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Contemplations of a snowman
A lifetime interacting with a substance described by many words
Breaking trail at 40-below zero in Idaho’s Big Hole Mountains with the Grand Tetons in distance. - photo by Jon Waterman

“I hope it keeps coming,” everyone says. I can never tell if this is an apocryphal statement about changing climate or a simple declaration of joy for what snow brings to our lives. I heard various declamations of “we need the snow” a dozen times today, at the bank, the post office, in the grocery store and from the open window of my truck while pushing the white stuff around several cars. On both a personal and a societal level, I couldn’t agree more.

Collectively, everyone knows that we need the snow. It keeps the ski hills booming. And it’s the snow that fills the rivers in spring through early summer, like a good savings account, when the high peaks of our valley finally release the winter’s earnings so that farmers from Basalt to Mexicali can spend it. Then later, when its released from those near and far reservoir-banks: Ruedi and Powell and  Mead—snow enriching millions of acres of hay and citrus fruits and lettuce and strawberries. Our snow even begets Arizona cotton.  

Of course, the fish and the fishermen also need it. So do the river runners.  

From a bigger picture, as Colorado enacts its first-ever State Water plan, members of the real estate, outdoor recreation and tourism industries cite that healthy rivers add $9 billion and 80,000 jobs each year to the state’s economy. And healthy rivers in turn hinge upon, you guessed it: snow. More than 90 percent of the Frying Pan and Roaring Fork and Crystal and Colorado rivers come from snowmelt, or so I learned when I paddled (and accidentally swam) portions of the latter ice-cold river during my journey from source to sea a decade ago. I learned that the Roaring Fork Valley has two of the five biggest snowmelt diversions under the Continental Divide in the state: Frying Pan and Roaring Fork snow water is sent back upstream (actually understream) through Boustead and Twin Lakes tunnels to the eastern slope. Depending upon your take, this is either a perversion of the natural order of falling snow and rushing rivers, or a miracle of engineering. Or both. 

Snow Cave
Roger Mear peering into a snow cave in sub-zero conditions, Denali National Park, Alaska. - photo by Jon Waterman
Personally, I depend upon naturally falling and fallen snow, if only for the sake of my own sanity. Don’t get me wrong — I moan about the cold like everyone else each year when the thermometer first hits the single digits and we’re immersed into the requisite season of change.  We go to boots instead of flip-flops, change to snow tires, rejigger the old shovels, put away lawn furniture and winterize the house. But when the snow starts falling, I’m transformed. Besides, I’ve shoveled a kind of a career around snow.  

Each winter, I moonlight by plowing driveways in the Mid-Valley. Truth be told, I don’t really need the extra money. In dry winters everyone turns grim — like last year with only one plow from December through April — and the proceeds didn’t even cover the beer tab or truck expenses. Still, I will not accept much more than the half-dozen driveways and parking lots already on my circuit because then I would be in danger of turning my love of snow into work. Because I plow for fun. 

Today, snow fell with the mercury clinging to the low teens and it flew like clouds of cold smoke above my plow on one of the long juniper-lined driveways as I gunned it with snow billowing over my windshield as if I were taking first tracks down Walsh’s or the Cirque. Stopped at the pile I’d created, I got out of the truck and barehanded the white dust off my window and inspected the flakes before they could melt on my reddening palm. It looked like, as the Eskimos used to say, pukak.

Let me explain.

Every snowflake is different. Although all possess general hexagonal shapes, the details of their legs and arms vary infinitesimally according to humidity and temperature: from thin branches to needle legs to rounded arms. All according to whatever each flake collects as it drifts lazily out of the clouds and through the capricious wetness of the air itself. This is what I’ve learned, and what I interact with most winter days whether working or playing with it. It’s what my snowplower and skier and shoveler colleagues all rejoice in. This is the stuff I’ve played with throughout my life.

Like many kids, it began with snowplow banks, where we tunneled in and built elaborate caves. I observed but didn’t yet understand the incredible visco-elastic properties of snow, but I did learn early on that, when warmed and compressed between my mitts, it stuck together like bread dough on the snowmen we built and then flew through the air in ice missiles until exploding against the chests of my protesting brothers. I never outgrew the idea that the white stuff was miraculous.  

I started building igloos at 16. But this wasn’t kid stuff because my friends and I carried snow saws and slept in the igloos and deliberately built them high up on mountainsides and waited for the subzero weather to turn so bad that we couldn’t even stand up outside in the wind. Inside our semi-warm shelters, the snow absorbed and muffled the raging of the wind and we played gin rummy in shirtsleeves under the light and heat of multiple candle lanterns. Our parents warned us that snow could kill us, but we knew that igloos or snow caves rarely collapsed, and inside, insulated from the meanest weather by the white innards of winter itself, we knew snow mostly as our friend.  

Waterman Artic
Jon Waterman on his Arctic traverse, along the spring sea ice, Nunavut, Canada. - photo by Jon Waterman
In the mornings, we woke up beneath our carefully cut blocks of snow and marveled at the cement-hard walls, now shiny and glazed over with the heat of our breathing and camp stove. Before leaving these snow houses, we would jump on the walls, but you couldn’t collapse an igloo unless you pounced with all your weight on the ingenious capstone that glued the spiraling house of cards together. If we built it right, and spent enough nights inside, with the blocks cut perfectly square to one another as we stacked them round and round, that requisite humidity and heat locked the igloo together like cinder blocks and we couldn’t knock the houses down if we tried.  

Snow, I learned at 19 after riding my first avalanche (a wet snow slide in Rocky Mountain National Park that congealed into a concrete slab that took all of my strength to dig out of), could in fact kill you. Quite easily. So, at 20, I enrolled in a weeklong avalanche course on Red Mountain Pass.  

