Springtime in New England. Is there any season that is more alluring, and more perplexing, for skiers?
Depending on Mother Nature’s whims, and often where in the Northeast you find yourself, you might get boilerplate, you might get granular, you might get fresh powder, you might get mashed potatoes. And those conditions can change from day to day, and even hour to hour. Oftentimes, you’ll get a mix with each turn.
For me, and many other skiers and snowboarders, this is the biggest challenge to skiing, particularly in New England. The varied and variable conditions are the true test of mind and body. They are, I think, the reason why people believe, “If you can ski New England, you can ski anywhere.”
It’s not unusual for me to be linking turns on groomed granular when I suddenly hit an icy patch, and my form (and composure) completely falls apart. I get upright, I get tense, I lean back — everything you’re not supposed to do.
So how do you handle those changes that require so many different techniques, and a large skill-set? For answers, we went to legendary freeskier John Egan, Hall of Fame inductee, star of numerous Warren Miller movies, and chief recreation officer at Sugarbush Resort in Vermont.
My wife and I had a chance to catch up with Egan in early December. Sugarbush was still enjoying the fruits of “Snow-vember,” when the region got a massive amount of early season snow. It was the first turns of the winter for Lauri and I, and we were predictably a bit apprehensive. Egan, meanwhile, already was in midseason form. During November, Egan had skied on three different continents — North America, South America and Antarctica — and encountered almost every snow condition imaginable. So he was in the ideal position to offer some tips on our skiing and the conditions, which were remarkably similar to what we typically experience during March and April.
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John Egan at Sugarbush Resort
Egan’s first piece of advice, which has become my wife’s mantra, was smiling. Sounds simple, but the act of smiling has a raft of benefits. Not spontaneous smiling, but consciously smiling.
“It really does start with skiing with a smile on your face,” said Egan, noting that smiling helps us to relax. “A happy body works much better, ergonomically. The whole being just works much better, like the suspension system it should be.”
Second, Egan kept reminding me to breathe. This is something I’ve developed over the years, to the point where I don’t even notice that I’m doing it. But whenever I’m exerting myself, like lifting weights or pointing my mountain bike down a gnarly stretch of singletrack, I tend to hold my breath. Which, of course, makes my entire body tense.
Egan saw it immediately, and kept shouting, “Brion, breathe!” He was right, every single time. When I started breathing, my body felt more pliable, more athletic. As a bonus, I wasn’t getting tired as quickly, because I wasn’t expending all my energy on muscle tension. I was allowing my muscles to do what they’re designed for, which is moving.
According to Egan, varied conditions emphasize that skiing requires constant movement, constant adjustment. Once you’ve graduated from the bunny slopes, where you might have gotten away with locking your knees without falling, you need to be flexible and agile.
“In skiing, you’re always changing the weight you have from right foot to left foot and from left foot back to right,” he said. “There is never a time when the legs just freeze and you stand there and glide with weight on both feet equal, and you’re not transferring weight from one to another. If you were walking, and all of a sudden you left both feet on the ground, and expected to keep going, we’d probably check you for a head injury.”
In short, there are very few times when you’re simply cruising, and not “interacting” with the slopes. That requires maintaining a proper stance relative to the pitch, and the pull of gravity.
“It’s a very dynamic sport,” said Egan. “We pick the opponent we’re playing with. Usually, you think it’s the hill — it’s so steep, there are rocks, the trees are too narrow. Yet we can’t see what we’re playing against in this sport.
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No matter the terrain and snow conditions, skiers should be dynamic, confident and in a positive mind-set, Sugarbush chief recreation officer John Egan stresses.
“Normally, we see the puck, the ball, the playing field, the opponent,” he said. “In this situation, it’s energy, it’s gravity. It’s freakin’ invisible. But it’s so easy to understand. It pulls stuff downhill.”
Egan, at this point, can sound something like a ski Zen master (or Chevy Chase’s Ty Webb from “Caddyshack,” if that’s more your speed). But he’s talking about basic physics. If we get ski rigid, we tend to lose our optimum angle to the slope, which is 90 degrees.
“When you’re afraid and you back up, now you’re not 90 degrees to the hill anymore,” said Egan. “If you were standing up right now, and you lean back, not 90 degrees to the floor, how long would you stay on your feet? Now add slipperiness, and now push yourself downhill because you’re adding gravity, and you’re in trouble.
“Most people are just being pushed down the hill with five foot pieces of plastic on their feet,” he said. “They’re not very active with their movements.”
Of course, spring conditions can exacerbate that sense that the mountain is dictating the rules of the game.
“The snow tends to be thicker, the powder might be heavier, the corn snow might be deeper; it’s different from the substance they’ve skied all year,” said Egan. “You’ve got to remember that you’re not playing with that substance, you’re overpowering it. You’re commanding that it does what you want it to. And you’re facing the fall line, playing with gravity, the actual energy that is making you go down the hill.
“A lot of people in heavier snow will try to twist their skies, or sit back, or turn away from the fall line, because they want to ‘turn,’” he said. “Yet, the ski is what does the turning, and you need to make it work more in the thicker, heavier snow. A lot of times, you’re coming down, and all of a sudden there’s an ice patch after you’ve been skiing corn snow. Just because the surface changes does not mean that you can stop doing what you’ve been doing to play with the energy of the game.”
Egan likes to refer to his skis as “really cool sneakers,” and he advocates that skiers treat them like any other athletic shoe, and treat changing conditions, like moguls or death cookies, much like you’d jump over a curb.
“If it’s a curbstone, I’m going to step up and over the obstacle just like I would if I was running on a lawn, across a sidewalk, onto the street and into the park,” said Egan. “Gravity’s pulling you down the hill. Feel it, run, jump, dance, skip — use you’re ability to move.”
Here’s one more challenge to spring skiing — flat light.
“Flat light is the same as too steep, or rocky, or trees. It affects your vision, instead of your fear, but it still results in fear,” said Egan. “Because you’re human, you’re going to do one of three things when you’re afraid. You’re going to open up, you’re going to back up, you’re going to stop moving, or you’re going to do all three.
“The same thing happens when you can’t see,” he said. “You lose part of your vision, and you don’t rely on your other senses. You’re not feeling what’s going on. You’re looking and hoping that that stuff happens, where you can ski. It’s really important that you’re feeling what’s going on.”