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Is Flat Light The Bane Of Your Skiing Experience? Or Just One Of Those Things?

Head for the lodge after this one? Think so. Credit: Jan Brunvand

No contrast, lack of depth perception, no tell-tale marks on the snow, flat light adds another dimension to deal with. Not welcome to many. Tolerable to some.

We’ve had a couple of our more spectacular falls in flat light conditions. Too fast, unexpected terrain. And boom. The lasting result is that whenever we see that gray-white shroud, we tighten up, and more likely than not, head for the bottom and home.

There’s an excellent article by correspondent Marc Liebman on Coping With Flat light in our archives. Check it out here.  But what is your way of approaching flat light conditions? Do you have a specific brand of goggles you swear by? What about technique? Changes in how you approach the trail? Let us know.  Perhaps you can help up break through our reluctance to head out on flat light.

Question For You: How Do You Manage Flat Light? Tell us how you do it. Or if you just avoid it.

Write a comment in Leave A Reply below.

36 Comments

  1. On flat light days, I usually ski on the side of the trail, or easy trees for terrain definition. Last year I purchased a pair of photochromic lenses. I have only once experienced such bad flat light that it affected my day of skiing. That was three years ago, near the end of the season and I was behind in my weekly daily quota of getting in my “ski my age days.” I made myself ski six runs. They were the most terrifying runs I’ve ever experienced. I wasn’t able to see anything, even the edge of the trail. It was more than just flat light. It was skiing in a thick cloud or fog. Looking back, I’m surprised the resort was open, and I promised myself I’d never put myself in that dangerous situation again.

  2. I usually ski with goggles with dark lenses which allows me to see contrasts in the terrain.

    I also make shorter turns on steeper runs until I can see better or more clearly.

    If it is a total white out, I pray and head down the hill to the lodge.

    Jeff
    Bend, OR

  3. I usually ski along a tree line when experiencing flat light, however, if I am in an open basin with no trees to guide me, I slow down and just make shorter turns, and then head to a different trail. I would love to know which goggles help because I am in the market for a new pair.
    I have also skied in white out conditions before, which was terrifying. My friend and I skied close together until we arrived at the lodge and waited it out.

  4. I quit doing things that are dangerous or unenjoyable many years ago. I go to the building for a cheeseburger and fries then get the lift down the mountain to the parking lot.

  5. I have 4 techniques for handling flat light:
    1) Ski trees
    2) Ski runs I know well and trust my skis.
    3) Ski steep mogul runs very slowly & hunt for turns.
    4) Make my wife slow down and follow her, trusting her route finding. (She has less trouble than do I.)

    Two times I have been in fog so dense I couldn’t manage my vertigo. Once (Targhee) I couldn’t even see my ski tips, only the snow directly under my boots. I side slipped a groomer – I could just barely see that corduroy – down 1,000 ft of elevation until I got under the fog. The other time I just skied 1 and done.

  6. Photochromatic lenses are great and so are polarized lens on sunglasses. Best technique is to slow down and ski near objects that provide definition and contrast (trees, lift poles, etc.). Bad news is that as we age, our eyes don’t see as well in low-light conditions as they did when we were in our 20s.. Ever had one of your parents ask you to get out of their light? So, in flat light, your choice is to adapt or not ski….

  7. It’s not a lot of fun skiing when conditions are approaching white out conditions. If visibility gets really bad I’ll follow, if possible, behind someone at whatever pace they ski to get off the mountain safely. Skiing without the benefit of a tree line next to you on low visibility days can be challenging to say the least. On days that visibility changes I carry a 2nd pair of goggles. Both are photochromic lens using the almost clear lens on those days that are low light. I agree with the other comment about finding a line near or in the tree line. Occasionally I’ll get caught at the top portion of the mountain in a cloud with no trees available. It can feel like a bad case of vertigo just standing over your skis. There have been times that I’ve actually fallen over not knowing which way was down! Getting down to the tree line requires short well under controled turns. Having someone skiing in front of you makes life easier in those conditions. Some of my best ski days have been with low light visibility with fresh snow almost filling my tracks. Challenging at times but the correct goggle lens and a tree line to follow can make for some great skiing.

  8. When the light gets so flat or the fog so thick that I can’t tell if I’m going up or down, usually above tree-line, I work with my friends. One skis down to where we can barely see her and then she signals for each of us to follow.

