Sunday, November 15, 2009

Slip Sliding Away

This article is being re-posted as it is being published in a shorter form in the upcoming Ski Racing Magazine! Readers from Ski Racing who have come to read the full article, thanks for stopping by!

To see more photos and video from Day 1 on the World Cup Course, visit my Flickr Page

Its four am. This is never really a friendly time to get up, no matter how early you went to bed the night before, and of course, I went to bed at around midnight. But today isn't like any other day, today, I get to go out on the Women's Giant Slalom World Cup course in Aspen and help prepare the snow surface.

Last night I spent two and a half, YES, two and a HALF hours tuning my skis, my friend Kurt Fehrenbach kept coming out to check on them, nope, not sharp yet, keep going. At least I'm finally not afraid of my file! Got em' good and sharp, because we'd been told that the snow surface was just about as hard and icy as it could get. "They injected it." we were warned. I didn't know what that meant, but it didn't sound good.

The day was full of firsts for me, this one being that we were getting to the course on bicycles, as parking is very limited, so I had a borrowed bike with studded snow tires, and I followed Kurt, skis casually slung over his shoulder, as I slipped and sided and struggled just to stay upright over to the chair lift in the dark, headlamp illuminating Kurt in the near distance.

Thanksgiving day, the day before, had been dry, and sunny, with a very thin cover of natural snow up high, and some man-made down further on the mountain. The World Cup course was in great condition, they had it just the way they wanted it, it turns out, "injecting" the course means very soggy work, where a couple of guys haul a pipe with long spikes and a huge hose down the hill, stab the spikes into the snow and inject water under the get the man made snow to firm up just right. The injector goes from 10" to 2' under the snow surface and pumps water into the snow, just enough that it isn't running down under the snow, but bonding the snow crystals together.

I had gone up the day before and met Mike Haas, who was coordinating the slip crews. A slip crew is a group of people, in this case, Aspen/Snowmass instructors who were all very high level skiers, who go out after each racer and side-slip down the course to smooth out any ruts or holes, and to push any piled up snow away from the gates.

My friend and mentor Megan had posted on her Facebook page, when everyone started freaking out about the lack of snow for opening weekend, "Don't worry, we have a World Cup race, OF COURSE it will snow!" And it did, much to the glee of the skiers in town, but not at all what you want on a perfectly prepped race course.

Practice for the racers had been canceled due to heavy snowfall, and here we are now, 5am, riding a chair lift in the dark, wearing headlamps. The town is asleep, the course is already buzzing with silent, concentrated activity. People are shoveling, side-slipping, and preparing the course as much as they can in the dark.

Riding a chair lift in the dark is an amazing experience, I've only done it once before for the Torchlight Parade at Bridger Bowl in Montana, where I teach skiing, and it was eerily beautiful then as now. Now, It is lightly snowing, my headlamp catching the occasional flake as the storm that dumped 10" or more on the hill the day before begins moving off. Gliding over the trees, Kurt and I swing in our chair, turn off the headlamps and keep eyes out for tiny dots of light sliding down the incredibly steep and icy GS course.

photo by FIS

Ruthie's Restaurant at the top of the 1A chair at Aspen Mountain was headquarters for the slip crew and racers alike, we parked our equipment, and I went inside to handle waivers for non SkiCo employees, while Kurt and about forty other instructors went out to sideslip in the dark. I had been really excited to participate in this part of the activity, but due to the fact that I was recently in a car accident and the GS course is basically an ice skating rink tipped on its side, Mike asked that I abstain until the sun came up. I was disappointed, but the idea was to help, not add stress, so I went in and set up a paperwork station. Turns out, like most of the calls Mike makes, this was a good decision.

The sun came up on Aspen, beautiful below me, and the crew came back in for regrouping and instructions for the rest of the day. There had to be about 140 people who were up there to slip the course, Squatty Schuler, my head coach and one of the leaders, had been shoveling snow out of the start for hours the day before, only to come back at o dark thirty this morning and do it all over again.

I'm standing in the restaurant looking around, and the thing I can't believe, aside from the fact that I'm here and get to participate in this incredibly high level event, is how seamlessly everything is run. Mike Haas is just about as calm as they come, in spite of the huge snowfall, schedule changes, and the enormous amount of people under his command, he has a smile for everyone, and in turn, everyone there to work that morning was calm, patient, and listening.

