Head to Mexico City and you’ll hear a lot of Spanish spoken. Go to Venice and you’ll hear people speaking Italian. Go to Munich and you’ll hear German. But, go to a ski resort in America and you’ll hear things that will leave you scratching your head. Did I really just hear someone say,”bluebird” and “brain bucket”? Skiers and snowboarders have their own way of talking. It’s their own language, really. I call it mountain lingo or skier lingo and to truly fit in at a ski resort there are a few key skiing terms you should know and understand. Consider this your dictionary of all of those ski phrases and skiing vocabulary words you’ll hear on the mountain.
Greens, blues, blacks – understanding a mountain’s rating system
Chances are some of the first skiing words you hear on the mountain won’t be unfamiliar at all – at least if you know your basic colors. What may be confusing though is how these colors are used in sentences. “Stick to the greens, the blacks are brutal, and the blues are more like blacks.” Mountain resorts use colors as a ratings system. Understanding this rating system is one of the most important parts of the skiers’ vocabulary that you need to know. If you don’t understand the color scale you may end up in trouble on a ski run you are not prepared for, and one on which you could get seriously hurt.
Green runs are typically the easiest runs on the mountain outside of the hills used for ski school students. If you are a beginner skier, these are the runs you should stick to until you are handling them with ease and can comfortably move to something more challenging.
Blue runs are your moderately difficult runs rated for intermediate skiers. After you graduate from greens, you’ll move onto blues.
Black runs are for advanced skiers. They tend to be steeper, less maintained, and may include obstacles like trees or boulders.
Along with the color rating you will notice different shapes on the trail signs and maps. Green runs are marked with a circle, blues with a square, and blacks with a diamond. Although you never hear greens or blues described as a circle or square, you will frequently hear blacks called a diamond or a black diamond.
Double black diamonds
After greens, blues, and blacks the mountain rating system doubles. A double black diamond is even more advanced than a black (I tend to shy away from these because I don’t have a death wish.)
Double black EX
You won’t find double black EX runs at every ski resort, but when you do, avoid them unless you are a crazy good skier or boarder. The EX stands for expert or extreme.
Traverse or cat track
These two skiing terms are used interchangeably. A traverse isn’t necessarily a run or a rating. It is more like a narrow road for skiers and snowboarders. Cat Tracks typically have a gentle grade or slope that makes it easy to control your speed, although I have seen traverses rated as a black run on some mountains. They takes you across the mountain and help you get from one run to another.
Skiing terms used to describe your day on the mountain
Making first tracks means you are one of the first people on the mountain that morning and you literally are one of the first to leave tracks on the freshly fallen or freshly groomed snow.
Lighting can change throughout the day or from day to day depending on the weather. When the light is flat it means there is no definition of angles, which can make it difficult to negotiate your turns or see the snow condition you are approaching. A good pair of ski goggles should be a part of your ski wardrobe to help in flat light situations.
Groomer is a ski term used to describe a groomed ski run or a run that a snowcat recently plowed to make the snow even and flat. The grooming lines left behind from the snowcat resemble corduroy so it is often referred to by that name, as well.
Everyone learning to ski will fall multiple times. But not all falls are created equal. The yard sale is a fall that results in skis and polls flying off and landing all across the run. They call it a yard sale because it looks like a bunch of random stuff scattered across a yard (or ski run) for sale. Want to buy a ski? There is one at the edge of the run by the trees. Needing just one ski pole? Check out the middle of the run next to guy with his face buried in snow.
This is a ski term for a helmet. Helmets protects your brain, thus it is your brain bucket. A helmet is a essential part of any ski wardrobe. Don’t ski without one!
Deep and steep
You’ll primarily hear this term thrown around by advanced skiers bragging to their friends about the runs they’ve experienced. Deep and steep means the ski run entailed steep terrain (likely a black or double black) and deep, ungroomed snow.
Unlike deep and steep runs, long cruisers are typically long, groomed runs (often blues) that are easy to cruise down at a good speed without stopping to calculate your next turn.
At times a ski run will flatten out or you’ll end up on a traverse that requires skiers to use their poles and a fair amount of upper body strength to push themselves across the snow. This move is called poling – and it’s exhausting!