Thereafter, whenever skiing in the backcountry or ducking the ropes at ski areas, I carried an avalanche transceiver and a shovel. Equally important, I carried a hand lens and a food service thermometer so that I could study the snowflakes and snowpack in the pits that I dug before skiing the slopes below. If a steep temperature difference existed between the surface level snow (say -10°F) and the ground-level snow (usually 32°F) — creating water vapor and pulling the wetness upward, amputating the complex legs and arms of the snowflakes, and turning the bottom of the pack into non-cohesive sugar or t-g (temperature-gradient) snow — I always called it a day. Beautiful-looking backcountry powder ski slopes routinely collapse and avalanche if they lie atop several inches of t-g snow.  

At 22 in Canada, on an unclimbed knife-edge ridge amid the greatest nonpolar snowfields on earth, I collapsed my first cornice. It broke off at knee level where I had plunged my ice ax into a solid-looking snowfield and shot 40 yards left and right in a great spiderwebbing crack that broke an unspoken agreement between gravity and the overhanging multi-ton leviathan — suspended into thin air like Icarus frozen in midflight under the sun. The cornice moaned out a great “whoomf,” and the physical theorem of viscoelastic snow turned to dust as the monster cornice exploded thousands of feet down the opposite side of the ridge, engulfing me in a blinding, yet pleasing cloud of spindrift that, at least briefly, clouded the view of the abyss that now yawned under my feet.   

I called it a day.

Confronted by more overhanging cornices and an incoming storm, my partners and I dug snow holes into the steep slope, where we slept warm and secure, while the wind clawed at the packs and snow drifted as beautiful as cake frosting in the entranceways. We spent a month-and-a-half climbing that ridge and traversing the mountain. Aside from collapsing cornices, snow sheltered us — whether in caves or as walls protecting our tents — and fueled us because the subzero Mount Logan lacks running water. To save ourselves from the weight of extra gallons of gas to melt our water, we carried four lightweight tarps that we employed as solar stills — by shoveling snow onto the black plastic, the heat of the sun produced gallons of precious water. Descending the easy ramp route, we rode those tarps like sleds, shooting over fragile crevasse snow bridges to the bottom of the mountain. 

Jon Waterman
New Year’s Day, Jon Waterman and plow, Cattle Creek Roads, Carbondale. - photo by Genevieve Villamizar
From Canada to India to Ecuador to Nepal to Alaska, I played in it, slept with it, drank it, sheltered myself with it, skied it, insulated beer with it, kicked steps up it, threw it and, when we got lonely, sculpted it into mermaid statues.  

In the Colorado backcountry during the height of the cold season, I learned that sugar snow wouldn’t suffice for an igloo. So we shoveled snow into eight-foot-high domes, stomped on it to age-harden and sinter the snowflakes together with our skis, waited one hour, then dug our quinzhees (from the Athapaskan kóézhii — “in the shelter”). You couldn’t stand up inside as we had the pleasure of doing in igloos, and you always kept a shovel handy inside in case of collapse, but after a night’s sleep, crawling back out into coruscating daylight like a new species of blinded winter worm, the walls always felt tight and bomber.

Continuing this lifelong wonderment with snow and ice, in my forties, I went to the Far North and learned (amid a 2,200-mile journey of self-discovery and exploration of culture) still more. Unfortunately, the idea that Eskimos used hundreds of words for snow is now a myth.  

Once, riding away from the village of Oomingmaktuk (“place of the muskoxen”) on a dogsled with an Inuk named Billy, I asked if he could build an igloo, but he only glared back at me in anger as if he no longer had use for such a thing. When I asked him the word for snow, he picked some granules of frozen sea ice in his hand and replied, “This aniu.” He could recite perhaps a dozen more snow words depending upon whether it fell from the sky, was icy, wet or frozen. He used “matsaaruti” to describe wet snow used to ice his kamotik (sled) runners, “piegnartoq” for the good sledding snow, “aqilokoq” for softly falling snow, “nilak” for freshwater ice used for drinking, “qinu” for slushy ice by the sea or “pukak,” for crystalline powder snow that looks like salt.

One experienced Inuktitut linguist said that, in the 1960s, the Inuit (formerly known as Eskimos) still used 25 to 30 different terms for snow. Today, that number may have been halved — a lot less spectacular than a modern backcountry skier or avalanche technician’s vocabulary describing the different types of snow avalanches (serac, wet, slush, slab, cornice, glide) or snow consistencies (corn, nevé, loose, firn, spring, windcrust, sastrugi, breakable crust, t-g, depth hoar, or powder). Sadly, amid the welfare state of government housing throughout much of the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic, few Inuit can still build igloos. Snow — amid satellite television, the lack of ski areas and the melting sea ice — no longer has much meaning in their modern lives.  

This is not true in the Roaring Fork Valley. At least not yet.  

Throughout my days with snow, I’ve been lucky enough to climb it, use it as a substitute for toilet paper, break my leg on it, cool my feet with it (after mistakenly warming toes by pouring too much cayenne pepper in my neoprene socks during a cold summit outing), repeatedly shovel it, wash my face with it, and now, I plow it — cold smoke, wind crust, powder, or pukka — in Mid-Valley driveways and parking lots.  

This New Year and beyond, I hope it keeps coming.  


Jon Waterman has lived in the Roaring Fork Valley since 1988, in between peregrinations to the North. He is a frequent grantee of the National Geographic Society and the author of 14 books, including, most recently, “Chasing Denali.”