It is finally time, Katie Fry and I were going to go out together to film the race for Megan's Movement Analysis video. This is a huge responsibility, this is footage that she uses every year to talk about contemporary movements in skiing, and I was excited to do a good job at it. Kurt had loaned me a pair of crampons to wear on the course, Dennis Handley had taken me on a tour of the course the morning before, (did I mention it is STEEP AND ICY?), and Katie and I were to have open access to whatever we needed.

Standing at the start and looking out at the sea of red coats that are the Aspen/Snomass ski school uniform, I was struck with the incredible professionalism of the ski school. I looked at Katie, the Ski School director for all four mountains in the Aspen valley and said, "You must be very proud, these guys are incredible." She smiled, and you could see it in her face, in her eyes, these are her guys, this is her baby, this mass of well trained, responsible professionals, and she said, "Yup, they do a great job every time."

Time to go, we slid out onto the glazed course and with every cell of brain power I could muster, I asked my body to get into a stable sideslipping position and "Just go with it."

"Its really slick, Kate, be careful!"

"Put weight on the downhill ski, don't brace against it, or it will come out from under you and you'll go to the bottom!"

"Squeeze and flex in your butt and knees, don't brace on your feet, or you'll fall and slide a long way!"

I'd been hearing stories all morning of times when group leaders had slipped and fallen on the course in years past, and I knew I was probably in over my head, if an Aspen Ski School Trainer level skier is going to slip and fall that I, a level 2 instructor who has been skiing for two years, is really REALLY likely to go down. Lucky for me, my home mountain at Bridger Bowl has lots of fun, steep, technical things to play on, but I'm a newbie so I (tongue in cheek, of course,) promised Bonnie Hickey, my own fantastic Ski School Director that I wouldn't wear my Bridger Bowl Baseball cap on the course, just in case I went down on my butt and slid to the bottom on live television! Gotta REPRESENT my home mountain in Montana!!

Off we went, letting the skis gain speed, sliding over the super slick blue glaze, and into piles of wet snow on top of more glazed surface. The goal is not to fight the speed and slickness of the ice, and to keep your speed so you can blast apart the piles of snow and push them away from the gates onto the sides of the course.

I had spent the previous evening reading an awesome book, World Cup Ski Technique: Learn and Improve
written in the 80s by Olle Larson, with some on the spot explanation from Kurt, so I'd know what I was looking at when the race started.

I have to say, nothing prepared me for how hard the snow surface was, how steep the course was, and how much attention I had to pay to not just stay upright, but side slip in a way that would be helpful to the course crew, and not a hindrance. I was NOT going to fall and slide to the bottom, I don't care that almost everyone I had talked to who had done this more than twice had eaten it on the course, including Katie.

We made our lap, success, Bridger Bowl can breathe easy, I stayed on my feet, kept up with Katie, and was somewhat helpful moving the snow off the course. Now it was time to get back up there and get into position. I ran into Jonathan Selkowitz from Selko Photo, whom I had met at National Teams Tryouts in April, and we talked about filming angles, and what would work well for the video camera vs. a still shot. His photos are really incredible, and he's (finally!) selling his prints and posters on his website! I was psyched to hear that, he has an amazing shot of a race where the racer was actually in a tuck jumping OVER Jonathan while he shot. Insane. Go to to check out the pictures that someone who KNOWS what they are doing look like!

We finished our lap and skied out the exit (You CAN NOT cross the finish line, there is an exit about 100 feet above the finish for course crew. Guess why you can't cross the finish? Because you will mess up the timing for whoever is racing on course! Oh, man, can you just see me forgetting that and slipping sideways through the finish and blowing Julia Mancuso's time? NERVOUS!)

The exit is ALSO nothing but a little icy bobsled run between two tight fences, so there is no room for error, and if you fall here, you are going to wreck in front of everyone in the stands, and make a huge pile up behind you of course workers that are coming flying off the course themselves. When Katie led me into the exit, and I saw for a split second that it was narrow, windy and icy, I was really nervous, I just learned to ski on hard-pack last spring, got a second go round at it in Hood in August, but this was HARD CORE ice. Thank god it was relatively low angle at this point, and my skis were just about as sharp as they could be after the monster tuning session the night before!

