Powder Mountain

Joe Chafkin

PHOTOS: Max Houtzager, Amado Stachenfeld

LOCATION: Powder Mountain, Eden, Utah

The storm presented itself differently as it moved east and arrived at Powder Mountain, encountering new topography; we, like the cloud of concentrated moisture, connect with nature and change ourselves over the course of that journey.

Oceanic vapor rises, heading eastward from the California coast in narrow, concentrated strips of moisture: referred to as an atmospheric river, this natural phenomenon bombarded the western U.S. with surreal amounts of precipitation from December into January. For those of us down in the arid California lowlands, it brought some much-needed rain. You may have expected this during last year’s El Niño, but this season brought more snow, sans social media hashtag. Parts of Tahoe, for instance, got the most snow they’d seen in 45 years.

Nobody planned for these conditions. Coastal cities experienced mass flooding for lack of adequate drainage. Mountain resorts from California to Colorado got hit hard by the heavy snowfall, forced to temporarily close doors for avalanche safety concerns, not to mention several actual avalanches blocking main roads. The Terasu crew, too, was caught off-guard: we had booked some cheap flights to Utah, expecting the new-normal of an underwhelming winter at home. In view of the generous dusting that blessed the entire west, we were simultaneously eager to get out to Powder Mountain yet tempted by nearer offerings.

Upon arriving at Powder Mountain, now known as the biggest ski resort in North America, it became clear that we weren’t the only ones taken by surprise. Chatting up a local lifty, he told us that the mountain had been experiencing an unusual amount of traffic — that day was apparently the only time he’d ever witnessed upper, middle and lower mountain parking lots full to the point of overflowing. The weekend before, they had even run out of paper and ink for lift tickets. Part of Powder Mountain’s draw is that they limit the amount of skiers and snowboarders admitted at once, effectively promising fresh tracks. And yet, paradoxically, this promise is precisely what attracts hordes of adventurers in pursuit of perfection. The ideal is something we always seek out, but we’ve learned to be skeptical when it’s promised. Expectations will always be disappointed to the extent that an experience never conforms precisely to one’s preconceptions. But these “disappointments” of our expectations are themselves far from disappointing — in fact, with the right lens, they’re more worth living for.

And so despite a couple of scruples — much of the terrain at Powder Mountain is hard to access and relatively low-angle — nature provided, and we were greeted by a ton of amazing powder. The crowd might have implied otherwise, but we were still able to find plenty of untouched spots thanks to a combination of the mountain’s sheer size, slow lifts, and the atmospheric river afoot. Although we were determined not to compare it to California, ironically the warmer temperature of the recent storm made it feel like a California spring pow day: Utah’s fluffy champagne powder was nowhere to be seen this time.

It’s important not to let faraway promises distract you from the matter at hand: approach the unfamiliar terrain as if it were the only place in the world. If you spend your time wondering whether you could have had an even more epic score elsewhere, you will not develop a point of reference with which to better understand and appreciate the diverse environments to be encountered in future endeavors. Versatility makes you a better rider — it’s the product of focus, openness to new techniques and experiences — but most of all, it comes from a willingness to live in the present moment. The storm presented itself differently as it moved east and arrived at Powder Mountain, encountering new topography; we, like the cloud of concentrated moisture, connect with nature and change ourselves over the course of that journey.

Save the comparisons for later. Explore all you can, but never dwell on a single space — instead, carve niches of new in the tried-and-true. Even in the same day, every ride is different: whether it’s finding novel backcountry trails atop an old favorite, or seeking out new mountains altogether. Digging in a rail and feeling the full weight of every turn, you can notice the singularity of the powder being kicked up into your face, the crystals within that can’t even be compared to one another, let alone to the distant heap covering the Sierra Nevada. The variations in snow are manifestations of the same thing, the same story, the same atmospheric river touching down in new places. It’s an interconnected system that we’re a part of, and we should be observant because nuances define the experience.