    I hate the feeling of nausea that usually comes in these conditions. Dark lenses do help with the snow-sickness.

  9. Avatar Doug Kaufman says:

    To all, the linked article from 2019 is very helpful as are the comments to that article. Check it out.

    For myself I just got new goggles with the goal of being decent for all conditions but best in flat light. I got a rose colored lens and it was a nice improvement as is the wider range of vision in new goggles.

  10. Avatar David L Weaver says:

    Flat light is really my nemesis. When really bad, I take my goggles off – can see alot better – for final trip to the bottom. Perhaps clear lenses would help……? Have yet to hear a goggle mfg state – “these lenses made for flat light”. Have skied fog in Austria, and snow so fierce could barely see; but, I don’t consider these conditions flat light.

  11. I think Allen and Gus have got their hand on it. First, if possible ski with trees next to you. Second, if no trees, ski immediately behind someone else, sort of like the blind leading the blind. Once, at Grand Montant, FR, no trees to help, I stood among on the glacier and crevasses and seracs in 24″ of fresh powder(the 1st snow in a month), when deadly flat light swept in. I was standing on a small ridge about 6′ off a sparsely tracked “corona highway” and happened to be passed by an “old” excellent skier in a 1 piece ski suit. He knew the area like the back of his hand and was skiing at a healthy speed to pass through the powder without bogging down. I tagged along right behind him and it seemed he didn’t mind. Third, when skiing with someone else, develop a tune and when there is doubt you are together, you loudly sing half the jingle and wait for the other to finish the jingle. My favorite is the “Kill Bill” tune, as it has two short parts to it and is unique. Goggle lenses color are unable to provide safety but my best in flat light has visible light transmission of about 63%-68%.

    • Avatar John Schultz says:

      I had an experience very like your French experience. Following “tail lights” is remarkably fun, presuming the skier in front knows the terrain intimately enough. But, if available, tight trees. That may present other problems, of course, so it better be a gentle enough slope, etc, but the visibility problem is pretty much gone.

  12. Not mentioned by any of your reply’s is visual acuity compromise by cataracts
    Very similar to driving at night the on coming headlights give reflections of “star” glare.
    This same deficit is manifested in snow depth perception and terrain variation. Ophthamologist have told me that snow definition if effected by cataracts. I have severe cataracts that need surgical attention and as soon as I can must up the fortitude I will have my cataracts repaired and hopefully improve flat light visibility.

  13. All of the above comments are good.
    However, For close to 20 years now I have been using the Oakley Hi Intensity Yellow lens goggles 90% of my skiing days.

    This lens was especially developed by Oakley for the flat light conditions found in the North East.

    I have tried goggles from Smith, Bolle” and others that, supposedly, were good for flat light but none were as good as the Oakley’s.

  14. Along with all the good advice already mentioned on dealing with flat light, I also do one more thing. Commit your shins to the front of your boots. Although this is proper technique all the time, when there is good visibility we can get lazy and still have good control of our skis and can anticipate terrain changes because we can see it coming. But in flat light or worse, it’s not hard to get into a defensive, back-seat stance where we rely more on the tails of our skis. That back-seat position is opposite of committing your shin to the front of your boot. We all know how well we ski when we make that shin to boot commitment. So next time in flat light, re-commit to the front of your boot, make shorter turns, ski the side of the trail, wear great goggles, and be assured that the terrain and snow that you can’t see well, won’t throw you down.

  15. Yesterday a sudden snow obliterated the light I. Santa Fe. We found ourselves in a mogul run with no idea where the next bump was. I grabbed my yellow goggles but they didn’t help. My sunglasses were worthless due to the mandatory Covid masks. The only thing that did help was skiing WITHOUT goggles. That provides the best visibility. The problem was flakes in the eyes. But we were able to get down the run and headed to the bar.

  16. Agree with pretty much everything mentioned above: trees, follow, slowdown, goggles.
    Would add avoid traversing and keep turning. This will help to keep your speed down and make you more supple to absorb those surprises in the snow. Traversing tends to help create mistakes for most skiers. This can be really important if you are the one leading.

    Wearing face masks, glasses, and goggles has been ‘educational’ this season, and kind of relates to the topic. Fogging glasses has been worse than flat light. Have found I would rather ski without my glasses and avoid the fogging issues (even teaching this way this season).

