Just finished our annual household White Christmas Getaway to Vermont. All that snow, you know.
And in a case of Life Imitating Art, there’s been just as much snow this year as there was in the movie. Basically, none. The 15 inches from the Halloween Blizzard doesn’t count, partly because it was still the middle of fall, partly because it’s long, long gone. There’s been a total of about 4″ this winter, all of it received in the last week. Granted, this painted the illusion of having Snow as far as the countryside up in the mountains is concerned, but down in the valleys, Stick Season marches on.
It’s playing havoc with the local economy just as it did in the film, as well. Even with the assistance of Technology, it’s still a problem for local businesses. The cross-country areas can’t open, because they don’t usually have snowmaking capabilities. The big ski areas do, but there’s a limit to what they can handle. Usually the snowmaking is for helping Mother Nature, not replacing Mother Nature. This weekend I received the Unsubstantiated Factoid that out of 57 ski areas in the region, only 15 are open. And Christmas, and Christmas Week, is one of the busiest times of the year. Being unable to open will be financially devastating to many of these operations.
The movie had another thing Right: it’s also devastating to the supporting economy. The inns all had vacancies – unheard of at this time of year – and the restaurants and ski shops were doing a very slow business.
Snow…It won’t be long before we’ll all be there with snow
All that said, we went up and had a blast. Mount Snow has managed to get almost 30% of their terrain open with the benefit of Technology. And the few inches of natural snow on the ground at least turned the mountain white. Made the season nice. And they managed to get my favorite run opened while we were there. I had a great day of skiing on Sunday. The conditions on the more challenging runs were as nice as I’ve ever seen them, and the sun came out, and I took full advantage of the hill.
Until 11am, when all of the New Yorkers finished presents and breakfast and flooded out of their condos and hotel rooms onto the mountain. I know I just said that business is slow, and it is. But when you take 1/2 the volume and shoehorn it into 1/4 the terrain, things get very busy. Busy with once-a-year skiers, never-before skiers, and over-stimulated adolescent snowboarders on a major Sugar Binge. Not really the population I wish to be keeping company with, if I want to preserve my personal safety. So I bailed, sent my skis for a pampering wax, and holed up in the bar with a slightly alcoholic, exceedingly tasty milkshake, the Knicks-Celtics game, and a bartender who turned out to be the best buddy of the son of a family friend who works with me. Small, small world.
It was clear that early is best as far as getting in some slope action during the holidays, so we were up at 6:30am yesterday morning in order to hit the mountain around 8. Conditions were, again, superb. I started the season with concern that I would have forgotten everything, and then moved on to concern that I wouldn’t be able to get back to where I was at the end of last season (without a lot of lessons). That’s all behind me. I grew a pair and took, as my warm-up run for the day, the difficult blue down from the summit to the base, and smoked it. So I did it again. And again. And then tried out my favorite run, just opened at noon on Sunday. Yuk. The surface was half groomed, half powder. I was using my powder skis – this is what I want if I think there’s any likelihood of puffy, fluffy piles of powder on the hill anywhere…like when they’re making snow. Like yesterday. But we don’t usually get proper powder, not like the real stuff they used to have (back in the day when we all walked uphill to school in the snow, both ways). This, however, was proper powder, untracked.
So I went for it.
Problem is, even though I had powder skis, it turns out that you ski that deep fluffy stuff in a totally different manner than you ski the groomers.
And understanding this does not automatically confer the requisite skills for the powder skiing. So I left the virgin powder field, thought about crying at the waste of it all, and when I encountered the “groomed” surface of the run, I really wanted to cry at the waste of it all.
It was horrible.
Skiers have a lot of colorful language. No, I don’t mean the kind of colorful language that would get bleeped out of a television broadcast, although we certainly have that as well.
No, I’m talking about “colorful” in the sense that Eskimos have 50 different words for snow. Yes, I know they’re not really “Eskimos” and I know that they don’t have 50 different words for snow. Give me a break. It’s a metaphor.
Skiers also have 50 different words for snow. Maybe more. There are words to describe the consistency of the surface you’ll be skiing on: packed powder. frozen granular. machine-groomed. wet granular. and more. Some of these words are euphemisms. “Frozen” anything sounds good, but means you’ll be skiing on ice. “Powder” anything is good. As long as the source can be trusted – because these are words that are used by ski areas to report their snow conditions. For most people, the Snow Report is regarded as a sunshine-and-rainbows public-relations depiction of reality…yet thousands, if not millions, of people every morning roll out of bed, stagger to the computer, and load up the Snow Reports before they even score their morning coffee. For me, it’s different in that the Snow Report for my hill is more like graven stone tablets being carried down the mountain by Charlton Heston. The contents can be taken to the bank. And so I, too, roll out of bed and stagger to the computer for the Word From On High.
Beyond the Snow Report, there are many more colorful terms applied by skiers to these same hill conditions. Hardpack. Boilerplate. Corduroy. Chicken Heads. Death Cookies. Most of these pertain to skiing surfaces that are universally hated, loathed, detested, reviled. But still – note – skied.
