On my last day teaching with the Gravity School at Mt. Bachelor, I got a tip from New Hampshire Daniel.
I should know what Daniel’s last name is. I’m embarrassed I don’t. He’s one of the most stalwart ski coaches on the staff, has been for years. He works every day. He teaches a lot of kids, and he’s very good with them. I see him in the cafeteria surrounded by whatever tribe of little Indians he has that day, and the vibe is super mellow. The kids are free to be themselves, be silly if they want, but Daniel is in charge. And on the hill he has pockets full of tricks to get his troop skiing, playing at skiing – making skiing play.
With his thrift-store skis, white hair and slow smile, he’s brilliant at it. But he might not have been the first pro from whom I would expect to get the skiing tip of the season. Out of the blue, standing together on the ski school deck, after it was clear there would be no lessons that final afternoon, he told me he’d improved his own skiing with a trick that helps him keep his inside hip higher through a turn. Focusing on this one thing had put him in a better stance on his skis and allowed him to carve a clean arc with almost all of his weight on the outside ski, the working ski.
I tried it, and it clicked. I couldn’t do the arm thing that Daniel said triggered the positive response in his skiing. (It was something about raising your hand as if to ask a question.) But it was enough, the zeroing in on that anatomical link. It led, later that day and in days since, to my assuming a taller, more forward position, which led to more control, more playfulness, as if a delighted puppet-master were floating above my descent. It is a feeling I have treasured without always understanding it when it came my way in the past, by accident or other design. Now here was a direct-action tool to get me there more often.
Daniel’s hip tip joined a handful of technique gems from the season, my first at Bachelor. Instructor trainer Mike Philips led a clinic early in the year that focused on two-legged carving – railroad track skiing. His insight had to do with patience, the patience to stand in balance while a turn develops, gradually.
Then there was Greg Dixon, another clinician, who played with the idea that all turns fall somewhere along an intensity spectrum, a spectrum he defined with a nautical analogy. At one end would be your “submarine” turns, diving, pressing deep into an etched groove. At the other end, imagine a hovercraft skittering lightly atop the snow. There was lighthearted argument within the group about whether our between-the-extremes boat impersonations should be jet skis, or cigarette boats, or . . .
These late-spring weeks the submarining has been splendid. April storms turned Mt. Bachelor’s volcanic ribs into huge ocean waves the better to lean into a bottom turn followed by a soaring, weightless cutback off the lip. It’s a good thing I’m a goofyfoot. Most of this wind-deposited snow has filled in the left sides of the gullies. As a goofyfoot kid on the California coast (whose natural stance is right foot forward on a surfboard) I was always looking for left-breaking waves, frontside waves as it were, where my toes, my chest and my hands were facing the green wall of water. As skiers, we have no frontside or backside, in theory. We face forward, down the hill. We go left and right, foot to foot, not toeside to heelside. But still . . . the old love affair with big, left-hand walls remains, and this season Bachelor’s wave-like furrows delivered.
Now the teaching season is done. The beginner-area “magic carpet” is shut down. All but three of the chairlifts are closed. Still, there is top-to-bottom skiing. Some days very good skiing, other days not so much, as a high sun works its fingers deeper in the snowpack. The most exquisite snow might be on the ridges where, earlier in the year, a rain/freeze cycle set up regions of glassy ice polished smooth by each successive wind event. Skittering slick and loud, these places were to be avoided, until now. Watch, ski school supervisor Chris Smith told me one day last week, those pods of ice (I see them sometimes as breaching whalebacks) will turn to “silk.” And they have.
Getting to these delicacies can take some doing. You might need to traverse rock-hard chunks of cornice fall. And you’ll likely have to punch through half-baked remnants of the last powder storm – like a switching yard of frozen tracks. It’s worth it when you get to the silk, the quiet, smooth Yes! of easy. Technique, after all, is about more than aesthetics. It is, or should be, in service to where you want to go, to what state of play.
New Hampshire Daniel told me he’ll be attending the annual PSIA (Professional Ski Instructors of America) giant slalom camp the last weekend in April. (“I just try to stand up,” he said with a self-deprecating grin.) Then he will head back across the country to his home state and a summer job tending bar. Come fall, he’ll get in the car and migrate west again for another winter on skis.
Meanwhile, the season in central Oregon isn’t quite over. I’ll be out there as long as the snow lasts, submarining where called for, skipping like a stone where possible. And watching my hips.
Thanks, Daniel. When the snow is gone I’ll rewind, and press play.
One of the first ski lessons I taught at Mt. Bachelor this winter, in my return to teaching after many years away, was a group of four first-time beginners. They were Chinese grad students: a brother-sister duo, a cousin of theirs, and a friend. Three of them were attending Oregon State University, in Corvallis, the fourth was at OU, in Eugene. Three Beavers and one Duck. Yizi and Jining and I laughed briefly about that as Jilin and Xuanhan stumbled up, rental skis akimbo, struggling as first-timers often do, to walk in stiff plastic ski boots.
