Types of Snow - How Many Have You Skied?

I've been thinking about snow a lot as we have been skiing in Southwest Montana for a few weeks now. Several springs ago, at the time of year when snow and ski conditions were changing rapidly, a friend commented on my use of the term “chicken heads” to describe the ski conditions at Bridger Bowl.  Given that I was unemployed at that time and had a lot of time on my hands, I came up with a list of words to describe snow and ski conditions.

Seeing as it is a four day weekend, I decide to update the list.   My original list included only a handful of terms so I emailed to a large posse of ski bum friends throughout the country and a most enjoyable and enlightening etymological dialogue ensued. Below you will find what we discovered. The distinction between certain terms may vary depending on where you ski. “Mashed Potatoes” to a Bridger Bowl “Ridge Rat” may be heavenly powder for skiers from elsewhere.

Please note that in addition to the terms found here, there is also snow terminology used by avalanche forecasters (Surface hoar, faceted snow, etc) However, I chose to keep things less technical so I have stuck with the lingo.


Types of Snow and Ski Conditions
1. Powder – fresh soft snow. Known as ”pow’” to the bro-bras.
2. Cold Smoke – Extremely dry, soft powder. Snow with moisture content significantly above 4% CANNOT be considered cold smoke. When cold smoke falls in mass quantity, conditions can be “epic.”
3. Blower – Describes superior snow conditions. What constitutes “blower” varies from location to location. This is typical Colorado stoner lingo circa 1992 so use with caution. (Or not at all)
Items four through six, were submitted by my college buddy and Jackson Hole legend Marvin Howard:

4. Dank – Skied up blower or cold smoke.

5. Trench Town - Deep cold smoke or blower with one track in it, preferably yours. This image should make you smile!

6. “XXX deep” – XXX = name of body part. For example, “Dude, the cold smoke at Bridger was…like… thigh deep.” While snow that is shin deep or less is fun, it is not the stuff dreams are made of. Knee deep and above is what a skiers fantasizes about over the summer.

7. Cream cheese – Powder snow that has becomes a bit heavy as temperatures increase. Still really fun to ski.

8. Cheesecake – Same as “cream cheese.” Term first discovered on the Bridger Bowl “Cold Smoke-o-Meter.” Check it out at www.bridgerbowl.com under the “Snow Report” section of the website.

9. Cream – Also mentioned on Bridger Bowl’s “Cold Smoke-o-Meter” between cheesecake and powder. I haven’t heard this term used elsewhere.

10. Mashed potatoes – Powder that has gotten even heavier than cream cheese. Can produce decent skiing but nothing to rave about.

11. Cement – Powder that has become extremely heavy and usually not fun to ski. Common in the Sierra Mountains of California.

12. Crud – Snow that has been almost completely “tracked out.” The fun factor for skiing crud can vary depending on snow consistency, skier ability and so forth.

13. Tracked Out – Powder snow that has been completely “skied out.” No untouched show remains. As tracked out snow continues to get skied “bumps” begin to form.

14. Bumps – Also known as moguls. Mounds of snow that form on a ski surface as it gets skied repeatedly. Bumps come in all shapes, sizes and degrees of snow softness. The fun factor can vary depending on bump size and spacing, type of snow, the skier’s ability, and so forth. Contrary to what some may tell you, bumps are not formed by ski grooming machines, are not a natural feature of the surface the snow falls upon, and are not put away for the summer. (Yes, some tourists really believe these things!)

15. Corn – skiing on snow that is the consistency of a SnoKone. Formed during
Skiing corn on The Great One
the “freeze/thaw” cycle in the spring and summer. A desirable condition if powder cannot be found.
16. Corduroy – Snow that has been machine groomed and resembles corduroy material. A grooming machine arranges the snow in orderly, parallel lines running downhill along the ski surface. Nice for cruising.

17. Hard pack – Smooth, extremely firm, hard snow. Not very fun to ski.

18. Ice – Icy snow, which sucks. Also known as “Boilerplate”. Can produce frightening “slide-for-life” conditions.

19. Sporty – This gem was contributed by Michigan’s Laurie Blanksma-Snedeker. “Ice so hard one can utilize ice axes and crampons to climb the hill instead of skins or a chair lift. Michiganders also call this great skiing.”

20. Wind affected – Any snow that is affected by the wind. The wind may affect the snow in good and bad ways. “Wind Groomed” is snow that has been blow into a smooth, carve-able surface and can be great to ski.

21. Styrofoam – Kudos to Bozeman rock star Ron Craighead for contributing this term. “Dry, packed powder that remains untouched by sun. Usually found on north faces in cold weather. Edges well and makes that dry 'crunch' sound like Styrofoam.” If you are not a skier, you can experience “Styrofoam” as you walk down a snowy sidewalk on an extremely cold day. The snow is compacted and squeaks when you walk on it.

22. Crust – Snow with a crusty surface on top. Ski conditions may vary as the crust may or may not support the weight of a skier. There is also “breakable crust” (Snow with a crusty surface, which cannot hold the weight of a skier.) and “dust on crust” (A light dusting of snow on a firm surface).

1.12.15 update: Apparently there are more types of crust than we realized. One of my blog readers just informed me that the Utah Avalanche Center included mention of several types of crust is their recent advisory. The report makes it sound pretty bleak, "It's all-you-can eat crust skiing and riding out there, folks. Wind crust, rime crust, melt freeze crust - supportable, breakable, trap-door and rail-road." Yikes! This is the first time I have heard of trap door and rail-road crust and I'd like to avoid them in the future. 23. Ball bearings –Soft balls of snow the size of small pebbles. Avalanche forecasters use the term “gropple.”

24. Slush -Self explanatory.

25. Nut Cake – Another piece of lingo from Marvin Howard. “Melting snow with small rocks poking through.” I had never heard of this before but it is the same as “Chocolate Chip Cookies”. Please note that these conditions can also form after strong winds hit rocky areas. You have excellent chances of seeing “Chocolate Chip Cookies” or “Nut Cake” on Lone Peak, the summit shared by Big Sky and Moonlight Basin ski areas in Montana. Although snow falls in abundance, this area is full of shale and can be extremely windy.

26. Coral Reef – When the temperature drops after warm weather “coral reef” can form. Temperatures freeze overnight and snow fails to soften the next day. Essentially refrozen slush.

27. Chicken Heads – Forms in a similar manner as “coral reef” but starts with soft piles of snow. This skiing can be heinous. Also known as “Frozen Death Cookies” The difference in terminology may vary from state to state. Perhaps there is a distinction between the two based on size of snow piles (Rock versus pebble size snow?) Research is needed.

28. Sugar –Small balls of deteriorating snow. I have heard of this term before and have known this condition to produce good skiing. However, this many not always be the case. Clarification is needed. For avalanche forecasters, sugar = faceted snow.
29. Chalky – Carve-able snow with a very shallow layer of loose snow on top.
Epic conditions on Beartooth Pass, late June 2011

30. Rotten – Snow that is beyond the corn stage and is way past its prime. A skier will sink through making the skiing not so fun but not as frustrating a breakable crust or other undesirable conditions. Rotten snow is usually found in late spring and early summer.