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We all hope that our ski trip is going to be beautiful sunny days mixed in with fresh dumps of powder. However, you won’t always be so lucky and it’s common for storms to roll in fast on the mountains bringing dense cloud cover and zero visibility.
At one time or another, every skier must learn how to navigate the mountain on skis, when they can’t see more than a few feet in front of them.
If you find yourself stuck in a whiteout with limited or no visibility the best thing you can do is to ski slowly, look for piste markers so you stay on the slope and stick together with your fellow skiers and make your way to shelter.
Skiing technique for whiteouts
Skiing in a whiteout is definitely more challenging, but the fresh snowfall that usually accompanies a whiteout makes for fresh untracked powder underfoot.
In low visibility, you can’t see what’s ahead and you’re essentially blind to the contours of the mountain.
You need to respond much faster to the gradient of the mountain and ski with your legs slightly bent and ready to rise and fall as you move over bumps & troughs.
Maintain a gentle bend by the waist, with your hands up front and a solid stable torso.
In deeper snow, keep your skis closer together so that one ski doesn’t dip down further into the snow and force your off balance during a parallel turn. You’ll also want to bounce up and down through each turn so that your skis turn on the top of the snowpack rather than getting buried deep in the snow.
Pole plant into turns
If you’re not in the habit of pole planting into each turn, then you’ll need to be for whiteout skiing. Pole planting will be hugely beneficial to giving you confidence into each turn.
You can use the ski poles to get a sense of the depth of the snow and the angle of the slope when you can’t clearly see.
Keep your arms forward and pole plant to your right and left before each turn.
Pole planting will also allow you to set a rhythm down the slope, and make you less likely to accidentally ski off the groomed slope.
If you’re skiing in heavy snowfall and the groomed slopes have plenty of powder then read my free guide on skiing while it’s snowing.
Top tips for skiing with zero visibility
Use piste markers
Knowing whether you’re on the groomed slope or straying onto potentially dangerous areas of the mountain is crucial in a whiteout situation.
Pay attention to any markers that signal the edge of the piste so you stay within the ski run.
Skiing off-piste or backcountry in low visibility is dangerous because you won’t be able to see any oncoming drops or rocks.
Skiing in within tree cover is safe if you’re a good skier, as you can use trees as markers for the terrain. Off-piste skiing in low visibility is only recommended for very good skiers who either know the area well or are with someone who does.
If you’re not sure if you’re still on the groomed slope or have strayed off, then ski very slowly and look for the piste markers. You may have to take your skis off and walk up to the last marker you saw to correct your course.
It may be tiring and painful to do so, but its much better than getting stuck on a ledge or getting lost completely and spending the night alone on the mountain.
If you’re heading out into low visibility skiing, then go with a buddy or as a group of skiers and use each other for support. Looking at fellow skiers ahead can help you asses the gradient and contours of the slope ahead.
Not only that but skiers can share food, body heat and help find shelter in an emergency situation.
Go high, go low or go home
Usually, low visibility is restricted to specific parts of the mountain. Try to ski away from the cloud cover and to slopes with better visibility.
If you’re high on the mountain then ski down and if you’re lower down, ski up above the clouds for clearer conditions.
If a storm is brewing and winds are picking up, it may be wise to seek shelter and let it pass. Skiing in a whiteout is one thing, but skiing in a blizzard is an altogether more dangerous task.
Use flat light goggles
In low visibility conditions there is less light, but still plenty of UV and a higher likelihood of snow, which makes ski goggles an essential piece of kit to protect your eyes.
Most all weather ski goggles will be usable in low-light conditions, but the tint won’t be optimum.
Ski goggles with a specific low-light tint color will allow you to see shadows and pick out more detail that ski goggles that block out too much light.
Popular ski goggles colors for low light are permission and brown. Read my full ski goggles buying guide and see how different lens tints look.
In whiteouts, the temperature will start to drop and keeping warm becomes essential.
It will take you much longer to reach shelter if you need to and so preserving your core temperature is a priority.
Do up all your zips, pull up your facemask or neck warmer and make sure there are no gaps of exposed skin.
Keep moving & stay warm. For more detail read the Skiers Ultimate Guide to Staying Warm
Wear bright colors
In low visibility, skiing at speed becomes hazardous as its more difficult to see and avoid obstacles and people.
Wearing bright colors on the slopes makes you more visibile, more reflective in the low light and less likely to be hit by oncoming skiers.
Wearing bright clothing will also make you more visible to ski patrol in case they need to locate you in an emergency.
Is it dangerous to ski during a whiteout?
You can safely ski reduced visibility and enjoy the quiet pistes and fresh powder.
As the conditions approach zero visibility, it becomes more imperative that you ski with caution and are ready to react to avoid other skiers.
If the wind picks up then staying warm can become an issue and if you’re not kitted out in quality ski wear that’s got a high waterproofing and breathability rating then you can quickly get wet and miserable.
If a blizzard or storm is incoming, it would be wise to seek shelter and avoid the slopes. Heavy winds will force the resort to close lifts and can make skiing in exposed areas treacherous.
In summary, skiing in low visibility can be fun and enjoyable, but as the wind picks up and visibility approaches zero it will become increasingly more dangerous – especially so for new skiers.
If you’re still relatively new to skiing and not able to make parallel turns, then I would advise against skiing in a whiteout on all but the baby slopes.
Should you ski amongst trees in low visibility?
In low visibility, skiing under tree cover is actually safer as you can use trees to differentiate between the ground and the sky.
Trees provide a static reference point and color contrast against the snow.
Ski with caution and stay don’t get too close to any tree or you could fall and get trapped in a tree well.