Blue bird day
Ah, my favorite of all ski days! A blue bird day simply means a day when the sun is shining and the sky is blue.
This is perhaps my least favorite weather condition in which to ski. A whiteout refers to a snowstorm so fierce you can barely see one turn in front of you. All you see is white. It’s like skiing blind. Get me off the mountain! No thanks!
The day after a big snow dump is called a powder day. You have a fresh foot or so of powder covering the run. A lot of skiers love a powder day. Unfortunately, I have a bad knee thanks to a bad experience skiing on a powder day so I don’t share the love for deep powder that many skiers claim. At least not anymore.
Apparently the word powder is too many syllables, so ski bums and boarders shorten the word to pow. Don’t ask me why. I didn’t invent the language… I just speak it.
When riding a ski lift with strangers you never know their style. Some skiers and boarders will ride even the longest, slowest lift on the mountain without the safety bar down. Others, like me, bring the safety bar down immediately after the chair starts moving away from the platform. For me, this has more to do with wanting to rest my foot on the footrest to ease the soreness in my bad knee than it does safety. But either way, the respectful thing to do when riding a lift with others is ask, or at least warn, them if you want to bring the bar down.
At the end of a chair lift, the safety bar must come up. Skiers and snowboarders are weird. Some of them will wait until the very last minute to bring that safety bar up. Personally, the wait gives me anxiety. So I’m also usually the first to ask if everyone is ready to bring the bar up.
When I was first learning to ski, I was terrified of getting off the ski lift. I fell more than once. But everyone from my ski instructor to my father-in-law would tell me “tips up” when I went to dismount. If you’re a new skier and have never heard this skiing term, it means to keep the tips of your skis pointed up to prevent a face plant as you get off the chair lift.
Skiers and snowboarders love to brag. And one of the things that give you bragging rights on the mountain is first chair. This takes dedication. It means you were literally standing in the lift line and got on the first chair of the morning when the mountain opened.
Last chair is the opposite of first chair but equal in bragging rights. When you hear a skier or snowboarder talk about last chair it means they skied all day until the chair lifts finally closed and they were forced off the mountain.
Apres is French for the word “after”. It means what you are doing after the ski day is over. Apres-beer is probably the most commonly used version of the word. Because all ski days must end with a cold beer and conversation about how great (or horrible) the day went.
The magic carpet is a conveyor belt typically used for kids or beginner skiers. You stand on it and it moves you up a gentle incline on the mountain.
East coast resorts rarely use this word. But head West and you’ll hear it everywhere. It’s short for “avalanche”. We’re not sure how the word went from “avalanche” to “Avi”. We’re guessing skiers don’t like words with 3 syllables or more in emergency situations. So, shorten the word to two, right?
Ski resorts with steep terrain prone to an “avi” will have to ensure safety inside the resort. So from time to time you may hear what sounds like an explosion on the mountain. It’s called blasting. Ski patrollers will intentionally trigger a small avalanche with dynamite so skiers or boarders won’t trigger it later in the day and end up injured or worse.
Carve an edge
This is how you turn on skis. You use the edges of your skis to dig into the snow to turn and control your speed. Occasionally, on a day when the snow isn’t great or conditions are icy, you will hear skiers say it is difficult to carve an edge.
Simply a shortened title for the guys and girls who operate the chair lifts.
Shredding is one of those skiing terms that makes me feel like a 1990’s skater kid or surfer every time I say it. It simply means to ski fast.
Pizza / Snowplow
Beginning skiers have to learn to control their speed, and one of the ways ski instructors teach new skiers to do that is to angle your skis into a wide wedge with the tips touching. The shape resembles a slice of pizza and allows new skiers to plow down the snow in a (hopefully) controlled manner. Hence why the position is coined a pizza or snowplow.
As new skiers progress in their abilities they start to move from a wedge shape to skiing with their skis parallel, resembling two french fries next to each other.
Being married to a meteorologist, this was one of the first skiing terms I learned, because an inversion is actually a weather term. When an area is experiencing an inversion, the temperature at the top of the mountain is warmer than that at the bottom. The cold air will literally sink down and stay there. On inversion days, it’s best to stay high and ski at the top of the mountain if possible.
