Saturday, January 1, 2000

Skinning Soft Snow

Once again I find myself on a beautiful summer day, barely August, writing about skiing. I am high in the Sierras, sitting on the polished granite holding a small river that's carrying last winter's snow out of the mountains. I have skied here in the winter but not for a number of years. It's near the birthplace of skiing for me though, when over thirty years ago my uncle hunted me up some ski gear from the back of his cabin and pushed me out the door and onto a ropetow. I am now five or six miles as the ski glides from that place and at some cabins that are accessible in the winter only by ski, not coincidentally the reason for my entrance into backcountry skiing.

That was in the early seventies and tele gear was not a gleam in anybodies eye yet and the tele turn was just waking from it's long sleep, begun in the 1930's when locked down heels became the rage.

I was a weak alpine skier on the best of days so no help there on how to get down the hill on my backcountry gear. I used a variety of maneuvers that generally involved dragging or planting part of my body in the snow to slow down or stop. Nowdays people just call it falling but I like to think we were much more sophisticated about it then, generally choosing to not lead with the head when we had a choice.

I was amazed at how difficult it was to ski off the groomed and it seemed that every time I went out the snow was different. I have, through the patience of instructors and friends and shear dint of time on skis, gotten to where I can pick my way through most snow conditions but I still find many challenges and new variations in the realm of "real" snows, especially in the broad category of soft snows.

Though the term soft snow may conjure up visions of billowing powder wafting up in our faces (a nice thought on this hot summer day) I would give it the much broader definition of anything your skis sink in or some how penetrate. I realize that breakable crust may not seem like "soft" snow after repeated slammings but it actually is the evolutionary pinnacle of soft snow, who's defining characteristic is resistance. Depending on depth and type, soft snow resists skis, boots, even bodies when it's deep enough. Because there is a broad theme of resistance in soft snow there are also some broad themes on what works when skiing it.

The stiffer the resistance of the snow the more energy it takes to move through it. Gravity is the ready source of energy we can tap to fuel our turns. Often in stiff snows(like that pesky breakable crust) a tentative skier will enter a turn with to little energy(speed) and use it all up before the turn is through, creating the often showy "stall and fall".

Energy is what drives the turn but body position focusses that energy.

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