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Jon Waterman: Confessions of a Snowman

Jon Waterman, author of the classic In the Shadow of Denali: Life And Death On Alaska's Mt. Mckinley, reflects on a life lived in and around snow, and the myriad ways it can both protect and threaten.

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A confession: I miss more than a few powder days because I moonlight with a snowplow. From behind the wheel, I often pretend I’m skiing as snow falls with the mercury clung to the low teens. It flies like clouds of cold smoke above my plow on one of the long juniper-lined driveways. I hit the gas and snow billows over my windshield as if I were taking first tracks down Marble Peak back in the day when Lou Dawson and I had the only truck parked on the quarry road.

I’ll often stop at the piles I create, get out of the truck and barehand the white dust off my window. I inspect the flakes before they can melt on my reddening palm. Last time I did this it looked like, as the Inuit (formerly known as Eskimos) used to say, pukak.

Of course, 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 moisture 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, this lifelong passion 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. 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 flew through the air in ice missiles that exploded against the chests of my protesting brothers. I never outgrew the idea that the white stuff was miraculous.

building a snow shelter on Denali in winter
Building a snow shelter on Denali in winter. Photo: Jon Waterman.

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. We waited for the subzero weather to turn so bad that we couldn’t even stand up outside in the wind. Inside our comfy 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. We knew that it could save our lives in more ways than one.

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. Still, 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, the 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, again following Dawson, I enrolled in a weeklong avalanche course on Red Mountain Pass in Colorado.

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)—that created water vapor and pulled the wetness up; this amputated the complex legs and arms of the snowflakes and turned the bottom of the pack into non-cohesive sugar or t-g (temperature-gradient) snow. Then I always called it a day. This will come as no surprise to any of my pit-digging brothers in pukak, because we all know that those 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 non-polar 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 mid-flight under the sun. The cornice moaned out a great “whoomph.” Then the physical theorem of viscoelastic snow turned to dust as the monster cornice exploded thousands of feet down the opposite side of the ridge and engulfed 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 overhung cornices and another 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 frosted cake in the entranceways. We spent a month-and-a-half climbing that ridge. Then we traversed the mountain.

Aside from the mantrap of 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. Shovel snow onto the black plastic, wait for the heat of the sun to do its work, then voila: gallons of precious water. On the easy ramp route descent, we rode those tarps like sleds and shot over fragile crevasse snow bridges to the bottom of the mountain. To this day, like most of the long corniced ridges on that greatest of all mountain massifs, our route remains unrepeated. Most climbers are too smart these days to mess about with long, corniced ridges.

From Canada to India to Ecuador to Nepal to Alaska, I played in snow, 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. Okay, another confession: if I didn’t actually love the white stuff, I certainly worshipped it.

In the place that we called the backcountry—before a company existed that would sue us for using the word—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 and stomped on it to age-harden and sinter the snowflakes together with our skis. We waited an hour, then dug our quinzhees (from the Athapaskan kóézhii—“in the shelter”). We couldn’t stand up inside like you could in igloos and we always kept a shovel handy inside in case of collapse. But after a night’s sleep as we crawled back out into coruscating daylight like a new species of blinded winter worm, the walls always felt tight and bomber.

Peering through the bergschrung on the Cassin Ridge, Denali, during a winter ascent. Photo: Jon Waterman.
Peering through the bergschrung on the Cassin Ridge, Denali, during a winter ascent. Photo: Jon Waterman.

Sometimes no matter how smart we thought we were about snow science, it all just came down to luck and timing. In this case—on a traverse several decades ago over Denali and down the Muldrow Glacier—I confess that literary pornography saved us. One early morning at 11,000 feet, Kellie Rhoades and I had to tear Jeff away from his book, The Happy Hooker. Griping about losing fifteen minutes, we waited for him to pack up, but soon enough we were carving down glacier, end-running crevasses, then coasting downhill amid mountains so gargantuan it didn’t even look like we were moving.

While circumventing the dangerously crevassed Lower Icefall, a half mile above us a serac avalanche broke off Mount Tatum like a bomb blast. As we stopped in our tracks, stunned, pulling our hoods up, the avalanche exploded in our path as an undulating wave of rocks and ice blocks all the way across the glacier to the opposite mountainside, nearly a mile away—all just a hundred yards in front of us. “Wow,” I murmured, sotto voce, afraid to speak too loud in front of such a godly cataclysm.

After a few minutes the cloud of ice particles settled and we could see down glacier again. We were all shivering, but we weren’t cold. If we had been just fifteen minutes earlier—the amount of time it took Jeff to read about the Happy Hooker servicing a client—we would have been buried forever.

The ice debris filled all the gaping crevasses but it was of such ancient, cobalt quality that we took our skis off because it was easier walking with crampons than trying to hold on with our ski edges. I’ll never forget that snow: remnant Ice Age for sure, first glued to the Alaska Range in that era that Mammoths stomped the earth, older than any frozen substance I’ve ever tried to stomp my crampons into. The Inuit call it uukkarnit, so old it preceded their ancestors who, a couple millennia ago, invented snow goggles and crampons and snow saws.

Another time, with the bestial skiers Scott Gill and Andy Lapkass, we were dropped off by a bush pilot on the tundra below Alaska’s Mount Sanford. After three interminable uphill days, often breaking trail, I kicked my ski tails into the summit snow and flopped onto my pack to fill my eyes with more snow than you can see anywhere else on the continent: 230 miles of white luminescence and blued uukkarnit—I confess that back then I did not yet know that Alaska was warming at twice the rate of the lower 48, and if I were to view the same scene today it wouldn’t be half as white.

[Also Read Chasing Denali: A Story Of The Most Unbelievable Feat In Mountaineering]

We skied down unroped through knee-deep powder. By the end we made jump turns (or face plants) through what turned into mashed potatoes—mangokpok, the Inuit would say. At a ski party later that winter in Utah, I told the story of our 12,000-foot descent, which I described as five times the drop of Alta—until another skier interrupted my tale of our week-long saga by saying that he’d been dropped off on that particular summit with his skis by a helicopter and dispensed with the whole mountain in an hour.

Still, I never lost my sense of wonder for snow and ice, even if I needed to take my time with it. In my forties, I went to the Far North and learned (amid a ten-month, 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. 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. Or “piegnartoq” for the good sledding snow. “Aqilokoq” meant softly falling snow. “Nilak” freshwater ice used to drink. “Qinu” 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. This is 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. Amid satellite television, the lack of ski areas and the melting sea ice, snow no longer means what it used to.

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 I mistakenly warmed my toes by pouring too much cayenne pepper in my neoprene socks during a high altitude outing), repeatedly shovel it, wash my face with it, and now, I plow it—cold smoke, wind crust, powder, or pukka.

This winter and beyond, I hope it comes in great blizzards. After all, snow saved my life.

But as a final confession, it breaks my heart to think that—as snow turns to rain, as temperatures continue to warm—my grandchildren might never know the wonders of a street side snow cave, study t-g crystals through a loupe, or view hundreds of miles of uukkarnit. What would we do without it?

Jon Waterman
Jon Waterman. Photo: Chris Korbulic.

Of Jon Waterman’s 14 books, only one doesn’t involve plenty of snow. His latest—often delving into glaciers—is the National Geographic Atlas of the National Parks.