Mountains in winter are infinitely complex.
The interplay of wind, sun, snow, elevation, aspect, temperature, and slope angle creates a playground that is ever changing, ever varied. As every backcountry skier knows, even a few feet to left or right or the difference of a degree or two in steepness can mean blower or snow that’s barely skiable.
Over time, you develop snow sense, mountain sense, terrain sense, especially if you invest your life in one area or alpine pocket, and you know where to go and when to go there — or you intuit it, anyway. But even if you don’t, by paying attention you can suss out the goods. And continue to be astounded by the variation in snow across a range.
Take, for example, this shot of Chris Davenport contrailing high above Chamonix. Christian Pondella shot it with a 14mm lens at f/10, giving him depth of field — sharp focus — all the way from the camera to the distant peaks. And with that resolution, you can see that the pitch behind them has been windswept. And perhaps the wind is still on it — there’s the look of clearing storm, with what could be cloudscraps hanging on the ridge or snow blowing across them. And yet, at Pondella’s feet, not a hint of wind, just big, sparkling crystals, surface hoar I’m guessing from the density of Dav’s wake but maybe the gifts of a recent storm.
I could get answers to my questions with one quick email, but where’s the fun in that? Whenever I see a shot of snow, whether there’s a skier in it or not, I study it to decode the message, scrutinizing it as if it’s an archaeological treasure writing in a forgotten language and only diligence, persistence, and leaps of inspiration will reveal the truth. And the truth of this one is…they killed it.
Photo: Chris Davenport, Chamonix, France, by Christian Pondella.