I rose this morning to an air temperature of zero Fahrenheit, the temperature at which the hairs in your nose will freeze and break off, if you use your nose to breathe. This is one of the strangest feelings in the world: it’s like every single tiny little hair in your nose meets that arctic air, reels backwards in fear, and curls up into a tiny, solitary little individual ball of terror. Right there inside your nostrils. The first time this happened to me, in Wisconsin in January, they warned me: when you get that sensation do not inhale. I didn’t believe them when they told me that it was my nose hairs freezing. As a Texan, I am routinely suspected of “telling tall tales” (which are nothing but the unvarnished truth) but to my ears, the Story of the Frozen Nose Hairs was pure bunk. I was certain they were mocking me as a rube, in the same way that kids from New York City get sent on “snipe hunts” at camp.
And I maintained that belief until I inhaled and all those wretched, broken, frozen nose hairs shot straight up into my sinuses and started really wreaking havoc. Five minutes later I was able to finish blowing my nose, and, by golly, there they were on the kleenex: frozen nose hairs. Now I know. And I can always tell when the mercury is at zero, because even at one degree, my nose hairs don’t ball up and fall off. Only at zero and below. I’m sort of a Human Thermometer that way.
Now, thanks to the bloody Polar Vortex, I lost my nose hairs for the season weeks ago, right before the mountain started on that ghastly thaw/rain/melt/freeze cycles with the four (4) hideous unseasonable rainstorms in a row. Fortunately, for a full week now, the snowmaking temperatures have been back, and the hill is roughly where it should be at this time of the season. I could do with some plentiful snow from the sky but I’m not going to complain about the conditions we’re having right now.
So what does a New England Skier say when they walk outside in a valley town well south of the ski hill, and it’s only zero there, and the red stripe on the bottom of the TV channel is blaring the information that wind chills – in town – are well into the Super Ultra Frostbite Risk Zone? And the mountain expect the mercury to max at 4-below at the summit, and around 5-above at the base?
It depends. If that skier is a simple, rational individual, able to maintain a take-it-or-leave it attitude about skiing, they turn around, go back to bed, maybe pile on an extra blanket, and return to sleep.
If that skier is me, then they turn around, dig out the Expedition Weight base layers, start stacking clothes and opening the chemical hand-warmer packets, and make for the hill.
The good news is that the ultra-chilly temperatures ensured that virtually all of the skiers on the hill today were hard. core. I mean, we’re talking a day where your breath condenses on the balaclava and makes the face mask wet through by the time you finish a run, and by the time you ski off the chair, the balaclava is frozen solid so that you can thump it by flicking it with a thumbnail. These are hard. core. ski conditions, not for the faint of heart, but no deterrent at all to the hard. core. skier who possesses the requisite soft goods. Soft goods are clothing, for you non-skiers out there.
The other good news is that the recent snowmaking blizzards have laid down a pretty solid layer of white on many of the runs – no thin spots or waterbars or holes, rocks, and other funny stuff. And that these temps have dried that snow right on out, letting it pack down pretty solidly into one of the versions of New England Ice known as hard-pack. And the groomers chew up the top layer into little rails of corduroy, all of which means that we have a surface over the entire mountain that consists of firm, dry, fast hard snow that you can get an edge into. If you have the right skis, that is. I wouldn’t want to be riding my midfat twin-tips over this stuff, that’s for sure. But because I am a dyed-in-the-wool native New England Skier (not a Native New Englander) I own Ice Skis. Yep. New England skiers better have at least one pair of skis in the quiver – and if they don’t have a quiver, the only pair of skis they own – that is made for skiing on ice.
So, the good news is that the surface was fast and smooth and pretty much even. This is Rock Star Snow. Not Hero Snow, it’s not the surface to get experimental with. Not the surface for learning aerial tricks, and taking jumps. What it is, is the surface for ripping.
The even better news is that I have just the pair of skis for all of this. I bought them back in November. They’re Volkls, which in my opinion, makes the best Ice Skis around. Mine are RTM 84s, a nice wide uber-solid high-performance vehicle of a ski. They remind me of my sports car, with its six-speed manual short-throw transmission and huge engine. It took me a week before I wasn’t killing my engine in first gear. This is not a car to go slow in. It is, however, a car to monitor very carefully because it’s extremely easy to go very fast in. And to go very fast without noticing. Roy always has to drive my car with the cruise control on, because if he doesn’t, it’s only two or three minutes before we become bait for the Staties. My car wails. So do my skis.
