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Getting Schooled

Ski lessons are for sissies—or at least sissies who think they're experts.
posted: 10/07/2002

Think you're a rippin' local with nothing to learn? Try chasing Micah Black around Jackson Hole.

To receive an invitation to a ski clinic is to unwrap a Christmas gift of soap. It leaves you wondering: "Nice, but what's the sender trying to tell me? Do my bad habits offend those around me? Do I, in fact, stink?"

So early last winter, when Jackson Hole offered me a spot in its Steep & Deep Ski Camp, I wavered, fearing silly drills, "no shit" lectures, and tail-riding terminal intermediates from Oklahoma. I don't belong in a glorified ski school, dammit. I live in Telluride, Colorado, and, like most mountain-town dwellers who count their ski careers in decades, I shun PSIA-certified instruction. Skiers of my ilk think we turn well enough already. We're too proud-and way too cheap-to pay good money to follow a uniformed punk down groomers. To us, ski lessons are like floppy fleece court-jester hats: something only tourists buy.

The camp's invitation festered in my email for several days until I came across a revealing ski photo. The skier looked familiar—the figure wore my hat and coat—but had clearly morphed into some giant praying mantis. Its upper appendages were tucked in close to its torso, just like the pathetic bug that gets devoured by its own mate. My ego's insistence that a mutant insect had stolen my parka couldn't hide the truth, though. I fold my arms up close to my body. Sure, I've mastered the arts of unweighting, elastic knees, and independent leg movement. But my failure to thrust arms forward for balance consigns me as a terminal expert—exactly the sort of skier who should swallow his pride and take a clinic.

When the campers gathered on a neck-gaiter winter day to catch an early tram up Jackson Hole's 4,139-foot vertical rise, I was there. In body, at least. In mind, I was busy rehashing long-ago lessons. I've practiced pushing a lawnmower that no one else can see; I know the importance of reaching out for balance; I realize that the Flying Wallendas didn't stroll tightropes with their mitts stuffed in their pockets. But a fella can study technique till his eyes bleed and still struggle to replicate it on ze mountain.

Atop Rendezvous Bowl, my group of four was placed under the tutelage of John Lohn, a coach who competes in Powder 8 championships and trains Jackson Hole's instructors. The three other students in the group had names, too. Names that a proper journalist would have jotted down, were the journalist the sort of fool who removes his gloves during a Wyoming January.

The first thing we learned was that Jackson Hole's reputation as a freak-show of cliffs disguises one of the finest, fastest cruising mountains in the West. For three sprints off the Sublette chair, Lohn didn't offer a word of advice: He just hammered the fall line. We hauled ass like Austrian gold medalists down Pepi's Run (which is named for an Austrian gold medalist) in the company of guest coaches Peter Stiegler (brother of resident legend and Austrian gold medalist Pepi) and Micah Black, Rossignol's big-mountain-ripping media darling (who isn't a gold medalist but did visit Austria once).

Hauling ass proved surprisingly educational. As with teenagers who've recently acquired driver's licenses, speed tends to highlight mistakes. I could feel my dangling right hand interrupting left turns, preventing me from matching the posse's pace. Pelted by the icy exhaust of Black, Stiegler, and Lohn, our cheeks stinging, we became particularly ripe for learning: nodding intently as Lohn recommended widening our stances. When Black cheerfully summoned up the old both-hands-on-the-steering-wheel analogy, we understood to our marrow that aggressive freeskiers stay forward. The imaginary steering wheel of today's ski stars is just wider-about the size of those found on Peterbuilts-and more frequently cranked into a sustained, 200-foot-long surf turn. To fail at the wheel is to risk rag-dolling off some monstrous Chugach peak directly into intensive care.

In our relentless pursuit of our hired greyhhounds, we campers emulated ideal pole placement and aggressive stances almost by osmosis. My hands began behaving better by lunch.

Not that Lohn let me rest on this unexpectedly quick achievement. A probing therapist, he dug into my skiing psyche till he uncovered a neurosis that I've tried to hide for years: a reluctance to take more than seven feet of air. Like many skiers, I lost enthusiasm for hurling my body off precipices once my age zoomed north of 30. Then, in 1998 at Crested Butte, a young pal who'd barely learned to shave and some peach-fuzzed goons he called friends goaded me into dropping a 15-foot boulder. Conifers surrounded the landing, leaving a runout no wider than a post-bypass David Letterman. Land the jump anywhere besides dead center, and you're picking bark out of your teeth. Or your teeth out of bark. I froze for three minutes above the lip, long enough to fixate on the trees, despite spending a lifetime learning that one's skis go where one's eyes go. I popped off, landed okay, skied 20 feet, and promptly smacked into the tree I was staring at. I'm not sure what was louder-the crack of shinbone against wood or the gasps of the goons.

Since then, I've become the guy who'll scope your landing for you, the guy who always finds the contiguous snow route down. I religiously avoid terrain parks and any mention of airborne tricks. In my grounded world, a Roast Beef remains a sandwich and a Misty Flip describes an accident at Dairy Queen.

At the Jackson camp, I descended fully snow-covered test pieces like Tower Three Chute without much difficulty. Yet when we traversed to a crux in the Expert Chutes best solved by leaping over a rock band, my skis hemmed and hawed before chicken-scratching a joyless zigzag to skier's left.

Rather than singling out anyone's air cowardice, Lohn simply indoctrinated us with the virtues of posture and balance. We learned maneuvers we never would have discovered on our own. Chief among them, a technique for the steeps that involves extending your torso forward and "falling" downhill across your skis. Once you dial in this tactic, turns happen right where they're supposed to. You feel your skis beneath you like never before. You go so far as to ape your instructor and commence springing off stumps.

By day three, our group was skiing with considerable confidence and negligible angst. We tore up the mountain like a bunch of old friends (who've somehow forgotten each other's names). We mined face shots out of the cascading Mushroom Chutes. We conquered a sketchy out-of-bounds couloir where a fall could rocket you off a 300-foot cliff. Best of all, we returned to the Expert Chutes, to a gnarlier line with a mandatory 10-foot air. This time, I hesitated only a second or five before successfully launching it. Lohn, Ullr bless him, had reawakened us to air's vital role in a well-rounded ski life. When he popped another 10-footer a few hundred yards below, we gladly followed him into the Wyoming stratosphere.

Like I say, we terminal experts know what to do on skis. The "what" of skiing is simple. It's the "how" that often escapes us. Pride discourages us from going back to school, but don't listen to it. I improved markedly in four days at Jackson because I finally admitted that my skiing was a sick bastard and it ought to seek professional help.

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