Tips for choosing the best powder skis

It’s officially fall in Utah! We are now just two months away from everyone’s favorite time of year—ski season. This is also the time of year when skiers start itching for some of the ‘latest and greatest’ gear available. There’s a lot out there. It can be overwhelming. Powderbird is here to help you find your next favorite powder planks.

2011-2012 Powder Ski Guide

There are tons of great new skis this season in all categories—park & pipe, all-mountain, telemark—but we’re going to focus on the best powder skis on the market. After all, powder is our specialty. It’s a hard task to narrow down the field, so we’re using Powder and Ski Magazines’ gear test insights to add some authority.

Salomon Rocker 2

Selected as the first round, pick two in the powder category, Salomon’s Rocker 2 is clearly one of the top contenders in the powder category this season.

Powder Magazine’s Rocker 2 review

“The Rocker 2 is effortlessly stable, yet fast, light and nimble. This ski delivered super-star carving pow turns in the wide-open, as well as easy quickness in tighter steeps. It felt super floaty and it was easy to maneuver in any situation.” — AJ Cargill, Teton Village Sports, Merchandise Manager

Salomon Rocker 2 (2012)

“The Rocker 2 makes skiing powder easy, ’nuff said! It is fat, lively, and tip/tail rocker allow the ski to float in the deepest of snow. It is lightweight but solid underfoot where it counts.” — Mike Trioli, Alta’s Deep Powder House, Manager

The Rocker 2 was penalized a bit in Ski Magazine’s tester review due to it’s lack of versatility. But if you’re looking for a true powder ski, check out Salomon’s new Rocker 2:

“It’s a powder specialist, to be sure, and testers had to penalize it for lack of versatility. But the Rocker 2 does what it does-surf powder-extremely well, and it was the guys who ski the most powder who were the most excited about it.”

Features

Full woodcore with honeycomb inserts in tip and tail • Powder Rocker • Edge free extremities • Dimensions 142-122-132

4-FRNT CRJ

The CRJ went as the first round, first pick powder selection. Here’s why:

Powder Magazine 4-FRNT CRJ Review

“With traditional sidecut and camber, this ski is a real dream in powder, pops like a park ski, and is light enough to sling over the shoulder on a bootpack. The CRJ is comfortable anywhere. Just like C.R. was.” — Mike Rogge, Editor Powder Magazine

4FRNT CRJ (2012)

The CRJ combines camber underfoot-for hard snow performance-and rocker in the tip and tail-for playfulness and float. The tip and tail also taper from the widest point of the ski to further improve the ski’s soft snow performance.

Features

Hi-Lite wood-core block • Deflect ABS sidewall • Dampening system • 45-degree Q45 fiberglass • Glosstop topsheet • ISO-SPORT sintered 2000 base • 360 full wrap edge • Dimensions 126-115-124

Rossignol Super 7

Rossignol’s Super 7 rounds out the elite top 3 in Powder Magazine’s Fantasy Draft–powder category.

Powder Magazine Rossignol Super 7 Review

“Easy to ski in nearly any condition, especially powder, the S7 helped pave the way for the rocker-with-camber revolution. The S7 is so effective in all conditions due to its Amptec technology (camber underfoot, rocker in the tip and tail) and its tapered tip and tail design.” — Max Santeusanio, Powder Magazine Photography Intern

Rossignol Super 7 (2012)

Here’s what Ski Magazine had to say about the Super 7:

“This returning tester favorite, No. 2 for Forgiveness and No. 3 in float, is so loose in the snow you can pivot or foot-steer it even when you’re waist deep in Snowbird powder. The tapered tip lets you be the boss.”

Features

PowderTurn Rocker • Centered Sidecut • WRS • Titanal sandwich wood core construction • Dimensions 146-117-127

For a full list of 2012 Gear Reviews visit Powder Magazine’s Buyer’s Guide and Ski Magazine’s Ski & Boot Reviews

Kevin O’Rourke’s Chilean Heli-ski Adventure

If you have been keeping up with our blog, you may already know that Powderbird lead guide Kevin O’Rourke recently traveled to Chile. Kevin had the opportunity to guest guide a group of Aussie Powderbirds who came heli-skiing with us in Park City last winter. Ross Grant, along with his friends Roger M, Richard, Roger D, and Andrew, completed a week excursion with Powder South Heli-ski Guides. Kevin teamed up with Powder South and long-time friend (and Powderbird Greenland guide) Pete Patterson to guest guide two week-long heli-ski trips as part of Powder South’s operation.

Our Powderbird guests really enjoyed Powder South’s accommodations, dining, and overall operation. Powder South–Thank you for your hospitality! Kevin really enjoyed his time with your team.

