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February 17, 2008

Scared Sharp

It took three months for me to realize round edges don’t work in the Green Mountains.

In the midst of an up-and-down winter where conditions have ranged from crusted over to thigh deep, I have finally submitted to the reality that skis last tuned in 2006 just won’t cut it.

I did not intend to test this, I just got lazy. And I blame a decade of Rockies powder chasing for that. I went seasons without edge sharpening during my time there, only working on my bases if they sustained a gash that was impossible to ignore. It was a see-no-evil/feel-no-evil approach, and I found it a fine way to go about winters in a place where snow was either accumulating or melting at almost all times.

Past the halfway point of my first winter back in New England, I have become all too aware what a healthy winter sleetstorm and the arctic freeze that usually follows will do to snow surfaces. Laziness when it comes to my skis’ edges is no longer an option.

It was mid-January I believe, definitely after a precipitation buffet had come through the Northeast during one of these recurring winter thaws. The headwall of Stowe’s Liftline trail was frozen with skunked man-made snow that had taken on a jaundiced yellow look.

I didn’t plan to end up at the top of Liftline that day, with visibility at about one chairlift length, but that happens when you’re still figuring out the trail network of a new mountain.

It looked bad, but I was confident. After challenging myself with the steeps and rock-strewn chutes of the Rockies, how rough could the widest of Stowe’s Front Four get?

I began sliding along Liftline’s upper face looking for a place to make a first turn. I tried to engage my dull edges with absolutely no luck. And I just kept sliding … and sliding. Worse, I couldn’t make out a hint of soft snow that would give me a chance to stop my increasingly real double-fall-line-induced slide into the woods.

It was about as helpless as I’d ever felt on skis.

Yes, I made it down alive, without hitting a stand of maples, mostly because of the blessedly reliable rule that — no mater how icy the middle of a Vermont ski run is — snow can usually be found at the sides of the trail. There wasn’t much of it, but I eventually slid into something relatively soft and was able to change direction. I picked my way down from there, and when the pitch mellowed, I started actually turning again, nonetheless jittery from the experience.

About two weeks later the snow had gone through more changes and eventually returned to a hard-packed state. It was early afternoon and I was riding Stowe’s FourRunner quad, which travels right up the same Liftline trail.

Screaming down the center making perfect giant-slalom arcs came an exemplary skier clad in red. His jacket I recognized as that of a Stowe ski instructor’s. The man had obviously reduced making high-performance turns on every snow condition the Green Mountains can dish out to a science.

They were the turns I was used to making on the buffed groomers and cut-up powder faces of the Rockies. But he was doing it on gnarly hard-pack – without a whiff of hesitation.

Sharp edges, I thought. That’s the difference.

I did not ski this weekend, but the simple act of handing my boards to a ski technician for a comprehensive tune-up made me an infinitely more confident, happier and better Vermont skier.

I've been scared sharp.

February 17, 2008 at 06:49 PM | Permalink

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