50 shades of snow: a guide to the white stuff

Understanding snow terminology can help you to be safer, find the best conditions and avoid avalanches. Here is our guide to technical snow terms.

‘Eskimos have over fifty words for snow.’

It’s a claim that is much quoted and much argued. The truth is, we have quite a few words for snow ourselves, even if a lot are borrowed from other languages. Some are well-known – ‘flurry’, ‘blizzard’, ‘slush’, ‘whiteout’, ‘snowflake’, ‘squall’ and ‘avalanche’ for example – whereas others are seldom used outside mountaineering, winter sports and meteorology circles.

Understanding the terminology can help you to understand snow reports, which in turn help you to find the best conditions and reduce your chances of slipping or being caught in an avalanche. Here are some common words to describe the White Stuff, and their meanings.

50 shades of snow: a guide to the white stuff. Image from Ski Touring and Snowshoeing in the Dolomites by James Rushforth. Pb Cicerone Press.

Image from Ski Touring and Snowshoeing in the Dolomites by James Rushforth

Understand snow reports better with our guide:

Powder: A favourite with skiers, powder snow is freshly fallen, uncompacted snow. Light, dry powder is particularly prized, and is sometimes nicknamed ‘champagne powder’.

Névé: From Swiss-French, ‘névé’ describes snow which has partially thawed then re-frozen, forming a firm, compacted pack. Solid and reliable, and much less tiring than soft, fresh snow, it’s great for walkers (providing you have crampons). It’s not so popular with skiers though: it can be rather slippy and that compressed snow doesn’t exactly make for a soft landing!

Firn: Névé that survives a year without melting becomes firn (Swiss-German for ‘last year’s’). In time, this becomes even more compacted and eventually transforms into blue glacial ice.

Graupel: A borrowing from German, ‘graupel’ refers to small pellets of snow, like softer hailstones. Layers of graupel in the snowpack can trap air and increase the risk of avalanche.

Cornice: From the Italian meaning ‘ledge’, a cornice is an overhanging block of snow that forms on crests and ridges and around gullies. Formed by the wind, they are most common on the leeward (downwind) side of mountains. Cornices should be avoided: since there is nothing supporting them, they will eventually collapse and this may trigger an avalanche.

Windslab: Windslabs have a fair amount in common with cornices. Like cornices, they are formed by the wind and tend to form in the lee of obstacles. The wind breaks the snow into small, dense particles, which become packed into a heavy layer when they settle. Unlike cornices, windslabs are usually pillow or lens shaped. They are also very dangerous as there may be a layer of softer snow underneath, which creates instability and increases the risk of an avalanche. If you notice cracks or a hollow sound underfoot, you could be walking on windslab. Stop immediately, then carefully retreat to safer ground.

Mogul: The word ‘mogul’ comes from Bavarian German and means ‘small hill’. Moguls occur when large volumes of skiers and snowboarders on the piste push the snow into mounds. They can present great fun– if you’re into that sort of thing!

Show off to your mates...

745_SP6 50 shades of snow: a guide to the white stuff. Image from Ski Touring and Snowshoeing in the Dolomites by James Rushforth. Pb Cicerone Press.

Image from Ski Touring and Snowshoeing in the Dolomites by James Rushforth

Zastrugi (sometimes spelled sastrugi): In Russian, ‘zastrugi’ has many meanings, including ‘the splintering of wood against the grain’, ‘a stream bank undercut by erosion’ and ‘a state of anxiety’. When applied to snow, ‘zastrugi’ describes a pattern of ripples and grooves formed when gusts of wind push the snow into drifts.

Penitents or penitentes: So called because they resemble the crowds of hooded penitents in the Procession of Penance during Spanish Holy Week, these tall, closely-grouped pinnacles or blades of snow can be over 5m tall. They can be found in high altitude arid areas such as the Dry Andes and parts of the Sierra Nevada.

Watermelon snow: (Yes, it really does exist!) Watermelon snow comes about when spring meltwaters cause Chlamydomonas nivalis, a species of algae containing a red pigment, to germinate under the snow, turning it pink. First recorded by Aristotle, the phenomenon baffled explorers for centuries and has been observed in many different locations worldwide. Unfortunately, watermelon snow increases glacial melt and it is becoming more and more prevalent as average temperatures rise.

50 shades of snow: a guide to the white stuff. Image from Ski Touring and Snowshoeing in the Dolomites by James Rushforth. Pb Cicerone Press.

Image from Ski Touring and Snowshoeing in the Dolomites by James Rushforth

And let’s not forget ice…

Rime: Rime forms when windblown water droplets in cloud or fog hit a cold surface and freeze. It often creates feathery strands which can be quite beautiful.

Verglas: From the Old French ‘verre’ (‘glass’) + ‘glaz’ (‘ice’), ‘verglas’ describes a thin layer of almost invisible ice. It is particularly treacherous because it is so difficult to spot and may even be concealed by a layer of snow.

Useful links and guidebooks

More terminology:

For skiers, this handy website provides a guide to some of the different conditions you might encounter and how easy (or difficult) it is to ski them.

UK snow reports:

The Scottish Avalanche Information Service provides warnings of avalanche risk in the Scottish mountain areas.

The Lake District Weatherline offers daily weather reports (during winter months) from the summit of Helvellyn, brought to you by Jon Bennett and Cicerone author, Graham Uney.

745_SP4 50 shades of snow: a guide to the white stuff. Image from Ski Touring and Snowshoeing in the Dolomites by James Rushforth. Pb Cicerone Press.

Image from Ski Touring and Snowshoeing in the Dolomites by James Rushforth

Get involved with Cicerone