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A local’s best day can be a first-timer’s worst nightmare

Tom Boyd

The snow on Jan. 6 was perfect at least, that’s the way we felt about it. It was the kind of day that skiers talk about for years afterward, or that they hope and pray for years in advance. And by the time we loaded into the Lionshead gondola that morning, everyone was grinning from ear to ear, practically bubbling over with anticipation – except for one guy in our group (who we’ll call “Russ,” in order to protect his fragile ego).Russ lives in Memphis, Tenn., where the average annual snowfall is well, none. He had come to town for the week, and joined us for a morning on Vail Mountain but it was easy to see that he was having some second thoughts about skiing with our group.Where we saw face shots and pillow-drop landings, he saw a sea of white quicksand and intimidating slopes.Where we had visions of breaking through drifts, he had visions of drifting and falling, losing equipment and losing his breath in bottomless snow.The mountains were covered in white, but Russ looked covered in green.”It’s not that I don’t like to ski a little bit of powder,” he said. “I’m good at that. But when it’s that deep it’s like I can’t move my skis – I can’t figure out how to turn. I’m not sure I can handle this.”And thoughts of falling loomed large. He pictured a day of looking for lost skis and poles, wandering into steeps beyond his ability and holding back the group on a day when the rest of us clearly were amped to ski fast and hard until the lifts shut down.But there is an undeniable truth in the skiing world. Harsh as it might seem, it’s true: There are no friends on a powder day.So when we reached the top of Chair 4, poised to drop into Vail’s Back Bowls, the time had come to part ways. Russ and a few others stuck to the front side of the mountain, where a groomed track provided machine-packed snow and an easy escape route. The rest of us blazed arcing trails through the untracked, untouched pitch of Headwall the perfect run to whet a powder-hungry appetite. We had arrived early not first chair, but pretty darn close. Our first run had been first tracks (minus a few marks made by ski patrollers and lift-ops).After charging through thigh-deep powder, I took a moment to soak up the euphoria and catch my breath, but a twinge of remorse tainted my otherwise perfect powder day. It was Russ and his friends – and I felt terrible for leaving them behind.Here we were lapping it up, streaking happily through Colorado powder, while our less-experienced friends were held captive on the groomed track (or worse struggling to stand after packing face, ostrich-style, on Christmas).It simply was too sad to bear. For veteran skiers, powder is the best and greatest element of the sport – and waist-deep powder days are the reason we fell in love with the sport in the first place.Lessons for beginnersAs a lifelong skier, I’m the kind of person who knows how to do it – but not necessarily how to teach it. Still, I was determined that, the next time I was up on the hill with someone like Russ, I would be prepared to teach them how to unlock the secrets of skiing powder.So I called up a pair of Vail’s two top powder skiers: Jonathan Morath and BJ Aguilar.For many years, Vail-based skiers have done well in the world of Powder 8 competition skiing, which tests skiers control and turning style in powder snow. Recently, three-time world Powder 8 champion Vail’s Franz Fuschberger passed the Powder 8 tradition on to Morath and Aguilar, a pair of Vail ski instructors who competed last April in the 2004 Powder 8 championship in Big Sky, Mont.When Morath and Aguilar ski they appear fluid, in-control, and strong. I asked Morath how he would explain some of their techniques to beginners.”One of the first things people hear is that, to ski powder, you have to lean back,” Morath said. “When you lean back you’re using too much of you’re muscles, you want to use more skeletal, structural stuff.”Typically what happens, he said, is that snow consistency will change – thick snow slows the skis and tends to pitch the skier forward. People lean back to try and counteract this, and that’s where they lose control – and waste a lot of energy in the meantime.Morath said balance is the key to skiing good powder.”Powder skiing is all about balance,” he said. “If you get the right balance, it’s easy. If you force it you’re working too hard – that’s the best advice I can give anybody.”The knees, he said, need to be over the toes of the boot, and the body should be low – almost like sitting in a chair. And you don’t want to wobble around too much.”If you’re going to ski it, go out there and make a small amount of movement and go from there,” Aguilar said.This can be tough, especially when the snow begins to get tracked up and the conditions become inconsistent. Blasting through different kinds of snow is much easier with a pair of fat skis – preferably 80 millimeters in width at the center of the ski (see “Fat Skis” on page 8).”The turns are a matter of personal preference,” Morath said. “Some people like to go straight, but I don’t understand that. I like to make turns.”The idea is to stay centered and try to anticipate changes in the snow density and depth. With hands and knees forward, and the torso sitting back in an imaginary chair, skiers can make adjustments to the fore and aft – keeping balance centered over the boots the entire time.Russ had left town before I could get him on snow with Morath or Aguilar, but he wasn’t the first – or last – person we’ve had to leave behind on epic powder days. And that’s simply not fair. Now, at least, with a little help from some who know, I’ve got a few hints for people who are in dire need of discovering the power of powder. VT


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