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dancing with the mountain revisited
I’ve said it before, often, and I still believe it: there is no right way to ski. And by extension, there is no best way to ski — except perhaps with a smile on your face. Good skiing, expert skiing, successful and skillful performance on the slopes is not an absolute but very much a matter of who you are. It’s all about your own very personal goals and perceptions of this sport; it’s about the whole package: the snow, the weather, your age, your physical strength, your stamina, agility and quickness — and your imagination, what you think makes a great run. There is no one recipe, no one formula that defines modern expert skiing. Or a great day on the mountain.

Young racers, mogul competitors, all-terrain new-school extreme skiers and adrenalin junkies have their own vision of a great day on the mountain. And they pursue it with passion and energy. But there are other visions as well. I know, I was a sort of adrenalin junkie myself. As a young instructor I would often skip lunch and dash off in search of the hardest bump run I could find. Okay, I’ve got half an hour, let’s see if I can scare myself somewhere... Steeps, narrow couloirs, slots between rocks, I couldn’t resist. But it didn’t take long to figure out that these intense moments weren’t exactly what most of my ski students were looking for. Instead, my students dreamed of grace and ease and comfort on skis, of feeling as though they were in their element, one with the mountain. As though they really belonged there, on that slope, in the middle of that turn, comfortable and comfortably in control. Not fighting their way down through a forbidding and hostile environment. I learned to respect that vision, and help skiers achieve it.

It didn’t take long either to realize that age might have a lot to do with individual skiers goals, and their personal picture of a perfect run. Young skiers tend to look for challenge, and more challenge. Older skiers, if they stop to think about it, are more after harmony with the mountain. A graceful coexistence rather than a challenging contest. It certainly happened to me. Early on I developed some knee problems, the result of too many power sessions in the bumps I guess, and eventually a torn and rebuilt ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in my knee. brought me to the realization that if I wanted to continue to keep skiing hard and challenging slopes, and bumps, I would have to learn and develop a different way of doing it. A softer approach to hard slopes. Sounded like an oxymoron, but I was motivated and persevered, watching the very best skiers when they relaxed and stopped “pushing hard” and instead slipped and arced smoothly, almost lazily, down the toughest slopes. I worked out a skiing pattern for myself based more on selective muscular relaxation and release than on strong effort. And at every step shared it with my students...who in turn gave me the feedback to take my evolving style of “soft skiing” even further.

There was more, from my first years as a ski instructor in Sierra Nevada at Squaw Valley, powder snow, deep snow, even the legendary Sierra Cement helped shape my vision of soft skiing. In deep snow, you ultimately let go and slide, allowing your skis to build up enough speed and flotation that they, not you, do all the work. Powder turns, good powder turn, are invariably smooth and patient compared to turns on the pack. Another vision to incorporate into one’s everyday ski patterns... And an intensely attractive vision. Like generations of skiers before me, I fell head over heels in love with deep powder skiing. In a lifetime there will never be quite enough deep powder. But eventually I realized that one could ski challenging hard-packed slopes, like powder. With a powder skier’s touch, soft and yielding, folding one’s legs into turns instead of jamming one’s skis around. This is not news, is it? But it is a progression.

And I confess, although I am pretty comfortable on any slope, on any kind of snow, my personal image of skiing has continued to evolve in the direction of smooth, graceful, effortless long turns. Of skiing the big shapes. Of letting go and letting my skis carry me down big mountainsides with mostly big turns, instead of micromanaging hundreds of tight turns down tighter lines. Remember, there is no right way to ski, no best way to ski. There is only your way. And for me, this has meant trying to ski with the mountain not against it, accepting what the terrain offers instead of imposing my own line, and doing this always with less and less effort. Relaxed soft skiing that lets you fly down mountains, run after run, day after day, even with a rebuilt knee, and in my case also a rebuilt back.

What does my focus on using less and less effort mean? Am I just a lazy laid-back spirit, or am I simply getting older? or both? or something else? Whatever it is, this evolution has worked for me, and for my students too. So how does this relate to “dancing with the mountain?”

I used this felicitous expression in one of my Breakthrough On Skis videos, and it struck a chord with a lot of skiers. I was trying to say that since all good skiing is to some extent rhythmic, then the rhythm or inner music of your skiing movements sets you up to collaborate with the snow covered slope, in a kind of spontaneous improvised downhill dance. But just what kind of dance? Think of the hard-driving young skiers I mentioned earlier as break dancers, diving down the mountain in a non-stop boogie, or maybe a fast-tempo jazz dance. The soft skiing I have been pursuing (and teaching) for years leads more in the direction of a sinuous slow-motion tango, or a graceful free-floating waltz. The music, the idea, the image is all in your imagination. And snow covered mountain is your ideal partner.

Think about it. Chose your metaphor, your image, the dance you want to perform on skis, and you will be choosing the type of skier you are going to become. Big, unhurried, long-radius turns are the perfect basis for a graceful dance with the mountain that can go on and on and on, uninterrupted, as long as you want. For years. Darn near forever.

               
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photo illustraitons above: "dancing with the mountain," sure, but what kind of dance: waltz or jitterbug?
photo © Linde Waidhofer

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