Kevin described the skiing as ranging from dense snow to excellent corn conditions to perfect bluebird powder. Sounds like they had a great time! Here are some photos from Kevin’s heli-skiing trip to Chile.

Getting ready for a beautiful day of heli-skiing

Enjoying corn skiing in Chile

Kevin and the Grant Group with Powder South

Powder day!

Powderbird guide Kevin O'Rouke heli-skiing in Chile

Powderbird Greenland guide Pete Patterson

Powder South's accommodations in the valley

Heli-skiing in Chile with Powder South and Powderbird

That's a wrap. The group relaxing after a day of heli-skiing

Summer Guide Update: Kevin O’Rourke

Powderbird lead guide and co-owner Kevin O’Rourke is currently spending a few weeks heli-skiing with Powder South in Chile. Kevin is accompanying a group of Australian Powderbird clients who wanted to experience heli-skiing in Chile this season. If you are ever interested in exploring the mountains beyond the Wasatch, let us know. We can put together a custom program to suite your heli-skiing wish list.

Marc Lazzaroni Senior Guide with Joaquin Oyarzun Powder South Director

Kevin is excited to guest guide with a great crew and take part in a culturally unique program while skiing with Powder South. Powder South Heli-Ski Guides kicked off their 2011 season in mid-July, and have experienced favorable ski conditions thus far. Kevin will update us with photos and insights as his adventures in Chile continue.

Powder South Heli Skiers Enjoying Some Powder

Spencer Wheatley’s Matterhorn Adventure

Powderbird lead guide, Spencer Wheatley, recently visited Switzerland and realized a long-time dream: climbing the infamous Matterhorn. This is his story.

Christmas in the Alps, by Spencer Wheatley

When I was 10 years old, I was assigned to write a fictional story for my 6th grade class. I was combing through the encyclopedia, (which is a 1970’s version of Google for you young people) and came across a photo of the Matterhorn. Dividing Italy from Switzerland, the home of the Matterhorn is the town of Zermatt. The Matterhorn photo captured my imagination as one of the most distinguishable peaks I had ever seen. It is a perfect pyramid of stone carved by the release of four different glaciers receding—creating four rock faces which face the four points of the compass.

I decided to write my story about a trip to Zermatt which also happens to be one of the most famous of all the ski resorts in the Swiss Alps. It was titled “Christmas in the Alps”. Ever since writing that story, I have wanted to visit the Matterhorn and Zermatt. I have had the opportunity to go to Europe a few times over the years, always with skis, always with an objective, a peak, a ski film project or an attempt at this or that with no budget! Somehow I had never made it to Zermatt.

This July I had the opportunity to spend some time in Zermatt, and it was truly like a dream realized. The car free town is the quintessential Alps village. Trams dot the huge valley walls and the 14,690′ Matterhorn is always in sight. I was surprised at the actual size of the Matterhorn. The pictures in the encyclopedia had not done it justice! It was my first time in Europe in summer, and it was nice to travel without skis. I did however have to drag around a duffel bag full of climbing gear. My first week was spent hiking from the village up to different tram stations for acclimatization and enjoyment. The alpine wildflowers and scenery are intense, with miles of beautiful hiking trails and trams for a quick download back to slopeside bars for wine and fondue. Zermatt is hiker’s heaven, but is most famous for Mountaineering. The classic route is the Hornli Ridge of the Matterhorn which is the obvious line on the pyramid looming over Zermatt. The Matterhorn was the last great Alpine peak to be climbed, and its first ascent marked the end of the Golden Age of Alpinism. It was made in 1865 by a party led by Edward Whymper and ended tragically when four of its members fell to their deaths on the descent. The north face was not climbed until 1931.

I had loosely planned to climb the Matterhorn while in Zermatt. The weather just got better as the week went on, and the opportunity was ripe to climb. Without a climbing partner, I found a local guide to climb with and booked a night at the Hornli hut. Even though it was busy, I wanted to climb the Hornli Ridge as it is the Classic. The Hornli Ridge is not a highly technical route, the hardest rock pitches clock in around 5.5. The vertical climb from the hut is about 4,000′. However, the Matterhorn is one of the deadliest peaks in the Alps: from 1865—when it was first climbed—to 1995, 500 alpinists have died on it. These numbers are due in part to the sheer numbers of climbers, but also the difficult descent, altitude and loose rock.

Matterhorn, July 5, 2011

The afternoon of July 5 I loaded my gear and hopped the Gondola to Schwarzee. The hike from Schwarzee to the Hornlihutte is about two hours and approximately 2000′ vertical.

