In the Midwest, fresh, fluffy powder is nonexistent. Tykes on skis learn early on how to dig edges into hard pack and ice, force turns and chop their way down the hill. Having grown up in Iowa, this is how I learned to get down the slope. But a recent half-day lesson at Copper Mountain Ski Resort, wading through six inches-plus of snow, showed me my hack approach to conquering the mountain was never going to get me anywhere.
Admitting you need help is the first step. Since moving to Colorado five years ago, the only thing I’d updated in my technique was attempting to lean forward and charge the hill more, rather than riding around in the back seat, bracing for impact. I was stuck; my skiing ability had plateaued. So I signed up for a lesson at Copper and was paired up with Doug Sakata, the 2012 National Ski Areas Association Instructor of the Year.
Austyn Williams, Copper communication manager, joined us for our little outing. Sakata started the lesson by asking us about our abilities and what we hoped to accomplish. I told him of my plight, being a Midwest ice-and-corn-snow skier. I can really kill some groomers, I said, but I’m completely drained when I find myself flailing around in the deep.
“I don’t really like powder days,” I admitted, hanging my head. It was an embarrassing moment. How can you live in Colorado and not be totally infatuated with its awesome powder? “I just flounder around and it’s exhausting. I know I’m not doing it right.”
“It’s not supposed to be so hard,” Sakata reassured me. “If you do it right, it’s a lot less work.”
Easy for him to say, I thought, as he struck out confidently across the snow after unloading from the American Eagle lift.
We perched at the top of a blue run that had been recently groomed but had already accumulated a good four or five inches of powder. The first few turns would be a measuring stick for Sakata to evaluate our technique and see where we needed work. I nervously tacked together a few turns, trying to remember to lean forward and consequently nearly falling on my face.
Let the snot drip
I was correct: I wasn’t doing it right.
“Imagine if you had snot dripping from your nose,” Sakata said with a smile, painting a lasting image in our minds. “It should drip right in front of you between your skis.”
The idea was that if you were leaning too far back, the snot would fall on your jacket; lean too far into the side of the hill, and the snot would fall to your left or right, not between your skis where it belonged. In order to float over the powder, I needed to let go, relax and take it easy on my edges. Powder skiing, it seemed, could not be accomplished if I was cutting hard and post-holing with every turn.
I linked together a few more turns under Sakata’s amicable scrutiny. I concentrated on pitching myself forward — “at the ankles, not the knees,” he instructed — balancing my weight more evenly between my skis and willing the imaginary snot to drop neatly in place. The effect was a bit disconcerting. I had been leaning uphill for so many years that to make the shift made me feel as if I were about to endo downhill.
Sakata made a few more suggestions to correct my stance and laid down a few pointers for Williams and then sent us through the paces again.
“How many ski instructors does it take to screw in a light bulb?” he asked, pausing to register our shrugs as we came to a sliding stop next to him. “One hundred: one to screw in the light bulb and 99 to stand around and say, ‘Nice turn, nice turn.’”
I felt like I was still a ways away from a truly “nice turn,” but I was beginning to get the hang of it.
On Sakata’s suggestion, I dragged my downhill pole to help further correct my uphill lean. I could now feel when I completed a turn incorrectly — the back of my skis dragged, causing me to lurch forward to compensate — or when I did it properly, floating along and barely shifting my body into the turn.
“It’s just a suggestion of a turn,” Sakata said, borrowing an analogy from Williams. The result should be more of a soothing “ahhhhh” feeling, he said, rather than the unbalanced “agghhh!” that I had experienced every time I was dragged out on a powder day. With a new set of skills to practice and master, the downy pow wasn’t nearly as intimidating as it had been earlier in the day.
I embraced the “ahhhh” and continued cruising down the slope.