Now, I used to be terrified of speed on skis. I used to be the slowest person on the run, including on the green run. I still remember the day that I actually passed someone else on a run. I was thrilled because it meant that I was no longer the slowest person on the run. It’s been a while since I was the slowest person on the run, but it wasn’t until this year that I Came To Terms with speed.
In retrospect, I understand that the biggest part of my Speed Problem was that I was on skis that were too short. You wouldn’t think that having short skis would be a problem with speed, but it is. Another part of the problem was that I wasn’t a good enough skier to take advantage of speed. I was no slouch, mind you, but I was definitely more concerned with stopping and slowing down than I was with going fast. I was extremely concerned about stopping and slowing down on ice. I would have said, 18 months ago, that I hated skiing on ice. I had great ice skis, with awesome hard snow grip, but they were short enough that if I poured on any juice, they’d get all squirrely under my feet. Nothing to give a person an aversion for skiing fast on ice like a pair of skis that gets all woobly when you do it.
Now? I have skis that are the right length, and I’m still concerned with maintaining control at all times (and do)…but at this point, my concern with ice is limited to things like cursing the ice for stripping the wax off my bases and chewing up my edges. I had one of those Epiphany Moments on Monday, before the mountain operations had gotten more than a start on resurrecting the conditions. I took a run that has a challenging little drop and a bunch of rollers. It’s a little bit off the beaten track, so it doesn’t get crowded, which – combined with the fun drop and the rollers – makes it one of my favorite runs on the hill. When conditions are agreeable I’ve been known to spend a few hours just doing laps on this run, I like it that much. On Monday, it was my own private White Ribbon of Death…and I was totally unfazed. I skied out onto it, and found myself thinking “ah, hardpack.” (one type of New England Ice). Back in the day, I would have stopped, or at least braked, and fussed about skiing out onto an obviously icy run. With a steep little drop and rollers. Not now. Before I finished the thought about the hardpack, I was approaching the drop, the top of which was covered with boilerplate – another, uglier type of New England Ice – and I sighed. I sighed again when I dropped in and discovered that the backside of the drop was scattered sheets of blue ice (the ugliest type of New England Ice) but again, before I finished the thought “oh, that’s nasty” I was into the rollers, which were also pretty icy. The important part is that I didn’t drop my rhythm, I didn’t slow down, I just skied that shit.
I’m not afraid of ice any more. I’m born from the stuff. I own it.
I got it again this morning, when I was taking a lift ride over a short, but pretty steep black diamond. US ski runs are rated green (easiest), blue (intermediate), black (difficult), and double-black (experts only, and even then it might get hairy). I looked down off the lift at this run, which is usually bumped up (with moguls, which I hate, because here they are enormous and rock hard, like skiing a field of igloos). Today it was groomed. I regarded it for a while, considered that there was enough loose stuff to be edge-able, and thought “I can take that.”
And I did. I skied off the lift, hiked up a little hill to the drop-in zone of the run – which you couldn’t see at all, owing to steepness – and while some primitive part of my brain was saying “NO WAY” the rest of it was going “Pshaw.” I knew I could do it, you see. I didn’t think I could do it. I knew I could. And so it was. I made a few turns, and yeah, it was a little steep, and the surface was a little crisp, but I was entirely up to it. In fact, I found myself thinking “Are you serious? Is that all? This is…not quite easy, but certainly not difficult.”
And then I knew. I’m not afraid of steeps any more.
In fact, I did that run three times. My skis were loving it. More! More! they seemed to say. More!
So I gave them more. I turned down the fall line, and I opened up the throttle, and before I knew it, I was not just not the slowest person on the runs, I was the fastest. Thanks to the super-cold temps keeping all the rookies in, the mountain was pretty empty, and the people who were out on it were people who knew what they were doing. Which means I could really open it up. And every gout of speed I delivered, my skis just said More! More! More!
My skis hate going slow. They’ll do it, but they bicker nonstop when I make ’em. They were born for speed, and don’t I know it.
I remember on one run – it was empty, the surface was in great shape, and I blasted into the run like I’d been shot out of a rocket launcher, and tore it up all the way to the base, picking the most aggressive lines, the biggest drops, and carving it up hard. I felt like I was going to leave a sonic boom in my wake. I felt like I should have a Sound Effect: that noise that the Road Runner makes when he really pours on the speed, the one that sounds like a ricochet. Pssschhooowngg!!
And now I know. I’m not afraid of speed any more.
The only downside of days like today is having the ski hill to myself. Next time I go, there will be other people on the runs, and I won’t be able to rip it out, and I will have to ski slowly. I get spoiled.