Here it is, Spring Skiing Time. Spring Skiing gets a fair amount of hate, but not from me. I love it – as long as I don’t think too hard about how it means that Ski Season is nearly over. At this time of the year, you get the fabled “corn” snow, you get “hero” snow, you get nice cushy moguls in which to practice bump skiing. The sun is out, the temperatures are nice, and the snow is soft. What’s not to like?
Well, for one, early on you get the dreaded “variable” conditions. This is a term used when there is no one snow condition that covers most of the hill. What it means, to skiers, is “prepare for absolutely everything, because you might get everything in the course of a single run”. Or, if you’re quite unlucky, in the space of 10 meters. You have to be nimble, you have to have superb technique, and you have to have the right gear. You have to stay very, very focused on the run, constantly assessing what’s ahead of you and preparing for it so that you don’t get launched into the air, slide backwards down the hill, or go out of control in any of a hundred other ways.
You can also, on unusually warm days, get slush. Slush is like powder, only wetter, not floaty, and it weighs a ton. Mostly it’s like powder in that when you ski over it, you’re really skiing through it, and moving it around a lot. Packed surfaces don’t make piles when they get skied on.
I had a crash course (not literally) in this last year, when I discovered the down-side of Spring Skiing on the afternoon of St. Patty’s Day. I skied off the lift at a local mountain (not my home mountain) and I sank into the slush over my ankles. This day is why I bought the rockin’ awesome Goth Girl skis, the Rossignol S7Ws. Out west, they’re powder skis. Here, they’re slush skis (or so I assumed until I discovered how they perform on packed powder…I’ve been skiing them on any surface that isn’t “ice” all winter, and loving them). You need something fat to float on top of that stuff, because you’ll break your bloody leg if you try to carve on it.
So, on a recent gorgeous spring-like day, we headed out to a local mountain – taking a change from my usual home at Mount Snow. I stepped into my big fatties and skied onto the lift. Took one run down an intermediate slope, discovered that it was – hooray! – Hero Snow. Hero Snow is when you get a nice layer of really soft stuff on top of a solidly packed base. It’s slower than proper snow, and it makes a very forgiving surface for adventurous behavior. This is the snow you want to learn to catch a little air on. This is the snow you want to use to learn bump skiing. This is the snow where you learn to ski backwards, all the way down the run (assuming you have the right gear for that, which I do – this is “why” the twin-tip). We loves Hero Snow, we really does.
And so, this was the day that I decided to branch out and hit one of the black diamonds on this hill – a run I’d seen from the lift, but never skied before. It looked do-able. And Hero Snow is the stuff you get adventurous on.
Now, I should say here, I do not consider myself to be a Black Diamond Skier. I’m a Ski Anything Blue And Willing To Try A Black Skier. I have a Pet Black Diamond at my home mountain that I’ll ski in any condition other than hard, fast, and icy. I could probably ski it under hard, fast, and icy, but my feeling is that when conditions are like that, there are other things I’d enjoy more. Beyond that, I’ve gone on another Black Diamond at the hill where this story is set, but honestly? It wasn’t a Real Black Diamond. I kept waiting for it to get difficult, and it never did. This hill has a lot of weekend warriors from NYC and I’m pretty sure that other run is “Black Diamond” to give those guys something to boast about without causing undue trouble for Ski Patrol. So I don’t really count that one.
Back to my run…I skied off the lift, skied over to the head of the run, and dropped in.
I realized three things, very, very quickly. But not, alas, quickly enough to do something else.
The first thing I realized was that this run is MUCH steeper than it looks from the lift. Oh, yeah, duh. On the lift, the chair leans back a little as you go up a hill. The world would look a whole lot different if you were upright, say, in the position you would be if you were standing on the hillside. I’d say there’s a solid 10-degree difference. In this case, I thought the slope was around a 30-degree incline…when in reality, it was a lot closer to 40 degrees. Yikes. Or, as I said at the time “****”.
The first nasty surprise, there, delayed recognition of the second and third nasty surprises, because – unlike many runs where it only looks steep from the top and you have a shortish drop into the run – this one was STEEP. Steep All The Way Down. Which means that it wasn’t possible to inspect the surface before committing to the run.
It appeared as though I was not the first person to take advantage of the Hero Snow to try out something new, as I discovered when I got into the run and encountered the Second Surprise.
The run was icy. The slushy stuff was still there, but had been scraped off the hard base…mostly. I’d say, conservatively, that 25% of the hill was nice soft snow. And the other 75% was not the packed powder that it would have been at my Home Mountain (Olympus of the Snowmaking and Grooming Gods).
It was hardpack and boilerplate. These are two words that no skier likes to hear. They are euphemisms for “ice”. And it’s just as much fun to ski on as it is to drive on. As in zero fun, unless you’re a particular type of twisted danger-loving death-courting individual.
And on this hill, it was big expanses of suspiciously flat surface (the ice) with random stashes of slush scattered here and there.
“**** **** ****ing ****” I said.
