Few things beat heading out into a storm and taking on the blustery elements in exchange for a few face shots. Chris Moran has donned the powder mittens more than once and, with some help from the analogue pics of French photographer Jerome Tanon, tells us why it’s worth going out when most won’t.
This article first appeared in Whitelines No. 112 - The 2014 Photo Issue
I lean against the wind, pretend that I’m weightless, and in this moment, I am happy - Confucius
Bluebird days are epic. The apex of a snowboarding trip: clear skies, strong sun and fresh powder laid out as if God just changed the sheets. And what better way of celebrating – as with any freshly-made bed – than by diving straight in?
On their day, bluebird powder sessions are the kind you’ll remember on your deathbed, alongside the moment you met your firstborn, the first time you fell in love, or that singalong at Glastonbury when 100,000 people knew all the words.
And if sunny days are the stadium gigs of the snowboard world, a storm day – when it’s puking from the sky, the wind is up and the chairlifts are covered in frost – those are the equivalent of a small, sweaty gig, where you’ve stumbled on your new favourite band with barely a room full of strangers sharing the experience. It’s intimate, it’s cool, and you’re part of something exciting.
Why? Maybe it's because you're enclosed in the whiteness of the clouds, or it’s the fact that there are fewer people on the hill. Personally I think it's because you’re on a mission to find pockets of powder, hunting in a pack of friends, looking for glimpses of sun to illuminate the snow bulges, or heading into the trees to gain some definition – all the while stealing faceshots while the resort lays low and everyone else waits for the storm to subside.
And when you find what you’re looking for, what treasure! As a ray of sun suddenly illuminates the powder meadow, you watch your mates get their fill like humpback whales taking in plankton. Following at the back you see their upper body, a flash of dark cargo pant absorbing the bumps and lumps of the terrain, huge clouds of powder billowing up at every turn, obscuring them momentarily. Then a straight-line towards a hit or a cornice, and a slash, an air or a drop, whooping, stoked. As the philosopher Confucius once said: “I lean against the wind, pretend that I am weightless and in this moment I am happy." Not a soul on the run. Then the clouds close back in, and the run is a whiteout again. For that brief moment, perfection. Let's find more.
In 1587 Captain Thomas Cavendish came across the Spanish Santa Ana off the coast of what is now California. When he spied the Manila Galleon he roused his crew with the words, “We are about to strip the Spanish of their curse of plenty." The battle lasted barely a day, with the Englishman stealing some 600,000 gold coins: perhaps the largest haul in history, today valued at over $1 billion.
We snowboarders show similar bravado - hoisting the powder flag and whooping and hollering our way down a patch of freshies, slashing, pillaging, taking what we can in the knowledge others would do the same given half a chance. The spoils go to the victors; in a resort, victors get first lifts and go out when it’s a blustery whiteout.
You could stop and build a kicker, but momentum is fun, and there’s too much pilfering to be had. Under the cover of cloud, no one can see what you’re up to. Jump off the chair, cut the rope, do what you want, you’ve got the freedom of a pirate and gravity’s engine within your board. As Francis Drake – another privateer with booty on his mind once said – “There is plenty of time to win this game, and to thrash the Spaniards too." Evoke his spirit, because who’s going to stop you?
So we’re off, tearing around the mountain, looping runs, heading to the forgotten chair, or that lonely T-bar, the unloved portal to some insanely good snow. A quick “hi" to the liftie, a bit of flirting even, holding on to a gaze through some coffee steam long enough to follow it up in a bar later that week. Hot lifties rule.The pistes are covered in the fresh snow. Not quite enough that you can’t make out the markers, but you’re following the fall line anyway, going full tilt at powder terminal velocity; that lovely speed halfway between recklessness and controlled mayhem. “This isn’t flying," said Buzz Lightyear once, “it’s falling. With style."
And he’s right, because the freshest of fresh snow (still falling in fact) lets you bump off large lumps, creating instant gaps, rollers and pillows. Go hard, safe in the knowledge that you can under- or overshoot and still be good to land. Anti-Gravity Belts are standard issue, my friends.
It’s the perfect place to test your kit: how well do your gloves wipe your goggles? How protective is your hood? Does the snow skirt work? Days like this are best attacked with some trusty old coat, long in the tail. That proven beanie; mittens over gloves; a snug, warm feeling not unlike a deep red wine in front of a roaring fire in an English pub – even if we are deep in France.
one in every ten chairs has a lone, huddled ski silhouette, or a trio of riders all out for the same kicks. You’ve got the place to yourself, though the odd track into the trees shows that there are others out with the same idea; too few of those who would capitalize on days like these. And why? Time is running out. As the ancient Greek play writer Sophocles put it: “I see the state of all of us who live. Nothing more than phantoms or a weightless shadow."
Why waste a trip when the opportunity is there to smash and grab the mountain, a midday raid, hiding in plain site and under a white-out cloud of anonymity. With every hard turn, billowing up swirling clouds of powder, you’re under again. A master of disguise, only face-scarf and black beanie poking out of the white. Moloko’s The Time Is Now blasting in your ear; “let’s make this moment last."
By the end of the session, everything you’re wearing is caked in a crust of ice. Miniature frost bergs clinging to micro-thin woolen threads that are best melted off on a hot radiator. Goggle foam-shaped slots of frozen snow fall onto tiled floors, pooling into water. An evaporating medal from a day spent on the best configuration of H2O.
These are the days that make a winter. To miss them should be a sin. Walter Raleigh – king of the Great British pilferers – recognised the limits of his enjoyments. “I am but dust" he explained, “written with the dying hand," of someone “alas overthrowne". But what a life. What an experience. “I steal time while others sleep" he once said.
Soon the day will come when face shots are not just a memory, but someone else’s memories. We will be no more. But the snow will still fall, and our kind will continue to grab their moments of happiness, like Confucius did two-and-a-half millennia ago.
So seize your chances, embrace the storm, and go out. It doesn’t have to be the best resort in the world: just a hill, some friends and some epic snow.
Pure snowboarding, pure stoke.