Over the years, I’d gotten confident skiing practically anything on the mountain. But stick me in the trees, and I was a scared kid on my first day of school. I’d make a single turn or maybe two, then come to a dead stop and peer over my shoulder at the buried stump I’d nearly smacked.
Sometimes I’d follow friends who were better skiers than I was—watching their rhythm helped me find mine. I gradually improved, but periodically I’d ski into extra-dense forests and find myself twisted around and facing uphill.
Then John Egan, the extreme-skiing pioneer from the ’80s, member of the Vermont Ski Hall of Fame, and Vice President and Chief Recreation Officer at Sugarbush, took me for a run (you too can sign up for a private lesson with Egan at Sugarbush). “Fear is a skier’s number-one hindrance in the trees,” Egan told me. “An experienced skier reads snow like a rafter reads a river.” He helped me learn how to plan my run in advance, slow myself down with wide turns, and relax into a rhythm that felt natural.
He also taught me how to control my falls if I take a digger in the trees. “Never give up until you stop moving,” he said. “Never let the fact that you’re no longer skiing change your choice of trajectory. Push, tuck, and roll so you don’t bounce into the next tree. It’ll keep you from twisting.” Other tips from Egan:
(1) Bring a buddy, and leapfrog in voice contact or ski tandem within sight of each other in case one of you needs rescue from a tree-well fall (a dangerous scenario that could result in injury or suffocation) or an injury.
(2) Look for the spaces between the trees, and that’s where your tips will go. But focus on the trees and you’ll ski toward them.
(3) It’s easy to get disoriented in the woods. Know which direction you need to veer to get out of the trees.
When I put these suggestions to use, my flow improved. Egan said I’m not the only one who’s struggled in tight trees. In 2004, Western pro skiers Kasha Rigby and Kina Pickett were challenged to see if they could hang with Egan tree-skiing back East. A few turns in, Egan looked around and found himself alone. “The woods were glare ice,” said Egan, “but great skiing.”Don’t Stop
Tree bombs are massive pillows of heavy snow that collect in upper branches. Stop below them and you could get hit.
Stay forward and aggressive. If your shoulders and head make it through the trees, your butt and skis will too.
Bring your hands up in front of your face to protect yourself from getting scratched by a branch.
Rather than lean back to get your tips above the snow, apply pressure to the arch and heel—it'll bring your tips and tails out of the snow and give you more control.
Know what's below you. Avoid hollow, rotten snow and creekbeds. Watch out for twigs—there could be buried trees attached.
Where to Learn
Jay Peak Resort, Vermont
Tackle Timbuktu or André’s Paradise on your own, or sign up for a two-hour glade clinic and get a tour plus instruction whether you’re a beginner or an expert. [$40; jaypeakresort.com]
Advanced Ski Clinics, Worldwide
Get coached by pros like John Egan and Kit DesLauriers anywhere from New England to Chamonix. You can also arrange a private half day or more with the pro team. [from $950 for a three-day group trip; skiclinics.com]
On a powder day, slash GS turns in the always-deep Shadows and Closet glades off Sundown chair. Book a private lesson for tips on skiing trees in deep snow. [from $210; steamboat.com]
Red Mountain, British Columbia
Some of the best fall-line tree skiing in the West is accessed off Granite Mountain. It’s wide enough to explore on your own, but you can sign up for a clinic with ex-big-mountain pro Kirsty Exner. [from $355; kirstyexner.com]