Thursday, January 22, 2015

Everyone's favorite- breakable crust!
After the recent Heathen Challenge at Sunlight Mountain Resort (which was great and once results get posted Ive got some thoughts/observations on) I was talking about racing with my friend Pete. He sadly still stylizes himself as a tele skier who does skimo races. He will hopefully come to the dark side eventually! Anyway, he was commenting on how tough it was to ski the downhills and it got me thinking about some advice I never got but which becomes implied the more races I do. That advice:

Get good at skiing steep crappy snow.

The only skimo race I have ever seen awesome snow conditions in (and by that I mean fluffy pow) was at the Wolf Creek race last year where it dumped a few feet the night prior to the race. All other races I have participated in (a few per year so there are MANY I cant comment on) require skiing on some really horrible snow at some point. It makes sense if you think about it. Ski areas get tracked out and to find some good off piste skiing you have to hunt for it. Combine that with the mileage you need to cover in a race and you will end up having to use aspects of the mountain that get sunny or wind blasted.

What is a psyched skimo racer of middling abilities to do? Suck it up- certainly. But it is a race so speed is important. As Ive mentioned before- good racers advise crushing the downhills as a way to pass people. Skiing gnarly snow fast could be a good way to get hurt though.

There is a saying in the Army (and other places Im sure) that you should "train as you fight". In other words, try to replicate the conditions of the actual event in your preparations so that you are more realistically prepared for them when the cards are on the table. In skimo, I think this equates to a sad fact.

If you want to improve your skimo race times, seek out the worst snow to train on.
So you mean train on snow like this???

Forget the pow stashes.

Sad, I know. However, it really helps. And there is synergy here for people who engage in this obscure form of self inflicted pain and suffering.

The benefits are that you should be skiing terrain like this anyway most of the time. Think about it. Unless you are those lucky few who are connected with a bunch of local skimo aficionados (in which case you are probably too much of a badass to get much out of this blog) NO ONE WANTS TO SKI WITH YOU! You know, you go too fast, never stop for 30 minutes at the transition to talk, drink, etc. You do waaaay to many laps and are constantly passing people on the skintrack. You are no fun. So, if you are relegated to lone wolf status at your local backcountry access points you had better be skiing some pretty safe terrain. That means South facing slopes that get nice and crusted mid afternoon. If you are still hitting remote North facing slopes threatened by persistent slabs, via con dios, brother (or sister). Embrace the crust and figure it out. There are also the inevitable unconsolidated pockets where you get to practice the art of skiing variable snow conditions too. Dont forget to find steep aspects! Skimo kinda avoids the bunny slopes as we all know.

A S-E facing chute (that virtually no one skis and the top is .75 mile from the road - WTF people???) with unconsolidated snow on the right in the shade with crust in the middle and boilerplate on the left. PERFECT!
So, now that you are totally convinced this is a good idea... A few thoughts. First, I try and always ski this stuff in the way a ski instructor once advised in a little hour long lesson I took to help wrap my mind around alpine skiing after decades of tele, "Ski this stuff like you eat shellfish that you know still have some shell on- hold something back." Kind of a funny analogy but it is a great mindset. If you go all out you will likely injure yourself so you have to hold enough back to crush when you need to save yourself. Next, on skinny skis I have found that in crust, getting in the back seat, kind of doing a "wheelie" on my skis like I might in low angle powder works to steer. Im not sure this is the best technique but it sure seems to work in a variety of crusty conditions thanks to the amazing thought put into skimo ski shape by their manufacturers. Finally, really punching the outside hand through the turn is key but I tend to slack off with those long skimo length fixed poles. It takes some focus for me to keep doing it well.

One last thing, practice bashing through shrubbery, putting up the forearms and busting through tree limbs, all that physical stuff. It lets you ski tight spots with confidence on races. Often, when races go through trees, everyone follows the same track and by the time us mid pack people get there, it is a luge run with all kinds of rocks, stumps, roots etc sticking out. Usually you can ski just a few feet away in virtually untracked snow if you dont mind a few tight gaps. It is one of my secret weapons to ski in control on downhills.

A training-specific trick Im pretty fond of it utilizing the backcountry adage of "hike it before you ski it" to recon snow conditions. My skimo take on that is to "switchback it before you ski it" so you can assess the conditions across the whole gamut of descent options. This helps me ID thin cover with rocks underneath and the softer aspects usually hidden in gentle undulations of the terrain. Its good to be able to anticipate as many snow changes as possible in training!
Switchback recon says: left turns will be fluffy, right turns will be crusty...and they were! Note the wide ski stance where my down tracks exit the bottom of the picture- this is pretty standard on crust for me and makes me feel the most comfortable.
 OK, so enough about backcountry skiing, what about resorts? Three words, groomers, bumps and chop.

I love cruising groomers with my kids and just practicing an aggressive stance, shins pressed against boot fronts, good edging with minimal scraping sounds on the snow, all those things that let me know Im skiing those skinny sticks like they were intended to be used. That stance gets ingrained and whenever possible, I ski in it on races because I get the best performance out of the skis. It is not always possible but any chance I get- whenever the snow is soft, I try and go to my ski's happy place!

Bumps are common on skimo courses so you may as well get used to them. Even better, I think that anyone who spends time on bumps would agree that skiing them improves your turns in any gnarly conditions. Practice trying to ski a line and work on focusing a few turns ahead. Of course if you are a big bump skier, just go do your thing!

Crud is pretty common in races, once again, even more so for us mid packers. Better know how to handle light, skinny sticks in it! Resorts are a great place to find this a day or two after a big dump. Learning to use those big pillowy blobs of chop instead of skiing the bare, scraped earth around them is key to increasing control and increasing the longevity of your skis.

A final comment- this is the advice of a mid pack racer intended for other mid pack racers. If anyone has any of their own thoughts or thinks Im way off base, post up! Please! I love to learn as much as the next person.  If you want to win races, you are totally in the wrong place!

Hopefully this gives you pause the next time you  come across a possible tour like that shown below on your next training outing. Don't run away to play with the pow chasing masses, embrace the possibilities to ratchet up your game!
One of the chutes the above pictures were taken in

The same chute but closer. This is what perfect skimo training snow looks like- get your psyche on!






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