Hornlihutte, Matterhorn basecamp

It is a fantastic hike with steep switchbacks and steel stairways linking the vertical cliff sections to the trail. The Hornlihutte is a simple, sturdy, concrete building with the world’s greatest deck perched perfectly to grab views of the Breithorn, Monte Rosa group and the entire Zermatt valley.

Views from the Hornlihutte deck

The food at the Hornlihutte is amazing, considering all the supplies have to be flown to the hut via Helicopter. A quick meeting with my climbing partner Iwan, who convinces me to leave my down jacket, first aid kit, Ice axe (I always have a down jacket in the mountains) by stating: “We will not stop long enough to use it.”

At dusk I begin an attempt to sleep in a large bunk with 15 smelly, nervous strangers. At least they all snore in the same language. I had slot #2, which only had one blanket while the other slots had two blankets. What do I care, I am a tough mountaineer, right? I was dressed in my climbing clothes and shivered with cold all night. Still beats carrying a tent, sleeping bag and stove!

Sleeping quarters

3:30 am lights come on in the hut. There is a scramble for the toilet, a simple breakfast, and I am first in line at the door to get out climbing. Sign on door says: “No one is allowed to leave the hut before 3:50 am, Thank you, the local guides.” Iwan is literally looking at his watch for the 3:50 am chime. At the time, I thought this was a bit ridiculous. One hour into the climb, while ascending onto the broad East face by headlamp, we are all stopped by the tremendous boom of rockfall coming from above. Iwan and I, roped together, scramble to find shelter under a small overhang. I could see couch and chair size pieces of stone hurtling down the couloir in front of us, exploding and breaking into dust and shattered stones in my headlight beam. If we had left the hut one minute earlier, we may have been in the coulor when this happened… let’s just say the helmet would not have helped. Not being in the couloir was just pure luck, but I have to thank Iwan for following protocol, standing at the door waiting those extra minutes.

Mountain lessons:

  1. Always follow your protocols.
  2. Whenever possible, plan to be in the right place at the right time—you just might find yourself there.
  3. The mountains hold all the cards—be humbled by their power and pray for good luck.

After the rockfall, we moved quickly through the East face couloir and back onto the ridge. The ridge climbing here is fairly steep, similar to the Southeast ridge of Mt. Superior, still easy fourth class scrambling even in the dark. Iwan and I are simultaneously climbing on a short rope. As the angle steepens, we begin to clip into fixed protection bolted into the rock as a running belay. We finally climb what I think is the first full length fifth class section on the route, which tops out on the deck of the Solvay emergency shelter at 13,133′. We have been climbing now for a little under two hours. It is clear that after more than 100 trips up the Hornli ridge, Iwan is very fit, acclimatized and dragging me up the route as fast as he can.

Hornli Ridge, Matterhorn

The morning sun begins to hit the East face of the Matterhorn as we climb past Solvay, more or less adhering to the ridge. While climbing in the dark has its own difficulties, the daylight reveals the dizzying exposure on both sides of the ridge. Above 13,500′ Iwan gives encouragement in Swiss-German flavored English: “Spencer…Smooth…not like eleeephant.”

Hornli Ridge Ascent

The altitude and Iwan’s fast pace have me focused on my breathing, and the attention grabbing exposure is reminding me to watch my feet and hand placements. At this point, the route goes to vertical rock. The next half an hour is up to 5.5, easy roped climbing, but it is made more difficult by the altitude and the lugged crampon compatible climbing boots. There are thick fixed ropes through this section, and the hardest move has a via feratta type steel latter rung to grab. Earlier in the climb I attempt to go “clean” without using the ropes. Iwan quickly reminds me “Spencer, we must move…” I grab the steel and fixed lines and quickly move myself up to the next stance.

A short stop to put on the crampons, jacket and full winter gloves, then around the corner onto the North face Iwan calls “the roof”. A few short pitches of rock climbing in crampons put us onto easy, steep ice/snow climbing on the north side of the ridge that will lead us to the summit. This section is completely exposed over the gaping North flank of the Matterhorn. I would have preferred to have my light approach axe for this section. We weren’t planning a fall, but who does?

The Matterhorn summit is more of a knife edge ridge than a pinnacle. Along the ridge to the West end is the Italian summit. The East end is the slightly higher Swiss summit. There is a 4′ statue of St. Barnard, the patron saint of Mt. Guides, bolted to the peak with a lightening rod sticking out of his head. A few of the guides stop to kiss it as they pass. The views into Italy and across the Alps are stunning. It is 7:30 am and the valley is flooded with golden morning sun. The conditions are perfect, and we had climbed from the hut to the summit in 3 hours 45 minutes.

