It’s been my goal, or dream if you will, to ski for 30 days in a single ski season. That means clicking into your skis for one month out of the year between the first snowfall of October, until the last snow melts in April. After picking up skiing in 2015, I fell in love with it immediately and tried to ski as much as possible. But while I lived in New England, I never even got close to more than 15 days in a season. Fortunately, that all changed when I moved up to Park City for the 18-19 ski season. As of 3/5/2019, I’ve skied 55 days! This post isn’t to brag, but to relay the lessons and skills I’ve learned over this winter skiing as much as I have.
I Was Not A Good Skier
If you had asked me last year if I was a good skier, I would obviously have said yes! To me, I thought if you could get down anything or ski off anything, that meant you were a good skier. No offense to the friends I used to ski with back East, but after skiing with friends out here who used to ski race as well as the endless amount of unbelievable skiers out here in Utah, I now know what a good skier truly is. It all started in the early season when I skied with my buddy Mike, watching him effortlessly carve the groomed November runs at PCMR. Initiating turns by leaning into your boots and engaging the tips of your skis to turn, unlike how I used to slide out my edges to drive my turns. It’s a completely different feeling of control when skiing. And over the next couple months, I took that skill I had been work on, up to the steep peaks and runs. Rather than side slipping a steep double black diamond, stopping after every turn to control my speed, I began to link turns one after another. Visualizing where my next turns would be made so that I never had to stop. Even on the steepest runs, I could execute a top to bottom run without a break or stopping my downhill motion. A far cry from where I was at the beginning of the season.
There Is Nothing Like Skiing Powder
To an East Coast skier, a pow day is 1-5 inches of fresh snow on top of a groomed surface. Those days were far and few, but unbelievable when the timing worked out. On December 7th, 2018, I found out what skiing powder really was. With my ski partner, we left the gates from the 9990 lift at Canyons, and traversed the ridge to the High Dutch zone in Dutch Draw. Once we finally reached our drop in point, at the pinnacle on the ridge, I realized I had never skied anything this deep. If you were to step off your skis, your boots would sink down in the snow up to your waist. It was DEEP! Mike told me to lean back, but not too far back, and not too far forward. This would be the first lesson in powder skiing that I’m still trying to nail down. At risk of quoting every skier who’s talked about skiing powder, it really does feel like nothing else: floating, flying, weightless, pure bliss. Flying down an open bowl, creating the only tracks on the face, floating wherever you want, in any way you please. It’s the closest you can get to true freedom, in my opinion.
Since then, there have been countless pow days during this epic winter we’re having. Being able to fly down steep terrain, knowing you’re completely in control because of how stable the powder feels under your skis, it’s like cheating. Dropping off rollovers or cliffs, and sinking into a cushion without any shock ripping throughout your whole body. And don’t get me started on face shots. Ending up a the bottom of the run, high-fiving your buddies that are all covered in snow from head to toe, it’s epic. But with these experiences come a bit of snobbery. Weeks where we haven’t gotten 10+ inches of snow don’t feel the same, and aren’t as fun. You long for the powder, dream about it; and when you’re clicked into your skis, it’s all you want to ski. And that is another reason why I’ve fallen in love with backcountry skiing.
Backcountry Skiing Is The Next Level
At any resort, big or small, there is only so much enjoyment that can be had ripping the same “go-to” runs over and over again. This leads to more and more hiking to new zones in the resort, and eventually evolves into leaving the resort through the gates and into the backcountry. Just like most backcountry skiers, a friend took me through the gates to ski some sidecountry zones. From that very moment, I was addicted. I felt like I had earned the ski turns, and plus, the snow was exponentially better. Like a mad-man, I started learning as much as possible about backcountry travel and avalanche safety. It was all over my head at first, but I trusted my partners to keep me safe and help make smart decisions. Eventually I took an AIARE 1 Avalanche Course to give me the foundation I truly needed. Over this season, I’ve skied in the backcountry over a dozen times. Some are all day tours, others are lift access backcountry where we get a run or two in. Either way, the whole process is incredible. The idea, like backpacking and hiking, that you have all the gear you need to successfully (and safely), bag a peak and ski down off it is exhilarating.
In the backcountry, you are completely reliant upon your fitness, your gear, and most importantly, your ski partners. There is so many mental calculations going on the entire time. During a tour, so many things are constantly running through my head like: weather conditions, slope angles above and below, avalanche terrain, avalanche potential, sun angle, slope aspect, hydration, fatigue, communication, visibility, travel plan, evacuation routes, etc. The list goes on and on. And the feeling when you reach an objective, strip the skins, and start sliding back down the mountain back to the truck, it’s hard to describe. A fulfilling experience is the best way for me to sum it up. Some days are an epic adventure, others are routine, and some are just awful. But as long as I’m on skis, I promise you I won’t be complaining.
Dialing In Your Gear
The last bit of insight I have from this mid-season recap, is how much I’ve dialed in my gear. Back when I used to go ski once per weekend, I always felt like I was figuring out my setup every time I got to the ski hill. And not that my skis or boots felt new. I’m talking about the specifics. When I go skiing now, I have a system. For temperature regulation, I wait to layer up until I’m on the first lift. That way I’m not overheating on the way up. I regularly ski the first run or two with only my glove liners on, no neck gaiter, and maybe my jacket and pants vented open until I am sufficiently cold. This prevents me from sweating too early in the day, risking the rest of the ski session. Even more critical when touring. And there is the science about which base layers and gloves for which day, which is always a constant cycle of guessing what the temperatures will be at which elevation you plan to ski for most of the day. On the ridgeline it could be sunny, but whipped by the wind. Mid mountain could be shaded, but wind sheltered. All things to consider.
The second thing is my boots, I know exactly which buckle groove I need to click into when I’m relax skiing, semi-hard skiing, and full blown sending. There’s no more figuring it out during the middle of a run. I know exactly how much pressure I’m going to impart on my boots, in turn, letting me adjust the boot tightness accordingly. This varies boot to boot, but I have it dialed for each pair.
Lastly, knowing exactly how each pair of my skis feel in all snow conditions. Yes, after moving here my quiver has grown to accommodate the types of skiing. When you ski this many days, in my opinion, you need an all mountain/groomer pair (80-90mm underfoot), a fat pair of powder skis (95-110mm underfoot), a super lightweight touring ski (90-105mm underfoot), and a pair of rock skis for when conditions are cruddy. Each of these skis have different camber and rocker profiles, making them ski drastically different than the other. Some hold an edge perfectly while carving at 50+ mph, while others are too flexible and will chatter doing 30mph. Some float amazingly well and above all the powder, while others sink like an anchor in the tiniest of powder. The key is to estimate what type of skiing you expect to do on a given day; i.e. rip groomers, find the pow stashes, or full deep days, and pick the ski accordingly. Simply put, there is no all mountain ski for every single condition. You can’t ski crud bumps on a lightweight touring ski, it’s not stiff enough. And you can’t rip groomers on a full rocker powder ski, it’ll never hold an edge. And a tiny underfoot will have you jump turning your entire way down an untouched pow run, you just won’t float. All of these lessons I learned the hard way.
So however you decide to enjoy your winters, whether it’s skiing the occasional weekend, hard charge 100+ days a year, or strictly ski the backcountry only; I wanted to share what I’ve learned. It all comes down to the fact you can always be a better skier and you can always have more fun. Like Doug Coombs used to say, “The best skier on the mountain is the one having the most fun.”