You see this snowflake?" asks instructor Christoph Schork, pointing to a quartz-like shard on my sleeve glimmering in the sunshine. We are standing on the deck at Corbet's Cabin, above a layer of clouds perforated by the peaks of the Tetons.
"It's a temperature gradient snowflake. If a large layer of these builds up in widespread areas, it's almost like ball bearings. When another layer of snow falls, it can't combine with it. Add the additional weight of a skier, and the snow can break off and cause an avalanche."
In other words, this snowflake the size of a butterfly is capable, in large numbers, of killing me.
That kind of detail is at the heart of Steep & Deep Ski Camp, a four-day mixture of instruction, bravado and caution. Like all good ski camps, Steep & Deep is about taking your skiing to the next level. You progress from inbounds bowls to chutes to backcountry, capping it off with a run down Corbet's Couloir. And there's no better place to test your mettle than at Jackson Hole, an ego-humbler that's all about rock faces, chutes and 4,139 vertical feet. This camp is "for advanced through expert adult skiers."
Those terms, of course, are as meaningful as you make them.
For example, I thought they included me. The express purpose of the camp is learning to ski "the most extreme terrain on the mountain with free flowing style and grace." That's a poetic way of saying that this is one tough ski camp.
Day 1 sets the pace, as we assemble at Nick Wilson's Cafe in 20-below temperatures and fog for the early tram to the top. Cram 40 mostly Type A's into a tram, 90 percent of them male, pump in rock 'n' roll and add hyped-up instructor banter, and you have the testosterone-scented ambience of this legendary camp. Apart from the usual big-city skiers from around the country, there are guys from Poland, Hong Kong and Azerbaijan. One third are repeats.
We launch into a ski-off down Rendezvous Bowl, a welcome mat of cut-up crud, steep terrain and vertigo-inducing cloud. I flail my way down, not entirely sure of where down is, and find myself placed in a small group with the Munich-born Schork as my instructor.
There are eight groups, and figurehead Tommy Moe rotates from one to another. But the day-to-day work of improving our technique is shouldered by one's instructor. I am lucky. The 40-something Schork possesses the Zen-like calm that only extraordinarily fit human beings have. A veteran of Germany's version of the 10th Mountain Division, he's taught Steep & Deep for seven years.
From the get-go, Christoph's mantra is "find your comfort level." This is not the Lazy Boy concept of comfort. It's being calm, cool and collected under pressure. We start with the hands.
"Your hand position is vital," Christoph says. "You must have strong hands ahead of your torso and direct them toward your next turn."We work on making consistent short turns in steep terrain, skiing through Tensleep Bowl, Cirque and Laramie Bowl. At noon, we break for lunch in cozy Solitude Cabin, where freshly cooked pasta, tortillas and salmon are arrayed for us. Half an hour later, we're on skis again until the mountain closes. By the end of the day, my legs are jello.
Day 2 is chute day. "Don't get distracted by rocks and cliffs and trees," Christoph advises. Easier said than done.
"Know your whole line before you even start," he says. "Have a plan. Don't make a plan when you're halfway down. And don't point your ski tips anywhere you can't see."
One guy opts for Meet Your Maker, a steep, straight shot. I choose an "easier" chute blessed with moguls the size of Range Rovers. I make it halfway down, with no plan, when one ski releases and I somersault toward a big tree. When I finally dig my boots in, I laugh, but really nothing is funny.
"I am way beyond my comfort level," I announce.
"Yes," says Christoph.
"But you did a very good self-arrest."
Day 3 is an out-of-bounds tour, but we aren't ready by Jackson standarrds. So we spend most of our time negotiating bumps that stretch to near vanishing point down the face of the mountain.
"Remember, we are always guiding our ski tips throughout the turn rather than relying on a tail push," Christoph says.
These are long days, but the drills pay off. On the last day, a third of the class leaps into Corbet's Couloir. I do not, but I ski stuff that would have intimidated me three days earlier-part of my newly expanded comfort zone.
In 2003, Steep & Deep Ski Camp will run Jan. 16-19; Jan. 30-Feb. 2; Feb. 27-March 2. The cost is $695 and includes four days of coaching, lift tickets, video analysis, lunch, après-ski and evening activities (such as equipment clinics and kayak lessons with Tommy Moe if you're lucky), including a final dinner. Call 800-450-0477, or visit www.jacksonhole.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.