And this, I got my Third (and Nastiest) Surprise:
I was on the WRONG SKIS for this. More “wrong” skis for these conditions than the ones I was on do not exist. No, really. You could not – if you searched long and hard for a less appropriate ski for these conditions than my Goth Girls – find one. Not in the ski shop, not on the Internet. Not, likely, in the universe.
What you need for these conditions, ironically, is my other pair of skis, the Volkl Tierra. They would have been the perfect ski for this stuff – assuming I would have wantedto be on it in the first place, which I didn’t. The ski you want for this crap is something a little on the short side, so the tails don’t get bogged down in the piles of slush, with big fat floaty shovels to make sure your tips don’t dive. You want something narrow, because you are going to be spending a lot of time on the edges, which is where the braking and control happens, especially on steeps. And you want a nice stiff ski, with a seriously hard, sharp edge, because anything less than massively hard and sharp isn’t going to be able to dig into the hardpack and grab control from it.
What I had, instead, is a pair of long skis (I had the big fat shovel and tails down, that’s about the only thing I had going for me on the gear). They are fat, not narrow, and require a bit of effort to get on edge in the best of circumstances, because they’re not meant to spend a lot of time on edge. They’re meant for floating and not getting bogged down in stuff. And the edges – because they’re not intended to be in constant use – are neither super hard nor super sharp.
As I said, worst possible gear. I’d have been in better shape gear-wise for this run if I’d been riding crappy rental skis.
“Mother****** ***** bloody ****** *****, I can’t ***** ***** ***** *****, you’ve gotta be ****** ****** ****** ******!” I said.
So, as I said, all three of these wholly undesirable epiphanies arrived in pretty short order…and every one of them arrived after I’d already committed to the run.
The only way down…was down.
The only way out…was down.
“Oh ****” I said. “I’m in over my head.” Yes, I said it out loud, which somehow made it worse. I actually – for the first time ever – considered the possibility of taking off my skis and hiking down. Rejected that at once as being both impractical, and untenably wimpy. I considered side-slipping down (the skier’s proper tool for dealing with “uh oh I am in over my head” moments).
Then I said to myself, “Self” I said, “You know how to ski this. Yes, it’s the wrong gear. Yes, the conditions suck. But you know how to ski it. All you have to do is to turn, and turn, and turn, and take it slow, and there is SOME dust available, so just plan the line carefully to take advantage of that, make your turns on the soft stuff when you can, and SKI DOWN THIS **** HILL. AND DO IT NOW.“
And I did. I made a few turns and found myself sliding down the hill sideways on my edges that wouldn’t grab on a patch of ice.
A tiny voice in my head said “Panic! Panic!” but the louder voice, the one that knew I could do this said “You shut the **** up. NONE OF THAT.” and it did. And I slid down and over to another patch of dust, and I turned. And I slid sideways over the ice, until I found some dust, and I turned on it. And I did this until I could see more of the hill, and I stopped to pick my line of the next five turns, and I did them. And I stopped when I could see more of the hill to pick my lines and my turns, and I did them. And I did this until I reached the base.
Then, this is the rich part, I was pissed.
“Self,” I said, “that was some bloody ugly skiing. All that scraping sideways, YUK. You know better than to do that, you knew these skis weren’t going to be able to hold an edge, and you know that when you’re in that circumstance, it’s better to do more narrow turns and keep a straighter line down the hill. That was as sloppy as anything you’ve done all year, you look like you’ve come right off the blasted bunny hill.”
If I’d been on different gear, I’d have done the bloody run again and done it properly. As it was, I headed off to rip some wimpy blues until I got tired of pushing the slush around, and then I went in to change my boots.
I came out to lock up my skis, still pissed, and stood there for a full three minutes glaring at the hill.
The **** thing was just rising up like a **** white brick wall straight up from the base. Blasted run. Grrr.
And then my point of view shifted like the gears on a 1954 Ford farm truck.
I looked at that white brick wall rising straight up from the base.
And I thought “I skied down that.”
And I realized I had just skied my second ever black diamond, and this **** thing would have been a black diamond at any hill thanks to its Monster Pitch. It’s a real Black Diamond all right.
And it’s a badder Black Diamond than the one I ski at my home mountain.
I’d just skied the hardest run ever in my life.
And I did it in really crappy conditions that would have made it challenging for anyone. In fact, given the total crappiness of the conditions, it was probably enough to escalate the difficulty of the run into Double Black Diamond status.
And I did it in the wrong gear.
And I didn’t fall, and I didn’t lose control, not once, and I didn’t lose my head, not once. I did it safely, and in control. The hardest run I’ve ever taken, in awful conditions, on the worst possible gear.
And I was pissed because I hadn’t executed it with good style.
This isn’t an occasion for grumbling. It’s an occasion for a celebration and a pint of micro-beer. Not time to glare at the mountain. Time for a triumphal march.
This is not my video here. It is a video of someone else making the run on actual snow. Every time this skier kicks off a big plume of snow, that’s the effect of snapping the edges in for a brake. You can see the pitch, and at the end of the 40 seconds, you get a brief shot down the rest of the run (which is quite nearly as bad as the top).
This is what I did. On ice. In powder skis.
I **** **** ***** ***** ROCK.