1. BEST OPTION: Be an expert skier.
2. FALL-BACK POSITION: Be a good skier.
3. WORST OPTION: Have your parents decide that if you’re going to learn to ski, you might as well do it on the most difficult terrain available so that nothing else will ever frighten you again.
If you’re in category 1, you don’t need this guide.
If you’re in category 3, you have my permission, and the permission of everyone else who actually belongs on black diamond runs, to sue your parents for divorce as soon as you’re old enough to operate a microwave. We’ll probably even help you. This kind of behavior – and yes, it happens, I see it every time I ski an expert slope – is selfish, reckless, irresponsible, and dangerous. It’s unsafe for the kids, it’s unsafe for the skiers who belong there. Here’s a basic rule for you. If your kid cannot make “french fry turns” all the way down any blue slope on the hill, you should not be escorting them over to the blacks. If “pizza turns” are coming into the picture anywhere or anytime your kid does not belong on the blacks. I don’t care if you’re bored with the blues and want to ski something exciting. Wait until it’s your spouse’s turn to babysit, or put those kids into ski school where they belong. Don’t just drag them with you, you selfish, entitled jerks.
For the rest of us, in category 2, here are my valuable words of advice.
1. BEST OPTION: Ski the run with a buddy who is a better skier than you are and who is already familiar with the run.
2. FALL-BACK POSITION: Ski the run with a buddy who is as good as you are and who knows the run, or with a buddy who is better than you are but doesn’t know the run.
3. WORST OPTION: Do it completely alone. This is how I do it, because, you know, you take what you can get.
If you’re in category 1 or 2, just go ski the run.
If you’re in category 3, this is for you:
Pick a run you can inspect from the lift. Better yet, pick a run you can inspect from the lift and that has emergency exits (runs typically called things like “Bail Out” or “Escape” or “Second Thoughts”). It is not advised to pick a run that cannot be seen at all until you are actually on it. This is the Voice of Experience talking, here. Trust it.
On your survey, make sure the run has actual snow on it, and is neither a sheet of ice nor covered with gigantic bumps (moguls). The bumps you will be able to see easily. If it’s wavy and the current skiers on the run look like they’re playing in a bounce house, the run is bumped up. The snow is more challenging. Watch and Listen. Do the skiers on the run kick up a visible spray when they turn? Is this spray more than the span of your arm? If so, then you’re probably good. If there is no spray, and the primary impression you get from your ears is one of scraping sounds, then pick another day for your experiment.
Also on your survey, inspect the pitch of the run. Decide, from the vantage point of the lift, that the run isn’t that steep and tell yourself you can take it. Keep repeating this all the way up on the lift. Change your mind at the last minute and ski down an easier run.
Ride the lift back up and inspect the run again, this time telling yourself alternately that you can take it and castigating yourself for chickening out the last time.
Make it to the head of the run. Realize that the run is so steep the horizon line is 20 feet away and you cannot see anything beyond that. Remember that the turning radius on your skis is 15 meters, which means that by the time you get the opportunity to set an edge and brake, you will be well beyond that 20 foot horizon and it will be too late to bail out. If the hill is not crowded, buy some Thinking Time by chickening out again. Wear a paper bag over your head on the next trip up the lift in shame for chickening out twice. If the hill is getting busy, deter yourself from chickening out by envisioning the lift lines and how much extra time you’re going to have to spend with that paper bag on your head, and decide the commit to the run.
Once you have decided to commit to the run, it is extremely important to do two things:
1. Drop in as soon as possible. Do not stand about blocking the top of the run for an extended period. This will have two effects: 1) pissing off all of the skiers who are not having to summon up the courage to take the run, and 2) expanding the psych-out opportunities and increasing the risk of the paper bag.
2. This is the most important thing. DO NOT LOOK DOWN. DO NOT LOOK OUT. While you were deluded into underestimating the pitch of the run by forgetting that your lift chair is tilted to keep you in it, you are not deluded in thinking that this bloody run is so steep it’s amazing that you’re not just falling off into thin air. DO NOT LOOK DOWN. Fortunately, if you’ve done a good job with 1 (drop in as soon as possible) you will find yourself so busy, immediately, that you won’t have time to rubberneck and give yourself a dangerous case of vertigo. DO NOT LOOK DOWN.
Once you drop in and realize how steep the thing really is, you will be sorely tempted to revert to whatever god-awful learning stage got implanted in your head as the Position Of Last Resort. For some people, this is pizza turns (wedging or snowplowing). For some it is traversing endlessly. For some it is setting a hard edge anywhere you can get it. Of all these three things, the most dysfunctional is the pizza turn. If you’re still doing that under duress, you need to go back and grab some more time on the easier runs until you stop. Or, better, take some more lessons. Endless traversing and setting edges will get you down this run, but they will do it at the expense of anyone who is trying to come down the run behind you…so if there are other people around and you know you’re going to do this kind of thing, pull over to the side and wait for the run to clear, then go. The best solution is to ski this run like you ski any other run, just…slower.
DO NOT LOOK DOWN.
TRY NOT TO FALL.
Ski the run one turn at a time. Pick your turn, and make it. Resist the urge to 1) hold your breath, 2) lock your muscles, or 3) scream WHAT THE HELL WAS I THINKING at the top of your lungs. Although, come to think of it, #3 makes #1 impossible, so maybe it’s not so bad. Relax. Stay mellow. Stay loose.
Do not stay so loose that you let your feet wander apart from one another. That kind of thing may be all well and fine on the easy terrain, but you’re on the steeps now, and getting spraddle-legged by even 12″ may leave you with your uphill leg fully flexed and your knee practically in your belly, while your downhill leg is fully extended and stiff. This is a disaster and you will fall if you do this, and because you’re on the steeps, once you fall, you’re going to just keep going and going and going. Good luck trying to check that downhill slide before you get to the lift lines at the base. Much better to keep your skis between your feet and the snow.
Knees and hips loose, core firm.
DO NOT LOOK DOWN.
Also do not forget about your poles. If you carry them loosely at your side between pole plants, you will find them scraping through the snow on the uphill side. Either lean the heck away from the hill to make space for the pole (BEST OPTION) or stick your poles in the air out to the sides. This will make you unpopular with other skiers, so follow the rule for endless traversing/setting edges, above.
When you get to the bottom of the run, tell yourself that wasn’t so bad after all, and then go do it again, and this time, help yourself to remember to breathe by shouting WOOOO-HOOOO all the way down the run. This will be considerably less annoying to the other skiers than traversing endlessly or sticking your poles way out to the side. It may even make them smile.
Warning: steeps have been known to be addictive. Start doing them, and pretty soon, you’ll want to collect them all.