Wax On, Wax Off: Lessons from the Backcountry

If there’s one thing I learned cat skiing, it’s this: before you head out, make sure your wax job is fresh and appropriate for the temperature, because you don’t want to hit heavy powder under the noon sun and be unable to get your snowboard to move an inch without inadvertently doing a backflip down a 50-degree slope. Not when you’re stuck in the backcountry the whole day, sans wax, with the snow you’ve stuffed into your pants during that backflip slowly melting in uncomfortable ways.

On this particular day, Schweitzer had gone through a week-long series of freezing and warming cycles without any new snow, but there were some north-facing exposures in Selkirk Powder territory that had kept well. Sure, they were in some fairly tight trees, but everyone in the group was experienced enough to handle that. Well, okay, I was marginally experienced enough, and I was the lone snowboarder/female, but whatever – I could totally hang unless the underbrush got nasty. I mean, I could still hang, but digging myself out of tree wells and alders tended to slow me down a tad.

We got to prime territory right around noon, when the temperature climbed above freezing. I found beautiful steep open powder below me, but there was a problem: someone had apparently glued sandpaper to the bottom of my board when I wasn’t looking. I would get upright, inch forward, flip downhill, repeat. I started congratulating myself on my ability to do a somersault-slide-arrest combo. It was like having an ice axe attached to your feet. Not very good for boarding, per se, but pretty good for putting the brakes on. Meanwhile, the rest of the group waited at the bottom of the hill, looking up at me flail, wondering, no doubt, how I’d managed to hide my apparently crippling ineptitude up until this point.

Verbally restraining myself, I slid down in a seated position on a pillow of snow, noting how perfect and loose it was, and how absurd it was that I was not barreling elegant arcs through it. Instead, I was ruining it for everyone else at no benefit to myself. Our guide, jovial and resourceful through the entire episode, tried scraping my board at the bottom of the steep bit, sheering off a layer of crusty ice. I actually got some good turns in briefly, but the board was icing over and sticking again in short order.

After talking to various waxing experts about what might have happened, I have learned that you should check the temperature range of your wax job, and you should always make sure it hasn’t been eroded by use even if you haven’t actually gone out all that much. You can feel the bottom of your snowboard or skis to check this, noting if the surface feels porous or smooth. A porous surface means that moisture can find traction and freeze in place, creating a sandpaper affect. Either way, consider taking a bit of rub-on wax and a scraper into the backcountry with you if you’re not sure. Lesson learned.

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