Roy and I benefited from a nearly-miraculous confluence of circumstances – we’re both on sabbatical at the same time, we had an invitation to do a professional dog-and-pony show in Denver at our convenience that entailed several days in Denver and airfare paid for by someone else, and it’s winter. Or early spring, but still winter as far as skiers are concerned. For skiers, winter starts with the first white ribbon of death, and ends when it’s impossible to make it down the mountain without taking off your skis and hiking more than twice per run. Roy and I never get to do travel in the spring because his spring break comes a week or two before mine. No overlap, ever. But at our convenience? Free airfare to Colorado, at our convenience? When else could our convenience be but during Ski Season?
Thus we found ourselves with several days in Denver meeting professionally with quite a few other professors who, shall we say, Place A High Value on Flexible Scheduling, Especially In The Winter. It was the first professional event I’ve gone to where people were just as happy to talk about skiing as accounting. The Wonder Horse, I hope, continues to recover from his “fat eye” (cellulitis), and the cat is at home slutting out on the house sitter whilst planning his Acts of Revenge for when we return. Otherwise, here we are, in Glorious Steamboat Springs.
Steamboat Springs has a number of claims to fame. One is the number of Olympic winter athletes who call this place home. One is a funky town that is not insanely and creepily touristy. One is that the ski area itself is an entire mountain range. And one is it’s snow. They’ve trademarked the term “champagne powder” in Steamboat. No, really, they did. I believe it’s what the name implies: light, frothy, effervescent. I have to go on belief because I’ve never seen this kind of powder in person. Only in ski videos. New England has different kinds of “powder”. There’s the “powder” represented by the 3 inches of new snow that is now coating the icy surface of the hill. Then there’s New England Powder, which is 2 inches of finely pulverized ice chips created by the grooming cats covering and recovering the hill for a week or so after a melt/freeze cycle. Then there’s the stuff that comes out of the fan guns. It’s powder-y. Otherwise, when New England gets a massive snow blast in a New England Special, you know that stuff started with freezing rain and sleet, then changed over to the wettest, heaviest snow possible for 18 inches before it changed back to sleet and more freezing rain. Our “freshies” in New England are heavy and wet. This isn’t actually a problem: it makes for a really good base, and we all know how to ski on it before, and after, it turns into ice – which it always does.
New England skiers ski on ice. I, personally, can ski on six different kinds of ice, more if you go after the finer distinctions. The question in New England is not “Will I have to ski on ice?” The question is “How many kinds of ice will I expect to encounter in a single run down the hill?” If you’re a New England skier, you have skis that are specialized for skiing on ice. They’re rigid, they have extremely hard edges, and those edges are kept extremely sharp. The edges on my ice skis (a Volkl RTM) are sharp enough that I can shave off arm hairs with them. Really. That’s how sharp you keep your edges when you’re a New England skier. It’s a matter of safety, for one, and for enjoyment, for another.
So, one of the things I was most excited about with this Steamboat junket, was the prospect of skiing on snow. Maybe even some of this “champagne powder”, although, truth be told, I don’t think I would have the first idea about how to ski on that stuff. I don’t think it’s even something I would recognize as “snow”. In any event, I was all on board for some nice spring skiing under that sunny blue Colorado sky.
2 out of 3 isn’t bad. I got the sunny sky and the blue sky. But it’s too warm here right now, bloody polar vortex again no doubt, and we don’t have early spring conditions, we have late spring conditions. Mountain melts during the day, and then refreezes over night.
We understand this situation better in New England, probably because we have to spend so much more time and effort grooming our mountains than they do out in Colorado, what with all that dry fluffy snow and stuff. In New England, one understands that when this is occurring on the mountain, the best time to groom is after the mountain freezes. That way, you’re running the groomer over ice and chewing it up to make something soft-ish. New England Powder if you’re really lucky. Wall-to-wall death cookies over packed powder if you’re not lucky. At least you can still dig an edge in.