I took a breath and took off after Katie, who has been on the National Alpine Demo Team for two terms, and is now in her second term after THAT as the Teams Manager (that's 13 years for those of you who are counting...) and who did the stunt skiing for Bryce Kellog in the movie "Aspen Extreme".

Okay, this girl can SKI. I watched her tails and just pretended I wasn't scared out of my mind, concentrating on making the same super short, athletic turns she was making out of this little corkscrew exit. And I did it! My training at Academy and Dave Lyon's race camp had paid off, and with Katie leading me and actually SKIING it, I wasn't hesitant, I just followed and skied. I was elated. I had no idea I'd be able to actively ski something that icy and tight without blowing up completely. And not only did I ski it, I skied it well, and it was FUN! WHAT?? Am I suddenly from VERMONT? Skiing on ice was FUN? Thank god, because I'd have to go out of that exit another dozen times at least, and it was only going to get slicker!

The second go-round, the slip crews were with their group leaders, the racers were in the restaurant, the fore-runners at the start, the stands were full, the TV Cameras were on, and it was time for Katie and I to get into place. We headed out onto the course, which was much slicker now that the crews had been sliding it for the last four and a half hours, and I'm watching Katie sliding effortlessly over a very blue, bumpy, slick patch on the steepest pitch of the course. She points back up at it and yells out "Careful, keep moving!" and I think, "I got this, I did it before." I hit the ice, slide about five feet, get on my uphill ski, and I'm done for. Down on my butt I go, and my mind is racing, what do I do, what do I do?

You can't do a typical self-arrest, especially if you are skiing without poles, like we were, and I don't want to be on my butt a second longer, because I am gaining speed. Still in a pretty good position, I decide to risk high-siding and slam my edges into the slope. Lucky me, I pop right back up onto my feet and hear Dennis's voice in my head, "Squeeze your butt and flex your knees, stay on that downhill ski and just go with it, because you ain't gonna slow down, got it?"

Got it.

I slide down to Katie, kinda proud that I'm not just sliding at a hundred miles an hour on my ass through the finish line, and she grins up at me. "How ya doin', Kate?"

"Oh, fine, I just thought I'd sit down there for a minute. I'm good." She nods, and off she goes again.

photo by FISWe find a great place to set up, the snow is falling again, and there are concerns about getting the camera wet, staying out of the way of coaches and athletes, making sure we aren't in a "spill zone"...

The day before, Dennis and Squatty had explained it carefully to me, a spill zone is where, looking up at the gates from below, were a skier to fall, where would the trajectory of their fall plus the fall line of the hill take them? It makes a path about 35 degrees wide, which you need to figure in to where you are standing, because looking through a viewfinder, if a World Cup Athlete going 50 miles an hour on ice boots out and heads your way, you are going to function like an airbag for them, and end up in a pile in the fence.

So, you know, no pressure. Katie says, "Oh, look! Ron LeMaster! Well, lets go stand with him, he kind of knows what he is doing..." Finally, for the first time, I actually know who someone is, this is the man who wrote The Skier's Edge, amongst other great books, and he's currently working on a new UPDATED book, which will be out in the spring. Yes, he kind of knows what he's doing!!

We spent the morning chatting, and Katie got the camera dialed just right, catching the first 15 skiers as they went ripping down the course.

The activity on the course was incredibly intense, there are guys with rakes, shovels, gate judges, slip crews, coaches, support for the teams, guys with drills three feet long everywhere, radios going off, and suddenly, down the course comes the call "Course!"

If you hear this, your job is to move your ass if you are on the course because here they COME, or, if you are on the side and out of a spill zone, stand really still and do your job without distracting anyone or cutting of their line of site.

Katie talked me through the whole process as the snow continued to fall and the Ski School slip crews started slipping in super fast mode. To get from one "slip station" to the next, they had to go as fast and accurately as they could sideways, pushing the accumulating snow away from the gates, leaving the course as polished as they could get it. And get off the course again before the next racer was on top of them. At this moment, I was awfully grateful to be standing still with a camera rather than side slipping in front of the world on the ice!

