more than two decades of ski writing, ski teaching, and ski publishing by Lito Tejada-Flores
In the fourth issue of this web site, way back in 1999, I published the first few sections of a longer piece about spring skiing — one of my very best efforts at ski writing. At the time, I thought that stories on a web site needed to be smaller than stories in print, because many readers wouldn't have the patience to scroll down through a longer text. Your feedback has told me otherwise. So here is the full text of the best story I ever wrote about spring skiing — enjoy!
Spring snow. Neige de printemps. Firnschnee. Corn. Ice. Or mush. But mostly velvet. White velvet. You could argue that spring snow isn’t really snow at all, but a drug, powerful, addictive, psychotropic.
If one were crazy enough to really search for the perfect turn, and lucky enough to find it, one would probably find it in spring.
In winter we ski through snow, through clouds of snow, maybe, ultimately we “fall” through clouds of snow, “falling” toward the bottom of the run, skiing this powder snow from within, our turns seem more like subtle bends in an invisible stream than discrete actions with beginnings, middles, ends; these winter turns are more like happenings, accidents that befall us, happy linked accidents of faith and friction.
But on spring snow, on corn snow, each turn is a proposition to prove, a separate action, a separate creation, something you could sign…and do, an act that is its own signature on the blank white canvas of a March mountainside. Canvas? Actually it’s more like rice paper, blank white untracked spring snow, alpine rice paper ready for real-time calligraphy, steel edged brushes underfoot.
Spring memories, a skier’s lifetime of spring memories:
April morning in the Vaudoise Alps: Christ! this stuff isn’t snow, it’s solid ice, shattered pack-ice, gargoyle-ice, frozen waves, frozen turns, frozen slush, a mine-field of icy furrows and ridges, plowed by afternoon funhogs who are sleeping in right now, too smart to come out into the middle of this white no-man’s land where I’m trying to dance my way down with spastic step-stem improvisations. As far as the eye can see: frozen ruts and turns, only two smooth swaths in this whole wasteland, one cat-track wide, a polished path under the T-bar and one slightly drunken swath down from the top of the bowl. I should have known better. Time for a quick schnapps. Time for another. Time to wait it out. By 11:00 this frozen shit will be soft enough to ski.
Easter picnic at Squaw Valley: Humping our skis up Palisade ridge from Headwall to the top of the Sun Bowl. Those first few turns, awkward and liberating, ridiculous on anything but softened corn. Steep enough I don’t want to start, steep enough my first turn has to be just right, and is. And all the others are too. The Sun Bowl opening and laying back and each turn smoother than the last and a tad bigger, looser, happier, until I hit the right cosmic radius for this slope, this snow, this Easter, and lock in all the way down, until Squaw is only a memory somewhere behind my back, and the granite slabs of Five Lakes say whoa: time for lunch and Beaujolais and music and all that jazz.
An unsorted stack of memories from many springs: Giant turns across the reflector oven slopes of Mount Shasta. The backside of Mammoth Mountain where the spiky backdrop of the Minarets makes it hard to focus one’s eyes on the slope. Snaking through blue crevasses on the Mer de Glace under a blue May sky. Hiking down into Les Diablerets, skis over our shoulders, through the first white flowers, les perce neiges (“pierce the snow”) poking up through the last patches of snow. Rocketing out the bottom of pencil-thin couloirs at Cragiburne toward the green canopy of native beech below, eyes big as saucers, while our New Zealand mates laughed to think we found this extreme. So many memories because real spring skiing is, almost by definition, memorable.
Real Spring skiing is…
…(a) linked short turns on untracked corn? (b) long-radius turns over wild terrain? (c) very steep skiing? (d) not so steep skiing? (e) high-altitude skiing? (f) any skiing after March 1st? (h) impossible on telemark skis? (i) only possible on tele skis? (j) a good excuse for girl watching on the sun deck? (k) a good excuse for boy watching on the sun deck (l) for wimps who can’t ski powder? (m) for real tough guys? (n) for everyone (o) better above 10,000 feet? (p) better above 1,500 meters, but only in the Western Alps? (q) any time a skier springs off the snow? (r) a western skiers’ specialty (s) skiing between 10:30 AM and 2:00 PM? (t) cornice jumping in spring? (u) something you lean in ski school? (v) something you can’t learn in ski school? (w) an illusion? (x) a reality? (y) an option? (z) a must?…
Snow is only frozen water, waiting patiently all winter to become water once again. In Spring it finally happens. Within the winter snowpack, snow crystals change their shape by the damndest process, sublimation: ice sublimates directly into vapor without passing through a liquid water phase, then sublimates back to ice again; thickening the centers of fairy tale six-sided snowflakes, changing, building new forms and new snow, denser or looser,safer or more scary, all depends.
