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Inside the Test

Inside the Test

By Paul Hochman
posted: 01/09/2004

"Dear (Prime Mover): May the low-pressure system stalled over the West-the one holding up spring-stay over Beaver Creek, Colorado, until March 30th. And may it be sunny (with highs in the 30s) through April 5th. Sincerely, Paul Hochman, Ski Test Director." Then I have a shot of Aquavit.

And so begins the SKI Magazine Ski Test, a carbonated mix of prayer and sin, hope and glory, 100,000 vertical feet of ski testing, and the occasional run-in with local law enforcement. Strike that. The test really starts in early January, when Felix McGrath emails me. On a test team that includes eight former Olympians, three PSIA instructors, a ski patrol director and a passel of past NCAA champions, McGrath is arguably the strongest skier of a very elite bunch. Importantly, though, he is a harbinger: Like the first territorially crazed blue jay that smashes itself against the living room window to announce the arrival of spring, McGrath always writes three months early to confirm that he's still coming.

"Hey, man," he writes in an email from his new home in Oslo, Norway. "Get me out of here. Seriously. I need a hamburger. Big time."

Once ranked third in the world in slalom, McGrath has been testing for SKI since 1996 and is now the head coach of the Norwegian women's World Cup team. Another email comes a week later, from Stu Campbell, a.k.a. The Professor. Campbell is an author, SKI's instruction guru, and a former director of the Heavenly Valley Ski School.

"Am I still invited?" he asks me.

Campbell will always be invited. He regularly hunkers down in the snow after a test run, pulls a blank, cream-colored test card out of his jacket and crafts a sparkling phrase to describe a ski's most subtle attributes. If you're going to write a ski review, you'll want a Campbell quote. And quotes from 24 others like him.

On Sunday, March 31, at about 2:30 p.m., the lobby in The Charter at Beaver Creek is quiet, and the bellmen stand watch over empty carts. A white van pulls into the circular driveway and glides up to the front entrance.

And there they are: former U.S. Ski Team slalom ace Amy Livran from California; PSIA pro Sarah Richardson from Mount Hood; Olympic moguls medalist Nelson Carmichael; U.S. Ski Team downhiller Chad Fleischer; NCAA All-American Chan Morgan and his wife, two-time Olympic downhiller Edie Thys, now from New Hampshire; Doug Lewis, a world championship medalist and race camp director; Portillo, Chile's ski school director, Mike Rogan; and Toril Forland, the winningest racer in the history of women's pro skiing.

They keep coming. After a few minutes, the lobby is a who's-who of international skiing. Or a family reunion of relatives with excellent legs. There are embraces, a few damp eyes and invitations to the bar. The adrenaline has officially been dumped into the collective bloodstream.

We're on.

Day One At 7:09 a.m., Monday, April 1, the sun breaks over Beaver Creek. As if in some equipment junkie's ecstatic dream, light kisses the tips of 200 pairs of the world's greatest skis-next year's vintage, hand-tuned by the manufacturers' top techs-leaning in rows against a glinting aluminum ski rack. The hill is empty. The snow has been groomed into corduroy rows so tight, it looks like the sand in a Japanese rock garden.

Within minutes, the test corral-a split-rail enclave under the lift-is overrun with testers snapping on boots, tightening gloves, polishing off giant cups of black coffee. They grab a test card for each of the 12 masked, coded skis they'll test that day and head for the racks. At 7:45 a.m., former NCAA All-American and Steamboat ski coach Terry Delliquadri is the first to glide into snowy pit row, have his bindings fitted and load himself onto the lift. The mountain won't open to the public for another hour.

At 8:07, Delliquadri reappears, this time doing about 50 mph down the final steep above the base. The slope's official name is Centennial, but McGrath hasoguishly renamed the last section "Cutts's Face," in honor of SKI Senior Editor Joe Cutts, who two years ago-in an epic display of bad timing-caught an edge and took the last hundred yards face-first. Delliquadri, meanwhile, is flying. The reps from Rossignol, Atomic, K2 and Dynastar instinctively look up: Delliquadri carves deep, crunching parentheses in the corduroy. The hill gets steeper and faster, and his hip gets closer and closer to the snow. Even for veteran observers, it's thrilling. Delliquadri shoots into the corral, past the reps, and kicks to a stop. Sweating, panting, he leans in and says, "This is fun."

It is fun. And exhausting. Within an hour, all 25 testers have passed by in varying stages of anaerobic flux. The levity of the prior afternoon is no more. By midmorning, the working pattern is set: Take a run, lose the old pair, grab a new pair, get on the lift and fill out test cards until you get to the top. Each run is essentially the same: Stand up out of the chairlift at the top of Centennial, coast to a stop, tighten the buckles and go. This run, Carmichael starts on the flats, pushing his masked skis to turn in ways they might not like-short turns, hard, quick, sudden arcs with no relief and then, just as suddenly, an intentionally lazy approach, just to see if the skis give up, too. After a quick dive into a glade to the left of Latigo for some uncut powder and bumps, Carmichael poaches the pay-to-race gates. The final, chattery steep and some intentionally overloaded arcs are all that's left. And around he goes again. And again.

That night, the marketing pooh-bahs from Beaver Creek open the lift on the beginner hill to let us sled for an hour to unwind. Carrie Sheinberg, an Olympian, and Nicole Pelletier, a surfer, former ski racer and adventurer, sled so close to the aspen trees, they get bark in their sweaters. That night, somebody talks us into a karaoke competition. The team breaks up into raucous groups, which give themselves names like "The No-Tones" and "DLR," a putative David Lee Roth tribute band that inexplicably decides to do a tune by Journey. Nights are a natural exhalation after the long focus of the day. And over the course of our 13 years in Beaver Creek, we've invented various ways to unwind-unauthorized midnight ice rink soccer games, new and innovative beverages, and memorably, a dual slalom on the escalators near the ski area's ticket office. Local security personnel have been remarkably understanding.

And so it goes again, until four days of testing are nearly over. Between ski categories, the test team returns to The Charter to debrief - maybe the most important part of the test process. Over ice water, microbrews and cabernet, testers break into their respective ski categories for long discussions. If you love ski technology, it's like hanging out at a coffee shop in 1921 listening to Einstein and Planck riff on quanta. An argument spins up: Morgan, Livran and Fleischer debate the future of race ski shapes and, therefore, the future of racing technique. "One of the most important things is the moment of transition," Morgan says, "and therefore the kind of energy you bring into the new turn. Does the ski give you a second to strategize between arcs? Or are you being forced to react over and over again to the raw power?"

As the debriefing continues, testers take care with their words. Gold Medals begin to take shape. Not all of the skis will get one.

Back out on the hill, it's time for race skis. Three paying customers sit quietly beside me on the quad as we float over Centennial. It's sunny, and the hill is empty for a moment. Then, like a shot, Edie Thys, NCAA GS champion Erica MacConnell, Delliquadri, McGrath and Fleischer round a corner and whip by on GS skis, laying down huge, fast, perfect turns. To the people on the chairlift, it's as if the Blue Angels had just buzzed us. Their heads whip around in unison as one tester after another disappears over the knoll. "Who the hell are those guys?" one of them finally asks. Now you know. ll. "Who the hell are those guys?" one of them finally asks. Now you know.

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