By Xan Marshland and Hans Ludwig, FOW
Was this really December? Absolutely no way we'd want to be on anything narrower than a 120. Wasatch Range, UT. FOW: Melissa Gill // Photo: Mack Lambert (@mountainsforbreakfastt)
It’s been an insanely deep year in the Wasatch.
Many people, for the first time in their lives, are realizing that something in the 100mm range is no longer going to allow them to playfully surf low angle terrain after a storm. A wider ski, while not always necessary in higher angle pow skiing situations, is a pretty critical tool in getting the most out of those seemingly bottomless days. It's all about preserving a bit of precious momentum.
I initially realized this a few years ago on my first trip to Hokkaido, where the snow is deep but the terrain - for the most part - isn’t steep. Anyone can get speed out of high angle terrain on a narrow ski, but surfing around on a big platform is highly beneficial when you combine deep powder with lower slope angles. And in many backcountry contexts, the steepest possible terrain isn’t going to be on the menu after a huge storm cycle anyway. So how do you maximize your opportunities for playful, high speed shredding on those lower angle storm skiing days? Switch up your tools.
I brought this up to Friend of WNDR, Jaded Local columnist for Powder Magazine/Mountain Gazette, and longtime Sierra East Side skier Hans Ludwig, who had lots to say on the topic.
I’d add a bunch of other reasons—some of which are more counter-intuitive than “deep snow low-angle float”. And what float gives you on the down is more than speed; it’s the ability to maneuver easily, to move sideways out of the fall line, and to instantly shut down speed, instead of waiting for your skis to emerge from the grip of the snowpack.
Good thing most of us have never seen Pep get tired. Wasatch Range, UT. FOW: Pep Fujas, Joey Weamer, and Melissa Gill // Photo: Mack Lambert (@mountainsforbreakfastt)
First off, bc skiing goes both ways and so does float: breaking trail in soft snow is vastly easier on wide skis (a real benefit of splitboards for that application... and of following splitboarders on deep day skintracks). When you’re flailing away in bottomless snow above a tree-well trying to make a kick-turn, every bit of platform matters. If you want to get down in deep snow you have to get up!
Let’s not forget traction—sure, wider skins equal more drag (mitigatable with slippery mohair and split skins), but they also allow you to get up steeper tracks. Yes, I know you’re not supposed to set steep tracks or use your risers, but deep snow means increased avalanche hazard which means you might need to stick to ridgelines, tight trees or other areas of reduced exposure that don’t permit your ideal efficient skin track.
On the counter-intuitive side: early season, drought season, low elevation, or three feet of facets over tree stumps, there are scenarios where you want every possible advantage to keep your tips up. A wide-enough ski can make sketchy low tide way safer. And low tide is year-round if you have big or remote objectives. Peak descents in the Eastern Sierra range front, for instance—the ones that are in for the first time in years right now—dump you into long low-tide desert exits featuring a foot or two of unconsolidated snow over hidden sagebrush trapdoors, potentially for miles.
And while we’ve been trained to think about wide skis as “powder skis”, it’s more accurate to consider them as just soft snow skis. There are other kinds of malleable snow besides powder, many of which inherently suck for skiing. Crust, sun-cooked, glop, wind-fuggle, light re-frozen—all are easier to negotiate with less energy on wider skis. Beyond just float, a wider platform is easier to balance on, and the further the edges are away from your feet the less likely they are to hook up unexpectedly. Like when you’re traversing above exposure in punchy wind skin, or finagling through tight lodgepole or spruce saplings to access something tasty...
When you’re moving laterally and need to carry speed or stay as high as possible in soft snow, a wider ski is your friend. A lot of us have had that moment where we had to make a, shall we say, involuntary but compulsory ski-cut to get across a suspect area to a perceived safe spot. And any Alta skier has the physics of traversing imprinted for life—the more speed you can carry, the further and higher you can go, and the more options you have.
All of which are why the next ski on my Acquisition List is a Reason 120 in a nice and maneuverable 177cm length. I’ve got 110-ish skis for touring that are good all-arounders, but it’s time for a more specialized tool for lower mountain storm days, early-season bc, breaking trail on deep days, and skiing unconsolidated tree lines in the local Mammoth front-country.
There are a lot of more serious bc-only skiers who probably see a 120mm waist ski as just dead weight to drag around. For going high and far on firm snow, I’d agree. But in the West this winter I’d be on them every day.