Suddenly, there's a delay in the action, and down the hill comes a red jacket, a racer had fallen up the course, and it was a ski patroler with a sled. The tail gunner in the back looked vaguely familiar, and as the team went by, straight down the fall line to clear the course as fast as they could, I realized that the guy in the back was wearing a Ski School jacket! "Hey, that's a ski school guy!" I pointed out to Ron.

"Geeze, they are HAULING!" said Ron as the team flew past us and out of sight. I found out later that it was Kurt Fehrenbach, who filled in at the last second, and went for the ride of his life on the back of the sled.

"I asked if Eric, the patrol guy, if he needed a tail gunner, and at the last second, he said, sure, so I jumped on the back. We got trained to fill in in an emergency, so I knew what I was supposed to do, but I had NO idea he was going to take off like that! We went flying straight down the fall line on the side, hitting piles of soft snow and ripping over the ice. These guys are good, and I'm hangin' on for dear life, trying to keep tension on the line in the back so the sled won't bounce. What a ride!" Kurt told us later.

As I'm hearing this story, I'm thinking about the fact that Kurt is, you know, a pretty decent skier, having been on the last National Alpine Demonstration Team for four years, and is an accomplished ski mountaineer. Once again, I'm struck by the speed and intensity of the race environment.

After the top 15 women went ripping past us, Katie had to leave, and I was on my own. For the rest of the day, I filmed and watched, making my way down the course several times to find new angles to film from, and watching the seamless machine that Mike and Squatty had pulled together. There were two nervous moments, one when two volunteer slippers fell on the course, as the call came down "COURSE!" and the skier crested the hill, the slippers were still on course, near the gates, sitting down, trying to get out of the way. "COURSE! COURSE!" everyone was yelling, and the guys got out of the way about two turns before Julia Mancuso ripped by them, and one when a dog ran out near the finish line as a skier was just crossing, but luckily, there was no accident.

Teenager Tessa Worley of France won her maiden World Cup victory in a giant slalom on Saturday, her first ever World Cup victory, and the first victory for France in nine years. That night, we walked into downtown Aspen and watched the amazing fireworks display in celebration of the victory, and headed over to the Sky Bar, where the French Team was celebrating.

"Vive la France!" Kurt called out to his friend Griecia, a French American instructor who splits his time between Chamonix and Aspen. "YEAH!!!! VIVE LA FRANCE!" Griecia smiled back, bought us beer, kissed us on both cheeks, and the night was begun. The night ended late with Tequila and a little Mambo at the Ski Tuner's Ball, and we finally rode our bikes (in the frozen, slushy snow) home, exhausted, realizing that it was snowing again, and we'd need to be on course at 5am to do it all over again.

For the next day and a half, I stood on the course, wondering how in the world this was me, my life. I was stowing my skis and pack under the fence, checking spill zone, putting on crampons, and filming about 10 feet off the gate as the best women in the world skied right by me.

I got to meet and visit with coaches from the Canadian and Swiss teams, listen to them coach their athletes on the radio, watch the incredible machine that is the course crew in action, and do a bit of side slipping myself.

When it was all said and done the 500+ volunteers and employees necessary to make the race run were exhausted from five days of back breaking work in high winds and blowing snow, and I had a total of 18 minutes of skiing footage.

photo by FISOn my final trip down the course, I looked forward to skiing out the exit, inspired by the clean, aggressive skiing I had seen that day, and without a Katie to follow, made my own little brand of sporty short turns down the icy exit cute and into the crowd. World champion Czech Sarka Zahrobska beat a strong field and howling winds to win her first World Cup slalom right in front of me.

When it was all said and done, I think we got SOME usable footage, although on Sunday it was blowing sideways, and the camera was wet and freezing, as was my camera hand, and I was blissfully happy.

Thank you, Mike, Squatty, Megan, Katie, and Georgie for letting me be a part of the crew and for getting me up there on the course, it was the experience of a lifetime!


Min/El said...

What a great account! You made me feel like I was right there with ya!

a said...

Thanks so much, Min!! I just sent it in to Ski Racing and to 32 Degrees, cross your fingers! Thanks for reading!