Peter Shelton

Future Perfect

Posted in Life in Central Oregon, Ski evolution by pshelton on January 10, 2020

Mt. Bachelor January 9, 2020

I don’t believe perfect exists. I have about as much success wrapping my brain around the concept of perfect as I do grasping the notion of infinity, say.

Perfection is a human construct, something theoretical, ideal; it doesn’t exist in nature. What I do think exist are perfect evanescent moments, perfectly carved turns, perfect hours on the mountain – philosophically impossible, maybe, but nevertheless flawless exceptions that prove the rule.

Today was one of those days. The objective markers tell some of the story. Four inches of new snow overnight, delivered with little wind, groomed judiciously on the main boulevards. And that snow was very low density, extremely low for the Oregon Cascades, maybe six or seven percent water, I’m guessing, where typical “Cascades Cream” is more like 10-12 percent, and the driest Colorado snow (also rare) comes in at about four percent water. The point being, this was dandelion fluff, light whipped cream atop a smooth ice-creamy under layer, snow so insubstantial that skis, boots, shins experienced only a feathery resistance. Temperature: high teens, not even a hint of warming or melting snow. Sky like a gin-clear lake, shrinking the distance to Broken Top and South Sister, all of the mountains, like Bachelor, almost completely white: rimed white trees, lava flows, summit snowfields, the whole white-washed world under a cerulean blue with a low January sun making shadows of every twig, every wind ripple, every curving, new-moon ski track. By mid-morning Carnival run was a virtual Jackson Pollack of overlain scythings, if, instead of endless layers of dripped paint Jackson Pollack had been into gouging perfectly round lines.

There’s that word perfect again. Our old friend and fellow ski schooler, Dick Dorworth, wrote a wonderful short story called “The Perfect Turn,” about an aging ski instructor thinking back on his quest for the perfect turn. It’s one of the best pieces of ski fiction out there. And it cuts very close to Dick’s own (and mine, and many skiers’) pursuit of an aesthetic ideal, on skis. A perfect turn will be different for everyone, but it will feel the same to each of us.

In my case, the turn will be etched into the snow the way a silversmith carves an image in soft metal. The two curved blades on my feet will slice parallel arcs through the snow without throwing any spray, without going sideways at all. Railroad tracks, some people call them. This perfect turn will not live in isolation, of course; it will be part of a continuum. It will have its beginning in the perfect end of the previous turn – the weightless, perfectly positioned setup (“the love spot,” in the perfectly apt phrase of guru John Clendenin), and it will likewise extend into the perfect beginning of the next turn. It’s a continuous flow. Where does the petal’s edge stop and the next thing, the not rose petal, begin?

This turn feels as if it takes no muscle power to complete. My center of mass, my hips, my head, are so placed inside the arc I have but to stand against the snow, easy as leaning against a lamppost. The snow is turning me.

Stringing a couple of these perfect semi-circles together, sine waves, sends me into raptures. It can’t be maintained for an entire run, or a whole day, or lord knows a whole mountain. But these peeks inside the monastery, these glimpses of mathematical, musical even (music of the spheres!) symmetries are enough.

Spoiler alert: Dorworth’s hero had to cross over from one reality into another in order to achieve his perfect turn. Today felt a little bit like stealing fire from the gods. Perfect turns (or close approximations) and the godlike feeling of drawing continuous lines, strings of crescent moons across the volcano’s furrows… Well, it doesn’t get much closer to heaven than that.

Code White

Posted in Personal History, Ski evolution by pshelton on December 15, 2013

My new skis are German-made Völkls, the Völkl Code Speedwall S. I leaned them against a wall downstairs and admired their sleek shape, felt their supple flex – every time I walked by, day or night – before I took them out for a ride.

The S stands for slalom, I’m pretty sure. They are built like a slalom racing ski – without actually being a race ski – sandwiching stiff titanium top and bottom sheets around a laminated wood core. They are small-waisted, just 74 mm underfoot, and curvy. (Back in the 1990s when I was part of the annual equipment test at SKI magazine, someone correctly described the then-new “shaped” skis as having a figure like Betty Boop.)

The Speedwall in the name refers to the skis’ sidewalls, which can be be waxed. In fact, the factory supplies a little tube of fast fairy dust with an applicator lid. Just rub on and polish.

Why wax the sidewalls? Part of the Code.  You wax the sidewalls because these babies beg to be tilted up on their sides – way up – so far up on edge the resulting grooves in the snow are etched by both the base and the sidewall. You wax your ski bases, so why not . . .

My regular five-year-old skis carve pretty well. They were once described, in a gear review, as “double-wide giant slalom skis.” They are curvy, too, compared to old-fashioned “straight” skis. But they are much fatter than the Codes. Their built-in turn is more like a high-speed bend in the road than a mountain hairpin. A gifted skier can carve them down almost any hill, but I have to apply the brakes when it gets steep. I reach a point where I can’t handle the speed, or the g-forces, in a long-radius, pure-carved turn. So on the old skis I’m on-carve and off, scrubbing speed, on-carve and off. Carve and skid, where the skidding can feel like compromise.

With the Codes, and their tighter natural turn shape, I learned right away I could carve more terrain more of the time. This is huge. I struggle to relay just how huge. Carving is not like run-of-the-mill steering, not like the skiing we used to do. There is no play, no skidding, no brushing sideways at all in a turn. The feeling is pure precision joined with perfect stability, because the ski is in fact slicing a trench in the snow, building a tiny curved wall against which you, the driver, lean. Insouciant. Invincible.

Think of a bobsled run with its banked vertical walls along which the sleds ride. It’s as if an alternate gravity were pinning them to the wall. Carving skiing is like that. Except you don’t have to ride down a refrigerated track, you gouge your own little wall with each turn, anywhere you want, anywhere you’re confident enough to stand firm against that knifing edge.

The Codes drew such round-y perfect lines in the snow, I could ski entire runs, top to bottom, without once throwing my skis sideways. Not until reaching the lift line again. It felt like what an engraver must feel, working soft silver. Ted Ligety, the American master of giant slalom, can do this. So can Mikaela Shriffrin, the slalom prodigy from Vail whose gorgeous technique and precocious sense of touch have made her, at 18, the world’s best slalom racer. Carving has been the Holy Grail of efficient, ecstatic skiing, especially for ski racers, forever. Sixty-four-year-old guys who started late and have never raced aren’t supposed to be able to do this. To feel this controlled freedom, this giddy, pressed-against-the-wall line drawing. And yet now . . .

The Code. Maybe it’s Code for cheating? Na. I don’t believe there is such a thing as cheating in skiing. In the early 1970s, when I was trying out for the ski school at Keystone, my Uncle Hal took me into his garage and showed me his Dynastar MV2s. He called them his cheaters, said they knew how to turn and somehow transferred that gift, deserved or not, to him. They were beautiful, white metal, with a small red logo near the tip. I bought a used pair in Denver and aced my apprentice clinic.

Those skis were primitive approximations, many design generations ago, of the surgical tools available today. I couldn’t have carved a turn on them to save my life.

The Codes are white, a beautiful pearlescent white, with a small red Völkl chevron. If Albert Einstein had skied, he’d have understood the Code. Riding them I can bend space-time.

My atoms get excited just thinking about it.