Michael Barton, owner and head guide of Mountain Goat Ski Guides in Silverton, sent us this note about mysterious movements in the snow:
There’s a regularly occurring phenomenon that is a great mystery to this ski guide. Despite my schooling in science and having apprenticed for five years with world-renowned snow master Chris Landry, I cannot seem to figure this one out. I will open the floor for debate, and maybe someone out there in the world of snow-wandering mountain peoples knows how to solve the puzzle.
To see this, you must be moving quite slowly across the snow—imagine cross-country skiing or skinning gently uphill on a clear, blue-sky morning. It must have snowed recently, and the sun has to have been out. The phenomenon usually occurs in open patches of snow among stands of timber. If you look down at the base of pine trees when the conditions are right, you will see tiny specks of tree debris that seem to have moved of their own volition. They only move a few inches at most, but they leave a melted trail in the snow in spirals, loop de loops, or meanders like a river.
What makes them move? I don’t think it’s the wind, because the patterns are never alike, there can be hundreds under a tree, and each one goes its own way. Is the sun shining on the piece of debris and heating it, causing it to be drawn through the snow by molecular tension of water? Possibly, but there is more to it because the stuff moves in many directions and not always toward the sun.
I have presented this puzzle to snow scientists, avalanche forecasters, and countless groups of high school students in the winter backcountry. It seems wonderful to me that, in a world of information at our fingertips, riddles of nature remain. It’s for just this reason that I work as an outdoor educator. It certainly takes one’s mind off the uphills anyway.
If anyone can solve this mystery—or has any ideas on this whatsoever—please send me your thoughts. I’ll send a surprise gift to the person with the most plausible answer. Actually, I’ll describe the gift: It’s a DVD of the movie 2012 filmed in a theater in Nicaragua and dubbed into Spanish. Have a great ski season!