Surface Conditions 101 – What is Corn???

We had a few people ask us what the many surface conditions that are included on ski reports mean. We’ve posted that information before but it must have been a couple of years ago, before we began archiving all articles for search ability.  The common terms are easy, like “groomed” or “packed powder”, but there are some that I’ll bet some seasoned skiers wouldn’t get correct – such as “corn”.

Most of the Southeast Ski Areas use only the most common terms, that the average or novice skier might recognize but we’ve included most that we could remember.  If we missed one (bring on the humor guys!) let us know.

Here they are:

Cold, new, loose, fluffy, dry snow that has not been compacted. This is usually the product of fresh, natural snowfall.

Powder snow, either natural or machine-made, that has been packed down by skier traffic or grooming machines. The snow is no longer fluffy, but it is not so extremely compacted that it is hard. (Some industry insiders say machine snow shouldn’t be terms as packed powder, however with advances in snowmaking resorts can create a great powder product from time to time!)

It’s the easiest to identify because it leaves that great corduroy look to the snow.  It’s the second best surface to ski…behind true powder. It is often frozen or loose granular snow that has been repeatedly groomed by power tillers so that the texture is halfway between loose granular & packed powder. Some of the snow is granular & some of the snow has been so pulverized that the crystals are like fine powder sugar. It’s neither loose granular nor packed powder.

This is undoubtedly the most misunderstood surface condition in ski reporting. Frozen granular is a hard surface of old snow formed by granules freezing together after a rain or warm temperatures. There are a wide range of frozen granular surfaces that offer different textures and ease of turning. Frozen granular will support a ski pole stuck into the surface. In contrast, ice will form chips and will not support polls. It can return to loose granular after proper machine grooming.

This surface results after powder or packed powder thaws then refreezes and re-crystallizes, or from an accumulation of sleet. This is also created by machine grooming of frozen or icy snow.

This is another term that even many resorts SHOULD use when they describe what many actually call Frozen Granular.  HARD PACKED is what we probably ski the most often at Southeast Ski Areas.  Ober Gatlinburg is probably the only ski area that consistently includes this term accurately in reporting.  HARD PACKED is a good thing!  It is when natural or machine made snow becomes very firmly packed. The snow has never melted and re-crystallized, but it’s been tightly compressed through grooming and continuous wind exposure. You can plant a pole in hard packed snow, but it takes more effort than packed powder. Unlike frozen granular snow, hard packed snow is generally white in color. (See HARD PACKED sounds familiar doesn’t it?)

Loose or frozen granular snow which has become wet after rainfall or high temperatures. This is typically an easy to ski surface that results from rainy days or a thaw.

This is the spring version of Variable Conditions. Like variable conditions, this term is used when no one surface can describe 70% of the terrain open for skiing. It is not uncommon for other evidence of spring to be present such as bare spot, a discolored surface from melting and traffic.

When no primary surface (70% or more) can be determined, variable conditions describes a range of surfaces that can be encountered. It could mean that parts of the trails are loose granular, part are packed powder, part are frozen granular and some are wet granular.

Here are some terms that are out there but not often used:

Not to be confused with frozen granular, ice is a hard, glazed surface created either by freezing rain, ground water seeping up into the snow and freezing, or by the rapid freezing of snow saturated with water from rain or melting. It is important to note that, generally, frozen granular is opaque whereas ice is translucent. (Resorts should only report these conditions when those conditions make up more than 50% of the trails. This one is rarely if ever used – although sometimes it should be! J

Corn snow, usually found in the spring, is characterized by large, loose granules during the day which freeze together at night, and then loosen again during the day. We see this a lot of times during the Spring and prolonged thaws, but we’ve never seen the term used in our ten years of reporting.

Natural or machine made snow that has been previously packed and becomes wet usually because of rainfall.

We’ve seen Ober Gatlinburg use this one from time to time even this season. It is Powder snow which has become moist due to a thaw or rainfall, or snow which was moist, as it fell.

Here’s another one that we get a LOT, but is has never been used.  A windy day can blow the surface snow, either powder or granular, into drifts in some places, leaving a firmly packed base snow.

Hope this helped!

Until Next Time!

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