But in spring, change in the snowpack seems more normal—simple process that produce easily understandable results. Warm days and a high sun equal melting. Melt water percolates downward through the snowpack until evening shadows freeze everything solid again, and water-logged snow crystals turn into lumpy bonded ice grains. And melt again the next day. And freeze again. Day after day after day. “Melt-freeze metamorphism” the snow scientists call it. We just call it spring snow, and around noon we call it corn. Day by day the spring snowpack becomes more cohesive, uniform, isothermal; no more hidden layers, traps, slabs waiting to trigger tragedies. This stuff is solid. A solid icing of white ice, whose surface melts daily into a softer carpet; and then toward evening, the whole snowpack can turn into a soggy mess, heavy enough to just ooze downslope, sluff and slide away in big messy slow-motion grinders, wet-snow slides. But the saving grace for skiers is this: if it’s good skiing, it’s safe. And it’s more than good skiing: around midday it’s often sublime.
Time slows, slows, slows. Doesn’t quite stop. You don’t know why. Your outside ski is, literally, doing its own thing—no, it’s a conspiracy between the ski and the snow, they’re in it together. The ski bending, trembling, slicing one, two centimeters into the grainy white slope; the snow giving, yielding one, two centimeters, then holding firm, the invisible banked track of a a sublime carved arc. Grains of snow-ice flying out one by two by three, the sound of steel and P-Tex scraping against spring snow growing louder, louder, a whispering roar only you can hear, as the turn builds, builds, builds until the skier in the control room—you, of course, recognizing yourself with surprise as a co-conspirator of this bent ski—until the skier in the control room says okay, enough, all right already, and releases the pressure (where did it come from? where did it go?). Skis float upwards, body floats across and down the hill, the silence is deafening. You stretch your other leg out like a dancer, to find more snow, let your ski roll slowly, slowly, onto its new edge, sink into the soft/hard surface, start to bend, start to turn. Another turn. Another life. You can hear the snow moving, compressing, flying again. Louder. Louder. It will take all afternoon, you think to yourself, to reach the bottom of this bowl. Somewhere in the middle of this new arc you remember that you haven’t dropped acid since the late sixties; well, you haven’t needed to, still don’t.
Diary of a perfect run in perfect corn snow:
and so on, time without end, amen.…
Q. Why is perfect corn perfect?
A. It has to do with edging. Perfect corn edges your skis for you. You don’t need either strength or subtlety of edging, but you feel as though you have plenty of both. In a sense this technical “high” is an illusion. But so what? This is spring snow’s gift to our stressed-out skiers’ egos. Edging in corn snow is so easy that it’s simply no longer an issue. Spring skiing at its best seems to be about effortlessly balancing the forces generated between skis and snow, rather than creating such forces, much less fighting them, or overpowering them. It’s tempting to assume that this remarkable effortless feeling comes from the self-edging nature of corn snow—a couple of soft yielding centimeters over a smooth rock-hard base. But don’t forget, by March we’ve been skiing for months, by April we feel we can ski better than we walk. By late spring, a skier’s coordination is as finely tuned as its ever going to get (this year).
Spring bumps…spare me! Gnarly tank traps in morning shade, icy obstacle courses fiendishly engineered to vibrate the soles off your boots, the screws out of your bindings, the fillings out of your teeth. And in late afternoon, slush monsters. A rotten spring mogul is soft enough to let you punch a ski tip clean through, and ornery enough not to explode in a million pieces when you try to follow your buried ski through its dark heart. There’s a window of opportunity, an hour, maybe two, depending on the exposure, where you can ski the hell out of late spring bumps and enjoy it, filling the turquoise sky with white shrapnel as you blast the tops off mogul lip, using scraped-off slush piles in the gullies as natural shock absorbers. But hey, keep off your tips, make your move and keep on moving. Only masochists spend spring days in mogul fields.
