Standing at the top of a perfect Wasatch powder run, Bruce Tremper of the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center and I only lacked one thing: visibility. We had the perfect slope, perfect snow, good stability and the place all to ourselves … if only we could see it. After I grumbled about it for a few minutes while Bruce was fine-tuning the buckles on his boots, he said “Why don’t you take this first and I’ll tell you the secret for flat light at the bottom.” Pushing off, I channeled my inner mantra to “Use the Force” and fumbled my way down in anticipation of enlightenment.
A proud member of the Wheredafugawee tribe. (Lost in Antarctica.)
No matter how you look at it, or more likely don’t look at it, skiing in flat light is a drag, and for all you know, you could be skiing off of a huge cliff or straight into a wall. Unfortunately night vision headsets are not yet practical, but some makes and models of goggles do work better than others, as I learned when Drew Stoecklein loaned me a pair of his Smith I/O Photochromics for a run. Like a mood ring, the lenses in photochromic goggles change shade depending on the amount of sun, which is one of the things that causes flat light in the first place – bright sunshine trying to burn through a layer of clouds which makes your irises both want to open up and shut down at the same time, which leads to squinting. The photochromatic lenses are akin to fog lights on a car: they will greatly increase visibility, but not to the point of full speed ahead X-ray vision.
A more basic trick is to change your terrain. Tree skiing all but eliminates flat light as the contrast between the trees and the white snow gives you excellent depth perception. If no trees are available rocks will do, especially a diagonal rock buttress. In navigation terms, a feature like this is called a “handrail” and serves as one side of direction of travel, but for skiing you’ll have to be a bit more selective and actually find one before you need it as handrails rarely materialize out of thin, flat air. One of the better natural skiing handrails is a tight couloir, so if you are out on a bad light day, some chute skiing might be in order.
Booters work well for the way up, but even better for the skiing down. (Svalbard.)
Another strategy worth trying is changing elevation. Flat light comes in many different flavors, but some common ones include cloud cover or fog. Clouds can often be climbed through so you can ski above or below them, and when it happens, the skiing can be magical. This is a common occurrence in the Pacific Northwest where you might start out in clouds and rain, only to continue up and find yourself skiing on an island of bright snow and sunshine above it all.
Noah Howell and Jim Harris leave the fog and flat light behind in the valley. (Revelations, Alaska)
Lower level fog is another matter and is common in places like Svalbard, Antarctica, Iceland and parts of Scandinavia. This is often caused by the relatively warm ocean currents meeting with cold polar air (kind of like seeing frost on your breath) and can be depressingly pervasive. A Swedish friend who has done a lot of guiding up there described skiing in flat light as very common. When I asked him what he did about it, he just said “Nothing. We are just used to it and try to ski safe, predictable lines when it’s bad.”
Time to evoke the Swedish Solution – find mellower terrain and deal with it. (Svalbard)
If you are out of Swedish terrain, missing couloirs and have nowhere left to go up or down, setting a skin track which you can follow back down will often work. This is assuming the snow is either soft enough to leave a track and/or it is not snowing so hard that your tracks are covered. If this is the case, I’ll often set a very methodical set of switchbacks up a slope – 20 steps, turn, 20 steps, turn. This may not be the best skinning line, but if you stay within the kick-turns, it will establish a nice visual corridor for the return ski descent. If it is too firm to skin or leave tracks, I’ll resort to booting. The downside of booting for flat light is that it leaves you with a very narrow visual track with is only good for doing tight turns, or hop turns down, but it works when you are desperate.
There’s a skin track in there somewhere – you just can’t see it. (Antarctica)
On the topic of desperation, if things get so bad that you or your teammates are falling over from vertigo just by standing still, it might be time to go fishing. In this case, the ‘fishing rod’ is a ski pole or avalanche probe with a length of string or cordallette tied onto it, which is then flung forward like casting a fly. Although it only works for about 20 feet at a time and is very difficult to do any big-picture navigation with, you can eke out those 20 feet at a time with this method, and by developing a sideways, rolling cast, it is possible to move at an almost normal touring pace.
Flat light, huge cracks & rain. Probably a good time to try fishing. (Antarctica)
If none of these tricks work, you can always resort to the one Bruce Tremper was alluding to in the beginning of this article, although it only seems to work once per partner. As Bruce slid to a stop at the bottom of the run, I couldn’t wait to ask him… so what’s the trick?! With his trademark smile, he grinned and said: “Let your partners go first and follow their tracks.” It seemed to work perfectly.