Iwan keeps my camera and take photos on the descent. During the ascent we were moving too fast to take many pictures… and it was dark for the first half. Unknowingly, the dial on my camera gets pushed to “M”, which means “Manual”, not “Mountains”… the photos he takes are extremely over exposed.

Spencer standing near summit

Although it has been quite a few years, I have worked as a climbing guide. I know that the summit is only half way. Most mountaineering accidents happen on the descent. I take a very short time at the summit and compose myself to begin the arduous downclimb.

Being first out on the route in the morning had great advantage in that we could go fast, we didn’t get bottled up behind slower parties on the crux pitches. Now all of these slower parties are still climbing up as we descend on top of them… I’m still wearing crampons, I do my best not to knock stones and ice chunks in their faces. There are a series of steel anchors to lower from in the steeper areas. I was not comfortable descending into parties still climbing up, but Iwan assured me that this was standard practice on the Hornli. This is a very busy route. We moved back to the Solvay shelter.

Italian climber belaying from inside hut

I was amused to watch an Italian climber belay while sitting at the table in the hut, with the rope going out through the window to his partner. Iwan and I take a few rappels to get us back onto the fourth class ridge. The descent is painful on the knees, and descending while facing outward from the rock puts all of the exposure at your feet. The local guides have a very clean unmarked line to climb and descend, but all around is loose rock. If you get off the clean line, it could be scary/deadly pedaling through all the choss—imagine Fred Flinstone getting the car started. I am quite sure Iwan could run down this route, but he is patient as I take my time to make sure there are no slips.

We make it to the base of the climb in 3 hours. I know Iwan is as happy as I am to untie from the rope. A few minutes later Iwan and I are cracking open beers at the Hornlihutte, sitting on that amazing deck. I am cooked after climbing for nearly 7 hours. Iwan gives me a “Summit Pin” which is cool, and I try and tell him I don’t need the “Summit Certificate”, but I get one anyway. The tall boy Cardinal Beer and the total lack of sleep are making me want a nap, so I shake hands with Iwan, load my pack and head down the trail two hours to the Schwarzee gondola station. I download, and 30 minutes later I am back in the dream village of Zermatt. After a quick shower, another couple Cardinals and a burger at the Post Hotel, that night I pass out content in a quiet room with TWO blankets and without 15 nervous strangers.

Although the Matterhorn is not the most difficult climb I have done, it may be one of the most meaningful and aesthetic. I wonder what I would have though as that ten-year-old, picking that Matterhorn photo out of the Encyclopedia. Would my wildest imagination have traced the skyline in the photo and said “I will stand on top?”

Cheers from Zermatt, successful climb

Cheers! Thanks to all my friends who get me out of the house and into the mountains for adventures. A special thanks to JBIII for giving me the opportunity to turn this dream into reality. It really was like Christmas in the Alps!

Powderbird FAQ: When is the best time of year to heli-ski?

When a first-time Powderbird guest calls our heliport, we typically go over the basics:

  • What is the day’s itinerary
  • How many runs can we expect to ski
  • How many vertical feet in a day of heli-skiing
  • What areas do we ski in from each base of operation
  • Do we need to provide our own safety equipment
  • What is the cost for a day of heli-skiing
  • Can we rent powder skis, and what are the benefits

The list goes on—as I’m sure you can imagine, first-time heli-skiers understandably have a lot of questions about the experience. Despite the multitude of questions our staff fields on a daily basis, one of the most common questions is:

When is the best time of the season to come heli-skiing in Utah?

This can be a difficult question to answer, due to the fact that next season’s weather is completely out of our control in July, or even in the midst of Powderbird’s season. Utah weather is notoriously unpredictable and changes drastically on a daily and weekly basis. However, based on our previous experience and historical snowfall averages, we can give you a pretty good picture of the winter in Utah.

Sidenote: Even during a “bad” or “dry” winter season, you can expect 500″ of the “greatest snow on Earth”. Not too shabby. During an amazing season, you’re looking at over 700″ of that dry fluffy stuff! For your reference, 2006-2007 was a historically weak ski season. Many locals will recall it as the worst in recent memory. Alta reported 390″ that winter.

Here’s a run down of Alta’s average monthly snowfall (the most accurate representation of our backcountry snowfall):

As you can hopefully see from this chart, we are blessed with a ton of snow each winter month Utah, and it also tends to vary which month is the most snow heavy. According to Alta’s calculations, over the course of 31 seasons, Utah’s snowfall averages a water density of 8.55%, with the driest snow falling in February (7.55% on average). Likewise, the largest quantity of ‘snow on ground’ can be found in February and March, with 104″ and 122″ respectively. Early season we may not be able to access every ski route in our arsenal due to insufficient snow coverage and other potentially dangerous obstacles.

