. We couldn’t tell her what it—powder—like, actually was, much less why it was such a big deal.

Someone got clinical: Well, technically, it’s snow that has a low moisture content. And someone else got way too heady: It’s like you’re invincible. I got flustered.

Our inability to explain powder was not just frustrating because of our crippling articulation and lack of vocabulary. How do you become obsessed with something you can’t even explain? What does it mean that the mention of powder makes you spew gibberish?

Skiing is a messy linguistic knot. We are hard on English, reconfiguring it to come up with so many words to explain what we’re doing. We slarve chunder and zipper bumps. Whoever came up with the word “sastrugi” deserves some kind of lexicographical medal, because that word is perfect.

But, even with that grab bag full of grammar, it is hard to explain powder and to pinpoint exactly why skiers act like addicted maniacs around it. When we were fighting to find the words, people kept dropping “love” or “happiness” and other all-encompassing and intangible ideas. We sounded ridiculous. But it’s tricky to put your finger on what those emotions mean, too, because they are all half substance and half sensation.

The New York Times recently ran a “Letter of Recommendation” for skiing, and in it, the writer, Aleksandar Hemon, called skiing “improvising inside the vanishing moment.” And that moment vanishes so damn quickly. I think that’s why powder is hard to nail down—it’s a moving target. It’s light, deep, bottomless. Denser than air, thicker than water.

“It’s kind of like floating,” I told her. “You’ll know it when you feel it.”

That’s unhelpful at best and condescending at worst, but I couldn’t do any better. I kept thinking about it the next day, trying to find pockets of soft snow, searching for the feeling to see if I could explain it to myself while I was in it. That morning, after a few fresh inches and some wind, I walked up Glory and then pointed my skis downhill. Just before the snow turned to mashed potatoes and slop, I got a couple, maybe three, of those perfect, weightless turns and thought to myself, “Yeah, that.”