Hardpack is what happens when snow gets skied on and groomed and skied on and groomed and skied on and groomed…all without being replenished with fresh snow. It’s a soft-ish form of ice.
Boilerplate is just ice. Big damn sheets of opaque ice. With an emphasis on the word “damn”. And “ice”.
Corduroy is what happens when the big snowcat groomers pass over a field of snow. It looks just like it sounds like it should. Ordinarily this is the most prized surface for any skier in New England. It goes away when it’s been skied upon. If you want Cord, you get there early. I discovered, however, last year that there is a “Frozen” Cord variant – when the snowcats have groomed the hill in the early evening, and then due to Weather Weirdness, the Cord thaws a bit, and then freezes. What you have then is “Corduroy-Shaped Ice”. That’s the worst, because unlike all of the other horrible surface conditions, it looks nice and soft, and you don’t realize you’re heading for rippled, bumpy ice until it is too late.
Speaking of undesirable artifacts of the grooming process, I turn your attention to the dreaded Death Cookie.
Death Cookies are created when the snowcat groomers pass over an area that consists of nice, soft snow…shielded from the cruel ravages of the sun and wind by a nice thick layer of ice. The groomers can deal with this, and do. They run the machines over the area, the machines chew up the ice and theoretically they chew it up fine and mix it back down with the snow, leaving Cord. Maybe not the nicest Cord, but still, it’s Cord.
On occasion, however, one gets an inexperienced or inattentive operator of the grooming equipment, and instead of pulverizing the icy crust and mixing it down, they bust up the icy crust and leave the busted-up chunks of ice sitting on top of the nice, soft snow. Customarily, these busted-up chunks are between the size of a large marble and a hockey puck. This is where Death Cookies come from. If there are only a few – which can happen to anyone, I think – it’s not a problem because you can avoid them. If there are many of them – and yesterday, the run with the powder to the side was absolutely littered with them – it makes for a miserable run. It’s the skier’s equivalent of driving a heavily-laden rickety truck with bad shocks over a deeply rutted dirt road.
One run like that was more than enough for me. I headed over to Ridge, the big difficult blue run, and found it in superb condition and bombed down it, full steam ahead. I’m kind of a chicken about speed, thanks to an World-Cup Wreck I had years and years and years ago on my first real ski outing (which was, itself, responsible for a quarter-century hiatus from the sport). This has started to become an impediment to my joy, as I make my way down the hill in very good form…at a snail’s pace. With skiing, too, sometimes the safest thing is to go fast. Not often, but there are circumstances where this is true, and I need to get used to going fast because of that. So I whizzed happily down the run a couple of times, getting used to carrying some speed.
On the third run, I decided to let the speed thing go and – because I could – I headed for the powder stashes at the margins of the run. And I was having a super time with that, until…
…until I discovered the Mother of All Death Cookies, the Death Cookie of Doom, concealed in one of these powder piles. This damned thing, with an emphasis on “damned” was the size of a volleyball and it was an ugly, skanky, yellowed chunk of ice that had been there since the Prehistoric Era, eating birds, small mammals, and children. And I didn’t discover it until I was right on it, too late to take evasive action. This was, of course, on the steepest part of the run.
This is where I introduce another bit of Colorful Ski Lingo: The Yard Sale.
I ricocheted off that blasted thing, went airborne, and somewhere along the line lost a ski and both poles, hit the side of the mountain face-up with my head pointed downhill, and started to slide. It’s not easy to stop when you’re sliding backwards down a slick surface. All the pointy bits that one could use to dig in and slow yourself down are pointed away from the hill, for one. Eventually, I managed to execute some complicated maneuver with my heels and my fingers, or maybe the Gods simply smiled upon me for the moment. I came to a rest, sat up – astounded to find that I didn’t appear to have been harmed by this – and regarded my Yard Sale.
A Yard Sale is a particular type of fall, in which the skier wiped out with sufficient speed, force, and lack of delta v such that they lose a quantity of their gear and leave it spread out over the surface of the hill. As if they were inviting the other skiers to inspect it, and possibly buy it, as if holding a yard sale.
As far as Yard Sales go, it wasn’t too bad. Only one ski and two poles. When I had the World Cup Wreck mentioned above, it was goggles, scarf, hat, poles, and one glove. Not the skis, because the bindings were frozen and they stayed locked onto my boots when they ought not (hence the extended hiatus, due to the extended injury). This one was not impressive. The fall, yes, that was impressive. My only regret was that I wasn’t near the lift, because otherwise I am certain that I would have drawn applause.
Another skier delivered my gear – saving me the need to trek back up the hill, thus messing up the surface with my boots – and I finished bombing down the hill.
I wasn’t damaged. I don’t even seem to have a bruise.
My skis weren’t damaged – no core shots, not even a scratch.
And I had decided, on the spur of the moment, not to try out the brand-new helmet cam I got for Xmas – which would certainly have gotten trashed in the bang-up since I whacked my head coming down.
If that’s not luck, I don’t know what is.