Alta’s chart also depicts Utah’s Wasatch front receiving high early and late season snow totals. Budget conscious travelers can often save some money by visiting Utah in early January or throughout March, by securing “low-season” rates.

A beautiful April powder day at Alta Ski Resort (4.14.2011)

As a heads up, Sundance Film Festival skyrockets the cost of lodging in Park City (and beyond) during the last two weeks in January. The 2012 Sundance Film Festival will take place January 19-29, 2012.

If you have any questions about booking, please don’t hesitate to call (801.742.2800) or e-mail (info@powderbird.com) us. We are also available to answer any questions on Facebook and Twitter.

Argentina Heli Skiing Update

Thanks to our friends at Patagonia Ski Tours, we have a first hand account of what’s in store for the Argentina ski industry following the June 4th Puyehue Volcano eruption and resulting volcanic ash. After many delays, the Bariloche airport was slated to re-open today (July 8). Regardless of the airport delays, there are still many ways to reach your adventure destination in Patagonia. Due to the ski season’s late start, many businesses are also offering discounts to encourage tourism in the surrounding areas. Now may be the perfect time for a last minute South American adventure!

Tips for getting to Bariloche

Many Patagonia Ski Tours guests and guides have used the Via Bariloche or El Valle bus services in the past. It is a much cheaper option, typically costing about half the price of an air travel ticket. Another benefit of this travel option is the drive itself, taking in the views of the Argentine countryside, travelling through the pampas, while casually sipping wine and being served high quality meals all along the way. If you do choose to travel to Bariloche by bus, our friends down south highly recommend upgrading to the Cama Ejecutivo or Tutto Leto seats. It is well worth it, considering the length of the trip (20+ hours).

A peek at nightlife at Cerro Catedral

Ski Industry Update

Currently all ski resorts in Argentina are now open:

  • Penitentes located 180 km from Mendoza
  • Las Leñas, the highest ski resort in Argentina with a 3,430 meter summit
  • Caviahue lies at the foot of Lake Copahue in a stunning setting
  • Batea Mahuida is named for a local extinct volcano
  • Cerro Chapelco receives excellent snow conditions
  • Cerro Bayo is part of Villa La Angostura and features exceptional lodging and dining
  • Cerro Catedral is located just outside of Bariloche
  • La Hoya experiences an extended season due to its geographic location
  • Cerro Castor lies on the very southern tip of Argentina

The Cerro Catedral ski resort, which is just starting its ski season, has announced they will be charging their mid-season rates during the high-season, equivalent to a savings of 30%.

Guests enjoy the stunning views from Cerro Bayo

Heli skiing in Bariloche

Interested in year-round heli-ski opportunities? See if any trips offered by Patagonia Ski Tours fit the bill. They also offer backcountry, snowcat, and volcanic ski tours, along with wine and Buenos Aires city tours! We’ll do another blog post soon that will cover their heli ski offerings in depth.

Hope everyone is having a great summer!

Summer Backcountry Safety

One amazing benefit of living in Utah is the ability to participate in multiple outdoor sports during any given season. It is currently over 90 degrees in the Salt Lake Valley but I know many people who went skiing this past weekend! And not just at Snowbird, but hiking and doing some backcountry skiing in late June. As lucky as we are to have these unparalleled opportunities, please continue to practice backcountry safety if you are considering touring.

Utah Avalanche Center

Although the UAC is not operating, users are still posting avalanche sitings and warnings. If you are in the backcountry and see an avalanche on a different aspect, post it on the UAC’s website to help educate other late season backcounter enthusiasts.
Likewise, if you are planning an upcoming tour, take a look at this site for any warning signs. It will possibly prevent you from putting in the effort to arrive at any area with unsafe skiing conditions.

Here are pictures of a recent slide: Pfeifferhorn June 20, 2011.

First Tracks Online Magazine

Another great resource are the forums on First Tracks. You can search by region and get first hand accounts about what current and recent skiing conditions are like. The Western North American Forum is where you can find posts from Utah’s die-hard skiers. Below is a recent picture from Main Chute, a popular run near Alta and Snowbird.

Main Chute June 26, 2011, Alta/Snowbird

As you can see, this lower portion of the run still has an incredible amount of snow. The best time to ski this time of year is very early in the day before the sun melts everything to slush to water.

There are many other resources available to backcountry skiers. Forums are a great way to learn from trusted skiers in your community. Find one that suites you, follow for local user updates and always be safe out there!