  17. Avatar Normand L. Reynolds says:

    The yellow glasses they sell in truck stops for driving at night or in fog/rain are a cheap alternative that work really well, as well as anything I’ve tried. In Colorado we have a lot of open terrain that can get challenging when you can’t see. Skiing groomed runs, after one slow scouting run to determine how wide the grooming extends, is good, and following someone else in terrain you don’t know definitely works, as do tree runs, but I have recently swore off tight trees, as my reactions are no longer catlike.

  18. I purchased some photo chromatic goggles for CC skiing but haven’t tried yet.

  19. I had never experienced dangerous flat-light conditions until skiing in Utah on wide open bowls above the treeline. The first time this happened, I felt real fear and even a sort of vertigo, combined. I immediately went into a wide wedge, hands out in front for balance and slowly picked my way down the slope until I reached some trees. Since that day, I have tried everything for relief in those type of light conditions and the only thing that works for me is to stay on the lower mountain.

  20. Avatar Jan Brunvand says:

    “If I can’t see it, I can’t ski it,” as I wrote in my parody composition “The Flat Light Polka.” Look it up int he SeniorsSkiing.com archive. It was posted in October 2018. The photo accompanying this article is from that previous post.

  21. As I grew older I became very cautious and determined that discretion is the better part of valor. I head to the ski house when flat light appears and ski near the tree line. Once, I was skiing with a friend and took the tram up to the ski runs at Snowbird in Utah. We got caught in a blinding snow storm coming down and stopped mid-mountain. We could not see at all. We started to ski and discovered that we had vertigo and were actually skiing backward . We froze , luckily a ski patroller saw us and guided us down.

  22. Avatar Patricia L Randall says:

    I love my Oakley Rose colored goggles for everything, even cloudy days. But on flat light days they are just not enough. So I just yell at my husband, who is usually ahead of me anyways, to PLEASE SLOW DOWN SO I CAN FOLLOW YOU!!!. That vertigo feeling is one of the very worst parts of skiing. Thanks to the person who suggested yellow night driving glasses, which I might try, but the photochromatic glasses sound like the best option . The sunniest morning can turn into a whiteout.

  23. I find that any goggle tint worsens flat light. If I can, I put up the goggles and ski with bare eyes. I just ordered a clear lens for my Smith goggles. Given the cloud layer conditions that are all too prevalent at my home area in VT, I expect to use them a lot.
    I slow down significantly to mitigate the surprises that end up under my feet.

  24. I think this was topic a few years ago and two things stood out at that time:
    1.) get your eyes checked and get glasses/contacts as needed.
    2) get the right lens for your googles.
    While my eyesight did not really need glasses, the Dr. said it would help and they were right. Also help for night driving. I bought new googles with a built in excuse for my wife. For around $350, the two cures really helped. Now if they would turn off the snow machines during flat light it would really help.

  25. Avatar Eileen Fishkin says:

    Cataract surgery helped, but I still have trouble in flat light. Owning 3 different goggles, have tried all of them. No help. When it stops being fun because I cannot discern the snow ahead, I head for the lodge and call it a day.

  26. Unfortunately we have had more than our share of flat light this season. I got sick and tired of skiing with my goggles up so I purchased a clear lens. Not a perfect solution but it has helped a great deal.

  27. I spent a week skiing in flat light in a Dave Murray Class at Whistler with one of the Crazy Canucks. The technique I learned was great and since then it’s been extremely helpful. You switch your brain from seeing with your eyes to listening to your feet. It’s not easy, it works, and I fly by people in the fog!,

  28. Avatar Jimme Quinn Ross says:

    I make sure my legs can flex with whatever I might encounter and ski slower. I consider it a challenge and an exercise. Not fun but something I’ve learned to deal with. Goggles help too.

  29. Avatar Tom Waggener says:

    In the early 90’s I had the pleasure of skiing with a work friend who was an instructor of ski instructors. He was also coach of a ski racing team of blind and amputees. (They named themselves the “Gimps and the Blinkees”!). On several ski days Don would have me close my eyes on an easy, open slope to learn to feel the terrain through my legs, ankles, etc. At first very scary, after a while I got more comfortable with it. The advantage of practicing this is that when you do encounter a sudden white-out condition, your other senses take over to prevent that moment of panic.

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