Friday, January 20, 2012

Why We Ski

The sound of snowfall


By ROBIN SIAS

     Powder skiing is the Holy Grail of the sport, the ultimate experience. The peace of floating silently over mounds of freshly fallen snow, your visibility drawn into a tight radius by the storm, is otherworldly. It’s a safe, protected, soft and oh-so-quiet setting. Only the muted outlines of evergreens break up the white. No wonder people pray for powder days.

     The first significant storm of the year has hit the WoodRiverValley this week. The sound of snowfall, in its silent glory, is the most beautiful sound of all.

     For weeks we watched, waited and were so patient. Anticipation was high, the excitement palpable. More precipitation is predicted through next week. Yet these sudden riches of snow after a dry start to the season could prove hazardous. Bryant Dunn, Sun Valley Ski Patrol supervisor, urged skiers to use caution. “Everyone is going to want to wear their snorkels and get out into this. But now would be a good time to look for your inner calm,” he said.

     Calm is not the first emotion that the fresh and fluffy snow evokes in skiers. Caleb Baukol is one such powder hound.  Though he’s on the hill almost every day, weeks like this one make the more mundane ones worthwhile. “Skiing powder after a big storm is totally dreamy and effortless,” Baukol said. “I couldn’t wait to get to Upper Limelight, Upper River Run, Holiday. Winter is finally here. It’s time to get out there.”

     Powder can also be intimidating. Like Baukol, many among us literally live (here) to play in the fresh snowfall. I will wager many others, like myself, love the idea of powder but don’t have a clue how to approach it. I am sleepless and restless the night a big storm is predicted, partly due to excitement and partly due to dread. I want to get in on the dance but am afraid the floor will swallow me whole. The few times I’ve ventured out into fresh, deep powder, I’ve spent as much time digging out as standing up.

     The experts in our midst reassure, however, that powder skiing is there for the taking. Time on fat skis and the ability to relax is the simple, magical combination. “Cowboy Curt” of Sturtevants ski department said there is no reason to be intimidated by powder. The latest gear will do most of the work for you, if you let it.

     “With today’s powder skis, making a turn on powder is not all that different than making a turn on groomers,” said Curt.  “Skiing powder is actually easier than skiing hardpack. You don’t have to worry about your edges. There’s less torque and less resistance.”

     Powder skis have a waist (the part that is directly under your boot) of 100mm or wider. This wide platform allows a ski to float over the snow, achieving that indescribable powder high skiers live for. The advent of “rockers” in the past five years also changed powder skiing forever. If someone tells you just to sit back and keep your tips out of the snow, they have been hibernating for a while. The new shape of the skis boasts a curve upwards on the front tip and sometimes on the back. It automatically keeps your tips where they need to be without burning out your thighs. Brilliant!

     Other equipment Curt said will make powder skiing less scary and more joyful are really good goggles that don’t fog up, as you will hopefully have tons of powder cascading over your head. You’ll also want good quality waterproof layers. Another nifty device to make powder days easier is an electronic ski retriever that replaces powder leashes of old.  If you tumble and lose your skis in two feet of snow, this handy device will locate them.

     Brilliant!

     On heavy powder days, those in the know highly recommend carrying a backpack with essential avalanche gear:  a shovel, a beacon that you have been trained to use and even an AvaLung, a device that allows someone trapped beneath snow to get air.

     Once you’re properly equipped, consider safety issues prompted by storms like this one—even if you’re in-bounds on the ski mountain. They are real and considerable.  Dunn said a storm like this one can be “extremely dangerous.”

     “Everyone is going to be infected with powder fever, but due to the early season thin, weak snowpack, any load will create really unstable conditions that will mandate serious avalanche mitigation,” Dunn said. “This is the real deal. It can be treacherous out there.” Conditions are changeable, he added, meaning skiers must be smart, respectful and “tempered by self control.”

     Ski Patrol began prepping for this storm Monday and Tuesday. Before any flakes fell, explosives were prepped, inventories stocked, beacons readied. Once snow began, they worked as quickly as possible to open terrain. Safety is the Alpha and Omega of their priorities. To help out, skiers need to know, and respect the code.

     The fact that it’s finally snowing is beyond exciting. That doesn’t mean common sense can be buried with the brown of the hills. The storms have laid a foundation for a terrific ski season ahead. We have three more months to ski all kinds of terrain, once snowpack has stabilized and settled.  We can afford to be patient.

     Amidst this beautiful snowfall, we need to give a nod this week to our own Chuck Ferries, who 50 years ago this week conquered the slalom course at the mighty Hahnenkamm in Austria. In 1962, Ferries was 22, skiing one of the largest and most famous skiing events in the world in front of a crowd of 20,000. He remains the only American to have won this race. If you see Ferries this week, be sure to acknowledge this great accomplishment.  But chances are, you won’t be able to find him.  He’ll be enjoying the silence of the freshly fallen snow.




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