Looking back, it’s hard to believe I was that dumb.
Hard to believe unless you look at the evidence.
- Exhibit A: When I was learning to ski at the University of Vermont, I spent four winters on snow without taking a real lesson.
- Exhibit B: My skiing technique was, as a result, a delightful mix of bad technique and no technique.
- Exhibit C: I dressed as dumbly as I skied. In the bleak mid-winter of northern Vermont and Quebec, I wore jeans. And cotton. And a sweatshirt. And not much else.
So. Yes, that dumb. You want dumber? Though I eventually switched out the stupid gear for proper ski clothes, I blithely continued skiing sans lessons, sans technique and sans much skill. That continued well into the years I became a ski writer. It would probably still be my M.O. if I hadn’t become editor of a couple of ski magazines. That’s when my boss, the owner, told me to get my untaught, untechniqued butt into ski school.
I did just that. And to my surprise — remember: dumb — my skiing GBF. Yep, Got Better Fast. Here are some of the lessons that upped my game.
From Kristen Ulmer’s Ski to Live sessions at Snowbird and Lori Rust’s lessons at Whitefish, Loosen up. That means start the day with stretches and yoga before you hit the hill, and start your first run with a lot of bouncing around once you’re there.
The bouncing got easier at Vail. That’s where super-instructor Jurgen Durrschmidt stole my backpack.
No, not literally. But when we hit deep powder at Vail, he said, “That thing’s throwing you back when you should be forward. Let me take it.”
That was the last day I skied with my pack. The difference was palpable and instantaneous; I was suddenly out of the back seat.
And Jurgen was the first instructor in a decade to question the eternal wisdom of the wide stance, the Holy Grail of ski instruction’s New Testament. Jurgen said, “It’s fine for when you’re in a World Cup downhill race or carving big, fast giant slalom turns, but in powder or moguls, that wide stance will trip you up. Go narrow, and you’ll feel better.”
I felt better just hearing his words. For elegance, you can’t beat narrow, and in powder, the athletic stance always made me fear one ski might head north while the other went south.
In Vermont, at Killington, Steve Miller stole my . . . he didn’t actually steal my ski boots, but he ordered me to get rid of them. “But they’re so comfortable,” I whined. “Like bedroom slippers.”
“And they give you all the support of slippers,” Steve said. “They’re holding back your skiing. Get. Rid. Of. Them.”
Which I reluctantly did. And reluctantly admitted he was right. My new Salomons tightened my turns and gave me more power underfoot.
But Steve Miller gave me more than a new pair of boots. Great instructors are keen observers. Here’s what he observed: “You’ve been skiing defensively, avoiding some feared disaster at every turn. Defense requires muscle, energy and bracing, locking muscles into tension. Tension wears you out.”
“OK, but how do I change that?”
“Stand on your skeletal system, using muscles for the enhancement of momentum, not to ‘protect’ you from imaginary dangers.”
“So that I’m only firing them up from time to time, not relying on them every moment of the day?”
“You got it.”
And I did.
My most recent lesson to remember came from Richard Thorpe of Telluride. The man’s got some cred — he’s certified in just about everything, and in 2010 he was named Colorado’s Ski/Snowboard Instructor of the Year. Oh, and he’s been instructing for 45 years.
Like the other great instructors, Richard has a sharp eye and a soft way. You gain confidence in his suggestions and, as you try them, confidence in yourself. What sets Richard apart is his use of handy-dandy, hyper-helpful, mega-memorable phrases. Here are three of ‘em:
- Tongue Fu
- Step it and Stick it
- Tall and Fall.
Here’s what they mean:
- Tongue Fu. Keep your shins in constant contact with the tongue of the boot. That allows the foot to articulate correctly, which lets your foot start the turn. Feet first — that’s the best way to start a turn.
- Step it and Stick it. It’s the best way to start turns in moguls and steep terrain. It’s an old-school stem christie. It’s a way through initial fear and hesitation. It gets you started.
- Tall and Fall. Keep the legs long so you can absorb the forces created in the turn by flexing into them. If you start in a crouch, you can’t absorb any more.
So. Think you don’t need instruction? I was wrong and so, I bet, are you.
Jules Older’s ski book ebook, SKIING THE EDGE, has few useful tips but a plethora of tears, truths and titters.