Have Patience: How April Storms and Powsurfers Reinvigorated my Winter

A trio of powsurfers sat by my front door for weeks, neglected. Wanting to join the ranks of snowboarders who’ve turned to riding low-angle slopes on the bindingless boards, in late February I requested some from Grassroots and Burton to test. Never mind that a three-week December cycle had been the extent of our snow. Never mind that the forecast showed no impending flurries. Never mind the sneaking suspicion that drought, not face shots, exemplified this season.

My buddy Ian, a frequent splitboarding partner and powsurf proselytizer, agreed that after the next big storm we’d stop hunting north-facing protected shots and embrace bootpacking low-angle slopes. Then, we waited.

Ian Halderman exits the portal while powsurfing on Wyoming’s Teton Pass. [Photo] Tom Hallberg

Storms passed insignificantly or didn’t materialize at all. A slow-moving blight of detritus from other activities enveloped the powsurfers on my entryway ski rack. New splitboards for testing were leaned against them; shipping boxes further ensconced them; in perhaps the most telling sign, my bike helmet and pack were hung on the rack, forming the outermost layer. With the snow in my yard gone and the mountains melting fast by the end of March, the powsurfers had become a totem of disappointment, rather than representing the promise of learning a new sport.

Then, April came. Lulled into daydreams of melted-out bike trails and big-mountain lines, I was ready for spring, but three straight 12-inch days shook me from that reverie. After work on the third storm day, Ian and I followed the bootpack up Telemark Bowl, the easiest open slope off the top of Teton Pass. He gave me some pointers, then sage wisdom.

“You’re going to fall at some point,” he said. “Don’t worry, you’ll get it, but you’re going to fall.”

It’s been a while since I’ve been a neophyte at sliding sideways on snow, and I was skeptical. Powsurfing is just slow powder riding, right? Nonetheless, when I dropped off the lip on the Grassroots split surfer, the fluttery sensation of being utterly clueless hit me. A couple of heelside slashes dumped speed, but halfway down I found myself kicking the board ahead of me as I fell, too far in the backseat on a toeside turn.

The afternoon was, at its purest, backcountry snowboarding distilled to its two essential elements: hiking and turning. Except for the Grassroots split, powsurfers require no transitions because they are solid, so every time we rode down, all we had to do was jump in the bootpack. Each run I become more comfortable, learning to weight my front foot to gather speed and shift backwards to raise the nose and slow the turn’s arc. I began to grasp the rhythmic nature of linking carves, the way the wide boards took a second to turn over, requiring patience like a backcast in fly fishing.

A rarity in the powsurfing world, Grassroots’ split surfer allows riders to access off-the-beaten-path slopes and venture deeper in the backcountry, while most other surfers require approach skis or bootpacking. [Photo] Ian Halderman

We traded boards the rest of the afternoon, cycling through beginner decks and high-performance ones. Ian experimented with the various options, laying out carves, feeling the way a convex base initiated turns differently than a flat one. Other powsurfers, including a man and his preteen son, joined us on the bootpack, drawn to the unexpectedly untouched slope, which bore fewer tracks than other Teton Pass mainstays.  

I didn’t leave Telemark Bowl satisfied with my skills, but on the last run of the day, I borrowed Ian’s Jones surfer and discovered what we strive for every day on a snowboard. While hooking a fast toeside carve deep enough that my back hand skimmed the snow like a dolphin breaching the ocean’s surface, I fell into that familiar movement made new by the freedom of the implement beneath my feet. That was the sensation my winter had been missing, the weightlessness of locking into a carve when the snow seems to have no bottom. I didn’t even care that I fell soon after, losing balance in a momentary lapse in attention, my mind still on that toeside carve.

After four laps, Ian and I reached the parking lot, the sun dipping low behind the mountains. We discussed sneaking in another, but, out of breath and hungry, we headed our separate ways, exhilarated and humbled by an unexpected opportunity in a winter we’d written off too early.

Tom Hallberg is Backcountry’s associate editor. He’s already jonesing to go powsurfing more next winter (or this one, if the storms keep up.) To learn more about powsurfing, pick up The Avalanche Issue (No. 141), in which Drew Zieff pens an ode to the sport, at BackcountryMagazine.com/141.

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