Yizi did the introductions. Tall and smiley, he said to pronounce his name “Easy.” Jining told me she and her brother were from Inner Mongolia – so they knew about winter. The hardest name to pronounce, by far, was Xuanhan, the sibs’ cousin. Her shy attempts to help me say it right were all sliding swishy breathy sounds. Would that Xuanhan’s skiing experience had been similarly fluid.
Ellen has said more than once that it is “brave” of me to go back to ski teaching. She’s proud of me, for getting out of the house, for bringing home a little bacon. But behind the words I sense incredulousness. I’m 65. I’ve got two artificial hips. I like my skiing – indeed, after all these years I may be clinically addicted to it – but since the two of us gave up the ski-school ski-bum life in 1980, in Telluride, I have spoiled myself as a strictly recreational skier. No uniform. No morning line-up. No ski school bureaucracy with its certification levels, its priority lists, its tautology and fealty to the PSIA manual, the Professional Ski Instructors of America.
It’s a job for young people. Ellen and I met, as twenty-something ski teachers, at Keystone in the early 1970s, when that Colorado area was still in thrall to its founder and ski school director, Max Dercum. Max’s enthusiasm extended to projecting Super 8 film on the wall at his Ski Tip Lodge – film he had shot in Austria of the latest instructional innovations from Professor Kruckenhauser – to which all staff were invited.
We worked for three winters in the California Sierra, at a brainy, tight-knit ski school in Bear Valley. Then we went back to Colorado, to Telluride, for four years’ work during that resort’s promising infancy. Promising was the operative term; hardly anyone in the skiing public had heard of the place in 1976.
It was hard to make a living at it. And with two children by then, we knew it was time to move on. Ellen got involved in Telluride’s film festivals, and I launched a career as a freelance writer, which advanced in part because editors at Powder and Outside could count on my writing convincingly (not to say authoritatively) about the mechanics, the feelings of sliding on snow.
That was 35 years ago. When we moved to Bend last year to be close to our first-born and her two kids, I needed a job and thought for the first time in ages about joining a ski school. I’m not the oldest. Ray is 70, I think. And there’s another guy I haven’t met who is 72. I am at the bottom of the priority list. Mt. Bachelor is one of eight resorts in the Powdr Corp. stable. The powers that be didn’t care – didn’t know and by rights needn’t care – about my ancient history. I was brought on board as a “non-cert(ified) new hire.” I battled through the on-line application, submitted to the drug test, attended orientation (where we learned that a lost child is never a “lost child” but always, euphemistically, a “huckleberry”), signed up to have my minimum-wage pay deposited directly into my checking account, was issued a locker and my orange-and-black uniform. Brave was maybe not the word.
My Chinese millennials were all four pursuing advanced degrees in computing or coding – eminently practical things for their futures back home. By contrast, skiing is impractical, of the moment, all slippery feet and gravity. We started out with one ski off and one ski on, scooting gently back and forth across the snow. Yizi and Jining got it right away. They had the kinesthetic sense, the ability to lift their eyes, balance and glide. Jilin was more tentative, watching his feet. And Xuanhan was really suffering. She took tiny, mincing steps, with no glide at all.
She told me her feet hurt, so we stopped and investigated. Her feet were not the problem; it was her calves. She was a big girl with large calves, and the boots were cutting painfully into her lower legs. It’s well known – it’s been known for decades – that a woman’s calf muscles are likely to sit lower on the leg than a man’s do. Many women-specific ski boots are designed to accommodate this physiology. Xuanhan’s unisex rentals did not.
I tried loosening the buckles on the cuffs to little effect then unbuckled them completely. She tried again, gamely, but finally, near tears, asked to sit out the rest of the lesson. Her friends spoke to her in Mandarin (or maybe it was Mongolian?), but she insisted, sitting at one of the children’s tables in the ski school yurt and working through layers of long johns and tight jeans to get the boots off. For such a big person her feet were tiny. Yizi promised to retrieve her street shoes from the rental shop and bring them to her after the lesson.
The rest of us went back to the business of controlling, of crafting a descent over snow. They were quick studies. After a couple of successful, slow-motion turns we rode the beginner chair lift. Yizi and Jining especially took those new tools, their gliding wedge turns, and ran with them. They learned that turning was the key to speed control. They steered their ski prows downriver left and right at will. On the flatter sections Jining in particular was able to let go, give herself over, comfortably, joyfully, to gravity, wind in her hair. “So happy!” she beamed at the bottom. “I am a skier!” I was almost as pleased as she was.
Back at the yurt Yizi handed Xuanhan her street shoes while I repeated an offer from the rental shop folks to comp her next time around. No, no, she said, perhaps out of cultural reticence. Or maybe she was saying there would be no next time.
In any case, her final words seemed a kind of Taoist koan. After thanking me for my efforts, she said, “Where we come from, my name means ‘snow.’”