Once my favorite type of ski run until I almost blew out my ACL, a tree run is a ski run that takes you through the trees. These runs can be challenging, but can be a lot of fun if you know what you are doing.
Unless you become fanatical about skiing, hiking terrain is only a skiing term you’ll hear others use. Many of the ski resorts in the United States have a handful of unmarked runs accessible only by – you guessed it – hiking. These runs are called hiking terrain. You have to take your skis or snowboard off and carry them up the mountain to ski down a short run. It isn’t my cup of tea, but to each his own.
Bowl skiing is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a choose your own adventure skiing experience where you can drop off the ledge just about anywhere and ski down into a wide open bowl shape.
Skiing is a dangerous sport, and weather variables ultimately make it even more so. The wind is one of the big dangers you will face when skiing. Wind can cause blowing snow that makes visibility low and can also cause the resort to go into a wind hold. A wind hold is when certain chair lifts will shut down temporarily due to high wind. No one wants to be on a chair lift in high winds. Resorts do this for your safety.
This is another bragging point for many skiers and snowboarders. A lot of people will track their vertical feet for the day to show how much terrain they have skied. Ski resorts will also tout the number of vertical feet as an enticement for skiers looking to ski steep, tall mountains. One of our favorite ski mountains, Big Sky Mountain Resort in Montana, has one of the highest verticals in the United States, which makes many people think it’s a mountain for advanced skiers only. But don’t be afraid of vertical. There are usually plenty of runs at every mountain that are designed for beginner and intermediate skiers.
10 types of snow on which you’ll eventually ski
Early season conditions
Snow typically builds up throughout the winter. When resorts first open for the season, there may be just a thin covering of snow on the ski runs, and some of the runs won’t be open yet because they require a larger covering of snow to make the run safe. This is called early season conditions. Occasionally, during a mild winter, you’ll hear skiers and boards using this skiing term when the snow conditions are poor toward the middle of the season, as well. If there hasn’t been much snow, and parts of the mountain aren’t open yet, you will often hear people say the mountain is still experiencing early season conditions.
Powder / pow
It’s soft, it’s fluffy. It’s what die hard skiers want. Usually, you’ll hear skiers and snowboarders talking about all the pow on a ski day after it snows a lot overnight.
Wanna go fast? Look for these runs! At night, a machine called a snowcat will roll over the snow and leave lines in it. These runs are usually skied off fast so go early if you want to ski them.
This is what happens after it warms up and the overnight temps are above freezing. It’s like skiing in a Slurpee. Avoid this at all costs! Or, wear a bathing suit.
Crust / hard-packed
This occurs after a few days of melting and refreezing . The extra water content from a melt can really stiffen the snow when it freezes at night. It’s hard and not fun to fall on.
Dust on crust
Take hard snow and add a light dusting of snow on it. It’s like that. It can be deceiving to the eye.
Resorts in Utah and Northwest Colorado, like Steamboat, brag about their snow so much that they coined this term. It’s a type of really light, fluffy snow that is perfect for skiing. Unlike actual champagne, you don’t need to limit yourself in this.
Falling on this will hurt. It’s ice and it has no “give”. Check your insurance policy to see if you have good coverage on days like these. Or find the bar.
Corn snow is a skiing term used late in the season. This type of snow looks like “corn meal”. Kinda mushy. Hard to turn in. Feels like glue. No fun. Usually a sign that the ski season is ending.
“WTH are these? Who put these all over the run?” If I had to define moguls, I’d simply call them bumps. Big bumps in the middle of a ski run. They form when a run is not groomed and when skiers push snow around while making turns. Over time, the snow begins to build in places and before you know it, you have a run full of moguls that look like someone buried a VW Bug under the snow.
Sounds self explanatory. Thin coverage happens early or late in season when there’s not much snow on the ground. DO NOT WEAR YOUR GOOD SKIS ON THESE DAYS.
Talking the talk on any ski mountain
Every mountain has its own unique atmosphere and there are certain skiing terms you’ll hear only at certain mountains. But ultimately, this dictionary of skiing terms will help you talk the talk and make your conversations on the chair lifts with your fellow mountain lovers a lot less confusing.
What other skiing terms would you add to this list? Add yours in the comments below.