The first snow has fallen over Västerbotten. Winter is coming and cars must have winter tyres. But did you know that the Sami have 200 different expressions for snow and its quality?
To the Sami, snow is more than just frozen water. It is a way of
expressing what their whole existence centres around - reindeer
migration. To skiers too, snow is also more than just snow. It's
how you relate to life.
How do you define the best skiing of your life? For me, the answer is without question Snow! Orlopme as they say in South Sami. To the Sami, just like skiers, snow means different things on different days. However, good lopme always means good jåhtedh, good snow to ski on. You can be in a good place or a not-so-good place, you can be having a good day or a bad day; what ultimately decides whether the skiing is good or not is quite simply the snow.
200 words for the quality of snow
The Sami are said to have more than 200 words for
snow. But it's rather 200 words for the quality and properties of
snow - its soul. What we know as powder is
called fleavmoe in South Sami. A frozen
crust of snow is called tsaapke. This really means
a layer of snow that is just strong enough to bear a skier, but
breaks when you want to do anything else, such as turn.
We're quite prepared to avoid Tsaapke . The world's best fleavmoe is found in Utah in the USA, where they call it powder. Which is also the word fleavmoe translates to - "dry. light, powdery snow".
The driest snow ever
Sometimes I've skied
on fleavmoe in Sweden when it was
also varhabpehth, untouched winter snow with
no tracks. The first time this happened was in Kittelfjäll over 20
years ago. After a fresh fall of snow, the temperature was minus 30
and the snow was drier than anything I have seen before or since.
You could ski 300 metres across the mountain and when you turned
round you could see the snow still swirling where you began.
It was so bitterly cold that your feet froze in your boots; it was a miracle that the old Alimak lift coughed itself to life and the hotel manager of the day Sam Hedman was heating up vin chaud for all he was worth. No one cared, everyone was enjoying a lopme that we had never encountered before. Of course, fleavmoe is the fresh cold snow that falls. But in Utah and sometimes in the Swedish mountains, it's so cold and dry that it keeps its lightness even when it has fallen.
Snow does not improve with age
Loose snow is naturally a little heavier
than fleavmoe and is
called heblie. After a few days the snow has
generally all gone, churned up and
transformed. Fleavmoe and heblie are
perishable and must be consumed right away. Snow always tries to
find its own stability and does not improve with age. An avalanche
or snowslide is called väjroe in Sami
and we also avoid those.
For many people the best time is spring, gïjre. When the Sami move up into the mountains for the reindeer calving, skiers also take to the mountains. Gïjre is the thaw period, warm during the day and cold at night. "Crunch, crunch" go the ski skins against the frozen crust, tjarve, in the small world you are gliding along in. A skiing trip is meditation for modern people. Tjarve gives good grip for the steel edges, but does not give any particular enjoyment if you ask me. The crust is frozen day and night and is excellent for moving reindeer.
Slaptjedh for high-speed cruising
When the sun warms tjarve up,
it forms slaptjedh. A soft surface that is
easy to ski on. The opportunity for high-speed cruising is never
greater, or a 50-degree trench safer, than
on slaptjedh. The skis work frictionlessly
with the snow, cutting like a knife through butter.
Since the Sami have so many words for snow, they weren't satisfied with just four seasons either. The Sami people's eight seasons naturally have to do with the reindeers' life cycle. The month of august is called mïetske, the time when people move down from the mountains and into the forest. It is late summer followed by autumn, tjaktje, which is the beginning of what we call winter, or daelvie. But for the Sami early winter, tjaktjedaelvie, comes in-between.
When "decay" sets in, it's time to put your skis away
Complicated for anyone who doesn't understand that
life is never as simple as the almanac makes it
seem. Gïjre is always full of surprises. I've
friends who have skied on jåhtedh, in the
mountains, on Sweden's National Day. It doesn't happen all the
time, not even often, but it happens.
But gïjre is also subject
to sïeblehth-lopme, what Swedes call "the
decay". When the snow turns into a cold swamp of bottomless slush.
When it's time to put your skis away and get your mountain bike
But still a few seasons away.