Peter Shelton

Hot Buttered Corn Snow

Posted in Ski evolution, Ski racing, Watch columns by pshelton on April 5, 2013

Powderhorn’s closing day on Easter Sunday delivered perfect corn. Corn snow, that is.

There were plenty of corny outfits, from cornpone to candy corn to soft-core porn. (Then there were the two telemarking ladies of a certain age who donned flower-print dresses and glued Easter baskets to the tops of their helmets. Yes!)

But the corn snow was the day’s real star. Overnight low temps were cold enough long enough to freeze all surfaces. But then, by 11 a.m., the sunny edges of the trails started to melt, “comme velours,” as the French say – like velvet underfoot – and by 3 p.m. the whole mountain skied like a giant Slurpee.

My mantra for the day – one of the great clichés of ski teaching – was “get out in front of your skis.”

While this may sound dangerous (see: “going over the handlebars” on your mountainbike), it is actually sound advice.

What I mean by getting out in front is actually two things. There is a physical, and a psychic, component.

Physically, you need to get your core, your center of mass, your belly button, going downhill before your skis begin their direction change. This is what all the great skiers do. You can see it in the videos of Mikaela Shriffrin and Ted Ligety, their torsos balanced well inside the path their skis take. It allows them to put their skis way up on edge. And it lets them resist the merry-go-round forces in a turn with their bones, stacked hips and femurs and tib-fibs, rather than with muscle power alone.

From this “out in front” place, the early-turning skis are only lightly weighted. You are floating, in transition. (Aspen guru John Clendenin calls it “the love spot.”) You have options. You can drive your edges into a roundy carve, or swish them sideways in a drift, or anything in between. You’re in the driver’s seat, not the back seat.

Second, and equally important, is to be out in front with your eyes, your brain – seeing, gauging, projecting a path through these particular folds in the mountain. Then, lickety-split, deciding on an appropriate response: go round, go straight, accelerate, scrub speed? It’s that piece of the skiing whole so aptly defined by President George H. W. Bush as “the vision thing.”

In business we say it’s good to be out in front of the market – ahead of the curve. In politics, it’s good to be out in front of an issue, like being all for gay marriage years ago.

(In baseball, it’s more complicated. To be out in front of a changeup is to swing too soon at a pitch you thought was going to be a fastball.)

In skiing, being out in front is pretty much all good. Physically, it’s where you want to be to effectively press the skis into the snow, to draw your line precisely. Mentally, you are imagining and then going there – preceding yourself down the mountain. The best turns have a déjà vu quality to them; you live the moment twice, cheating time. Maybe that’s why skiing is so addictive.

On slushy corn-snow days (large-grain hominy or fine grits; it doesn’t matter), getting out in front is easy. All that water in the snow holds your feet back. Just a little. Making it easy for your center to ride forward. A little is all it takes.

I used to suggest to students that they imagine themselves a bowsprit on a sailboat. One of those mythical painted ladies with head up, chest out, and nothing ahead of them but the waves. Pulling the ship along, figuratively at least, behind them.

Unlike the feeling on hard snow, when in a blink skis can skitter ahead, putting you back on your heels, on corn you may have the feeling that you are so far forward, so in control, you are pulling your skis along for the ride.

All around the mountain on Sunday people were skiing out of their heads: sinuous, continuous, invincible. The lift operator on the West End chair was just a kid. But he made a wonderful, if unintentionally wise, comment. We had spied each other earlier when he was on a break, taking a run in the slush bumps. Now, as he loaded me into the old double chair and had a good look at my gray stubble, he said, “Dude, you look younger out on the hill.”

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