That doesn’t seem to be what goes on here, though. Here they seem to be grooming it before the mountain freezes…which means that in the morning, one is confronted with a ski area completely covered with impenetrable and chattery corduroy-shaped-ice. Yuk. Even if you can ski on this stuff, and not everyone can, not even every ice skier, you don’t ever have any fun. No edging with this. And edging? It’s how skiers turn, and turning is how skiers control their speed. Ice you can’t get an edge in requires Jedi Master Ski Skillz to navigate safely, let alone have fun with.
But I didn’t know that, and couldn’t have known that, bef0re I left. This winter, everyone agrees, is freakish – and we’ve had enough profoundly freakish weather in New England this winter that I’m prepared to believe just about anything. In short, a bunch of us had a fairly deep pow-wow over the question, and the ultimate answer was that I should ship out a pair of my own skis, and that this not be the Volkl ice skis I’ve been riding all winter, but a ski more suited to nice soft snow. Born for the western slopes, in fact. Rossignol S3: 98 underfoot, twin-tipped, maximally rockered. No edges to speak of, not at this point. Ultimate fun on soft snow. Ultimate. So I shipped them out to await my arrival here, and then the weather started to change.
Fast forward to my first trip down a Steamboat run. I was checking out some novice runs for Roy to take later in the week, and started with the ski areas big green cruiser. Usually I really love big green cruisers because they’re so easy that I don’t pay much attention to the skiing and I can take in views and stuff.
What happened instead is that I found myself on this unspeakably narrow run, maybe 20 feet wide, with a steady non-stop gentle incline (and you can gather some serious speed if you have enough distance on a gently sloping run). With numerous hairpin (180-degree) turns. Covered in an fully impenetrable sheet of ice that any New England resort would recognize as a total disaster.
And wait, there’s more. The run was three (3) miles long. A three-mile long, twenty-foot-wide sheet of ice.
And wait, there’s more. Steep drop-offs. Some of them cliffs. Right at the edge of the longest, baddest White Ribbon of Death I have ever encountered.
Fortunately, as I said, I can ski six different types of ice, and this was one of them. The skis were completely wrong for it, but I made them work for me, and did linked pivot slips for three miles to maintain a speed of approximately 5 mph, which is an absolute crawl. Anything faster, though, and I wasn’t going to be able to make those hairpin turns and was going to shoot right off the edge of the run and down god-only-knows-how-far. Into the trees. And rocks.
So I did it. The effort left my legs on fire, and cut my ski day short big time, and left me with burning quads and knees the next day. But it was controlled, it was smooth, and it was safe. Nothing like rocking some advanced Jedi Ski Skillz on a green slope to really fry the brain. One thing became crystal clear to me on my way down that run, and believe me, I had a lot of time to think about it all.
I was going to need a different pair of skis.
This mountain felt exactly like home, only twice as tall and 10 times as large. And whatever I could hope, using my beloved S3s before noon wasn’t on that list. Problem with the argument of “just go later” is that there’s a fairly narrow window of opportunity between the time the mountain starts to soften up and the time it’s totally skied off and you’re left with ice again. Not sure how long that window is, but there are plenty of people in this ski area to grind down the runs, so I’m guessing that the answer is “not long”.
So I was going to need a different pair of skis.
I dropped my skis in the rack, and hied me unto the ski shop.
“I need to demo some skis today.” I said.
“OK.” they said. “What did you have in mind?”
Good question. When you demo skis, you pick them. In a flash, I knew exactly what ski I wanted to have under my feet, more than anything. My own skis. My ice skis.
“Got a pair of Volkl RTM 84s?” I said.
They whistled. Maybe. Very popular ski, that. No, they didn’t have it in the length of my actual skis, but they had the next-longer length. Not as nice as my own skis, of course, which have been babied and pampered, and have edges so sharp they’ll shave hair off. But close. Almost but not quite identical to my skis. The skis I decided I wasn’t going to ship to Steamboat, because I didn’t think I’d need to ski ice.
I had to rent my own skis on the fly. Ouch. But. But. But they were perfect. This irony is a sword that cuts both ways. My main skis really are that great. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. And, at least, the shop had them in stock.