I’m not sure what I was thinking. I suspect my improved leg strength gave me a false sense of skill. Regardless of how it started, I found myself panting heavily, staring down at a series of steep drop-offs and surrounded by cliffs. How did I get myself in this predicament? Too late to back out, nothing to do but take a deep breath and 3..2..1… go.
Let’s rewind to the beginning. I am an average skier. A rockstar on the intermediate groomers, more tentative on the steeper stuff, a disaster in the crud and moguls. My problem is that I really, really like the idea of skiing in the trees. Off-piste as the Europeans would say. I just can’t figure out how to get good at it. I watch others flow through the trees and smoothly navigate big bumps and obstacles. Me on the other hand on the same terrain – a series of awkward hop turns, sliding, skidding, often ending up in a snow covered, contorted upside-down position.
This year I vowed to master the off-piste. To be one of those guys flowing through the trees. I started out with vastly improved strength, due to the time I’ve spent in the gym. That new-found strength has given me the confidence to ski hard, all day. I’ve been fortunate to be able to ski every 2-3 days, which has certainly improved my form. I started making small forays into the trees and seeking out ungroomed snow. As my skill improved, I started eying a valley known as an “experts only” area. One of the groomed runs borders the area and I kept flirting with the edge and eying the trees and chutes in the valley.
A few days ago, we had a big powder dump. I got to the resort early and did a few warm-up laps on the groomed runs. Finally, I skied down the run bordering the off-piste area and stopped at the edge. I spent quite a bit of time looking down and going over in my head what could go wrong if I dropped in. Eventually I told myself that I’d never know If I didn’t try.
Down I went. And it was awesome! While I don’t know if I was actually flowing through the trees, I handled it without any problems. I spent the rest of the day dropping in and playing in this new playground. I had a blast. The next day I skied with friends who stick to the groomers. I spent that whole day diving in and out of trees bordering the runs, seeking out all the crud and powder remnants I could find. My confidence was through the roof!
Yesterday we had another overnight snow. I hit the slopes and warmed up with a few runs. I was going to drop in where I spent the other day, then thought to myself why not drop in from the very top? With my newfound confidence, I rode the lift up and traversed around to the entrance of the expert area. There were ominous signs posted indicating this was an area for experts only and ski patrol was limited. I paused for a moment, but my excitement over my new skills won out. I went through the gates.
Things went bad from the beginning. The “trail” was a very narrow, slick, twisting route full of bumps and awkward off-camber turns. My speed was increasing, but I had no way to slow down as the trail was too narrow to turn or even snowplow. I was now flying along, borderline out of control, and definitely did not want to slide off the edge. Up ahead I spotted a wider spot in the trail and did a hard slide to bleed off speed. Unfortunately, immediately around the corner the trail turned steeply uphill and I no longer had the momentum to make it up. I came to an awkward stop on the edge. Fuck.
Now I was stuck. No way to get my skis off and hike anywhere. My only choice was down. I was looking down a narrow chute with trees at the bottom and unknown terrain below that. It took a while to get my breathing under control. I will say, committing to that first jump turn was one of the harder things I’ve done. I made my way down the chute. Jump turn. Slide, slide, jump. Over and over.
Finally, I reached the trees. This was a little easier, but there were steep cliffs everywhere and I couldn’t always tell if the edges I was skiing up to were vertical or navigable. I kept traversing across the slope, dropping down in places my skill allowed me to make turns. Eventually I made it to the wide open part of the bowl and terrain I could handle. I was drenched with sweat and my thighs were quivering.
I turned around and looked back up at what I had come down. I realized I’d come down a double black diamond called Chinook Chute. Probably one of the hardest areas in the resort. Wow. I couldn’t believe I’d done that. I started feeling pretty proud of myself. It was ugly and more sliding and slipping than actual skiing. It certainly won’t make any Warren Miller ski film highlights, but I did it and managed to not crash.
If you told me at the beginning of this season I’d be going down that, I wouldn’t have believed you. Trust me, I’m in no hurry to go back up there. It really is above my skill level. But… I’m not that far off.
The lesson is that you are capable of way more than you think you are. All it takes is the willpower to try. Yes, you may crash and burn. But if you don’t try, you’ll never know.
My problem is balancing my age, true skill, and good decision making with my new-found ego. I need to remind myself that I’m no longer twenty. At this stage of my life, do I really need to be flirting with cliffs and double black diamond runs? Probably not.
But man, it felt good to accomplish that. Hmm… maybe I could become that guy effortlessly floating through the trees?