The pow-pow: Snow, by any other name, is not the same |

The pow-pow: Snow, by any other name, is not the same

All the important terms to know for your Lake Tahoe winter activities

pow pow snow
Heavenly Mountain Resort churns out man-made snow this fall. There's more than one name for the white stuff in this town. / Jim Grant / Tahoe Daily Tribune

For many in Tahoe, snow is everything. Residents shovel it, companies plow it, skiers play on it, resorts depend on it.

 The phone book lists 86 snow removal companies, 39 snowboard shops, 26 snowmobile stores and 80 ski shops. Tahoe is speckled with 11 ski resorts, attracting millions of visitors a year and the winter activities in Lake Tahoe are abundant.

 So it’s no wonder we have a few more names for snow than the regular American.

 For instance, how many people in Texas would understand you if you said: “It’s dumping chicken feathers out there”?

What about “That pow-pow snow is sick”!

 Or it’s “puking” on the mountain?

 How about if you told them you just got “deep powder,” “big air,” or “sweet freshies,” or that you “dropped some sick lines”?

 Snow – how much and what kind – can make a big difference in our lives.

 “It makes a happy day or a sad day,” said Myles Hallen, a professional snowboarder on Sierra-at-Tahoe’s snowboarding team. “It doesn’t need to be happening all the time, just once or twice a week is fine, and the rest could be bluebird.”

 Hallen, who won the U.S. Snowboarding Open in 1999, now has a 2-year-old son, Preston, who “shreds,” he said.

 Our reality and our language are deeply intertwined, according to linguistic theory, said Scott Lukas, chair of the anthropology and sociology department at Lake Tahoe Community College.

When you live in, work in or play in snow, you know the lingo. From pow pow snow to handpack, it all makes sense to the locals on a snow day. This is because when your reality means knowing just how thick, how soft, how deep, how fluffy the snow is, you come up with words that will help you communicate that.

“Some of it is built in with the snow culture here,” Lukas said. “Their vocabulary is reflective of that reality. When they are out on the hills, there’s an intimacy they have with that environment.”

 Erik Roggeveen, 29, the manager of terrain parks at Squaw Valley, says understanding snow is a crucial part of his life.

 “It’s very essential, you need to understand the break down from winter crystals to spring slush,” Roggeveen said. “There are so many intricacies about snow. It’s one of the most beautiful things on the planet. I love being in it, around it, working in it.”

Then there are the scientists who measure the snow, gauging water content and scrutinizing snow crystals.

 About 75 percent of the Western U.S. population depends on melting snow for its drinking water, according to Kelly Redmond, a climatologist with Desert Research Institute.

 “We’ve talked about this whole thing of Eskimos having 31 names for snow,” Redmond said. “If you live in a dry climate, you probably have 31 names for drought. When you are constantly faced with something, each instance matters.”

The, consider how those who actively participate in Lake Tahoe winter sports feel after a big snow.  Most skiers and boarders waking up after a stormy night do one thing first: look out the window. The second: check the snow phone or log on to the resort Web site. The big question: How deep?

 Ski resorts are “all over the map” in the way they measure their snow, Hallen said. The measurement is taken when the snow falls onto a board and is then wiped off. Hallen was unsure how many followed scientific standard.

 “There is a standard for measuring snow that you can’t measure it more often than every six hours,” Redmond said. “Because the more often you measure it, the more you get.”

 Tahoe snow lingo:


bluebird: clear blue sky after a storm, implies lots of fun

powder: light, dry snow, considered the best kind by many

pow, or pow pow snow: powder

freshies: the fun of untracked powder

chicken feathers: large snowflakes

skier-packed powder: debatable term resorts give to snow days after the storm, not yet wet or icy, still chalky

corn: melted and refrozen snow, it’s shaped like corn. For many a close second to powder. Corn comes in spring.

Sierra cement: hard, wet snow

mashed potatoes: wet, thick snow

mung: even thicker, heavier, wetter

hardpack: packed down hard

breakable crust: thin icy top layer that melted during the day and refroze overnight

dust on crust: when it snowed a little on the crust

mush: watery snow

slush: even more watery snow

hoarfrost: water vapor that froze on top the snow, has unique rectangle-shaped crystals

plaster: wet snow that makes a good base, clings to the mountain

boiler plate ice: speaks for itself

Snow falling: all mean it’s coming down hard




other unprintable terms


carving: skiing or boarding on the metal edge of your gear, usually makes a long, beautiful curving arc

shredding: impressively coming down the mountain with zeal

ripping: similar to shredding

Pierre: skiing like a man on a synchronized French ski team

gaper: fool

gaping it: losing control of your style, or not having any in the first place

busting pow: skiing or riding powder

boosting air: jumping off bumpy features like rocks

dropping lines: putting your own lines in fresh snow

schralping powder: having a good time

powder shots: getting fresh powder

face shots: powder hitting your face, flying over your head

face plant: falling and landing on your face, usually kind of hurts


boning it out or tweeking: grabbing at your board during a jump, contorting your body

steezin: overdramatized style of riding

booter: a jump

flair: bandanas and random outfit decoration, tends to get caught on chair lifts if you have too many


ski porn: movies that get you excited to go play in the snow

face rats: Heavenly’s mogul skiers on Gunbarrel

bro: a buddy

bro-bra: an attitude, overly cool and confident

rooster tail: plume of snow shot out while carving

whiteout: unable to see through the snow

avy control: bombing the hillside for avalanche danger

Scientific words:

firn: precursor to glacier ice, compacted snow

rime: a coating formed on a snow crystal when it falls through water vapor

graupel: like hail but softer

Types of snow crystals:

Bullets, plates, cylinders, dendrites, needles, hollow columns, solid prisms, sectored plates, thin plates, solid plates

Originally published in the December 14, 2005 issue of the Tahoe Daily Tribune and regularly vetted for accuracy. 

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