Spring afternoons are made for waltzing with your shadow down long east-facing ridges. Listening to the slight crackling underfoot as the soft surface starts to freeze up again into a delicate ice glaze. Or skiing straight west into a backlit photo fantasy where trees and other skiers are only black silhouettes with fuzzy gold halos. Where the snow itself will eventually turn pure gold, if you can only avoid the 4:00 PM sweep…and you can. Because spring is a good time to cut loose, to ski not just beyond area boundaries, but so far beyond that you never cross them at all, never think of them, never see a lift or a lift line. Powder readers will probably understand when I say that the best spring skiing is not found at ski areas, not found on packed or tracked slopes. Ideal spring snow is natural undisturbed snow that has slowly, naturally, taken on the character of super pack. Spring skiing is best on big mountains not on modest trails, far from the crowd, even farther from the crowd. The best spring skiing is always worth walking for.
One foot above the other other, one breath after another, steel crampon points biting into the mountain’s frozen skin, white snow turned middle gray (or is it middle blue?) in deep dawn shadow. We wind our way up a twisting avalanche gully toward the sun, just painting the topmost ridges still hours above us. Skis tied to our packs, exhaling clouds of frosty breath, placing each spiked foot lightly, carefully sticking to a slope so hard that we could never kick steps even with our plastic-toed ski boots. This is the way spring adventures ought to start. Silent shadowy skiers, building their vertical drop step by step by step, walking the ‘stair-chair’ with cramponed feet. What better way to pass the morning hours needed for spring ice to melt into a perfect skiing surface? Wandering patiently to the top of a new pass, a new peak.
Sometimes it seems we can talk about spring snow in other terms (other turns). Just as spring snow is a kind of ultimate end-product of a long winter of transformation, skiers too can go through similar long winters of change to become something like ‘spring skiers’ or simply ‘skiers,’ to whom all snow resembles the pure white velvet of spring corn. Here's another way of putting it:
Bad snow, most experts agree,
is a phenomenon of transition: snow
whose crystals have not yet
assumed their final form
as hard spring ice or perfect corn.
Skiing bad snow, you get another view:
from time to time a few
turns simply happen, perfect turns,
where snow and skis, radius and arc
are one! It takes you by surprise.
Afterwards, with closed eyes, you wonder
about the descent, the snow, what it meant.
Perhaps we are phenomenon of transition?
‘Bad snow” only fear and superstition?
When we have learned enough, skied
and fallen enough, we will know
that snow is only snow, that words
like ‘bad’ and ‘good’ are just as absurd
as those others ‘ought’ and ‘should.’
It's true, you know, spring skiing is just a state of mind. But still a state of mind that happens most often in spring. Every spring. This spring. Today. That leaves you punch drunk and satisfied and hungry for more, all at once, today…
…today after all the ups and downs and long way rounds of one more delirious day of big-time late-spring high-alpine super-touring. No foot-weary slogging today. We’ve been flying. Or as close as one comes here in the Rockies, to the all-American all-time all-downhill Alpine ski tour (once upon a time, there was a Jet Ranger helicopter and it was all all-downhill, but today was close enough…) And so we stumble out of the canyon on our seven league skis, in one grand and flashy finale, a long sweet schuss down into town and cold Mexican beer and limes, drunk on perfect corn: the slow swoosh and steady hum of skis slicing out of the fall line into that old Kabambo edgeset and…
…sudden silence as skis and feet and mind lift off in slow-motion suspended time warp, floating forever, and then some, into the next turn, and the next, and the next, and it’s been like that all day long ever since we dropped in off the crest, 13,000 foot corniced lip, into that never-never land of high basins above treeline, arctic wasteland warmed and smoothed and tilted up at 20 degrees into a long series of half-open bowls and half-closed gullies, and…
…look out, man, there’s cliffs down there! Right below us, here, so far from anywhere. And there’s always a way around:working left in long GS swoopers to avoid the final canyon closeouts; skiing like maniacs beneath big purple cliffs, cut only by awesome avo chutes, one after another, count them, choked with white debris (good thing we weren’t here a month earlier!) toward the final choices, the final drops, final couloirs, lefts and rights. And down we go, through, into and over the brink…
…falling between turns, down this last narrow rock-ribbed bowling alley of a snow chute at war with gravity: hit, bite, rebound, aaaaahhhhhh…. and of course we all make it, today of all days, because it’s spring, the last enchanted run of an enchanted spring and everything’s okay, except that it’s all over too soon, but of course, it's never really over.