I couldn’t make a snowball to save my life. Not that my need was actually desperate, this time around—although it might have been, if my life were a Robert Ludlum thriller. The Snowball Identity. The Winter Deception. The Coldland Conundrum. Anyway, even in a small town, snowballs are nice for splattering the garage in a kind of Jackson Pollock painting, if the man had ever painted with ice. Or knocking icicles off the rain gutters. Or using for a cruel game of fetch with the dog. Where’d it go, Spot? Where’d it go? But out here in the Black Hills, after the first real blizzard of the season, the snow just wouldn’t hold its shape.
The morning after the storm, the snow was six inches deep, and the temperature had risen to a balmy 21 degrees—to be followed by a low that night, unfortunately, of 8 below. This is the Hills, after all. The particular snowball problem, however, was that the humidity was holding around 10 percent and hadn’t been especially high even while the snow was falling.
A combination like that makes for great skiing. Alta, Snowbird, Park City—the resorts in the Wasatch Mountains, up the different canyons around Salt Lake City—all advertise their particular powdery snows as the very essence, the quintessence, of winter sport. Light, dry snow of the kind that swirls up, trailing clouds of glory, behind the photogenic skiers as they slalom around the moguls and down the mountainside.
You don’t see those skiers throwing many snowballs, though. Kids from Buffalo to Albany could fight off a bear with snowballs made from the wet, heavy stuff that falls in upstate New York. Utah’s skiers would make a tasty snack just before hibernation.
Temperature has a lot to do with good snowballs. Too warm a day, and the slush smushes down into dripping iceballs: excellent for breaking a car window but not usually counted as fair in a snowball fight. Too cold a day, though, and the snow won’t pack down at all. No snowball fights at the North Pole. The physics just won’t allow it, whatever the maudlin elf in the Bermuda shorts told you after a couple drinks at that dive bar in Orlando, homesick for the workshop.
Despite the many websites that (who would have thunk it?) convey misinformation on the topic, the heat from your hands is not what makes the snow melt and cohere. If it were, every snowball would have a hard outer crust holding a loose interior. Rather, pressure from your squeezing is what shifts the snow in your hands just a smidgen up on what physicists—well known for their wintery humor—call a pressure/temperature phase diagram, melting enough flakes throughout the snowball that, when you remove the pressure of your hands, minute amounts of water refreeze to hold the whole thing together.
Anyway, our snow here in the Black Hills is more like the Utah stuff. Thin, dry flakes, with less water in a flake than the rich snows elsewhere. Add in a cloudy day, no sun to raise the temperature of even the surface snow, and I couldn’t make a snowball to save my life.
Back in 1986, the Japanese thought they would avoid retaliation from other nations, always a risk in a protectionist scheme, by enacting a product-safety rule that required skis sold in Japan to be thick and heavy in a way that only skis from the out-of-date Japanese manufacturers still were (the American and European ski-makers having found new designs and materials that let them make lighter skis). Caught in a wave of negative publicity, the Japanese government defended itself on the grounds that Japanese snow was “different from snow in other countries.” In the predictable international mockery that followed, Japan eliminated the product-safety rule the next year, with the Japanese Ski Regulation enduring as a standard case study in business-school textbooks.
The funny thing is that the Japanese were wrong about their skis; the whole thing was a sneaky ploy by the ski-makers that the government didn’t even know about until called on to defend it. But the Japanese were right about the snow. Or potentially right, anyway. I don’t actually know what the local snow is like. Maybe the Japanese are lucky the country doesn’t have any grizzlies, or maybe it’s great snowball stuff.
But the truth is that snow really does differ, place to place and time to time. Call it The Snowball Identity. The Winter Deception. The Coldland Conundrum. In a tense Ludlum-like standoff, you have to know your ground—if you’re going to save your life with a snowball, that is.