Sunday, February 20, 2005
Thank goodness for ski lifts. Most of us would never have learned to ski were it not for the chairlift that takes us 1,000 feet up the mountain in 12 minutes flat. But we all know there were skiers long before there were lifts. And there's something to be said for skiing the old-fashioned way -- on Saturday, we earned our turns.
My first ski lift was a nasty old rope tow at a little place called Tyrol Basin. Lord how I hated that thing. The first time I grabbed onto it, that demon jerked me flat on my face in front of a lift line packed with other seventh graders. Later, I learned to gradually tighten my grip on the rope -- much like a driver letting the clutch out slowly -- until I accelerated smoothly away from the lift shack.
However, learning to squeeze the cable wasn't the most difficult part of riding the old rope tow at Tyrol Basin. Nope, the hardest part was managing to hang onto the slippery rope on the steepest part of the hill. During the course of a Saturday afternoon, the wet mittens of successive skiers gradually coated the three-inch-thick rope with a thin film of ice. We learned to use our left hands to grasp the rope in front of us, but reached our right hands around behind our backs to get a second grip on the rope. That technique allowed our right arms to hold some of the weight of our bodies.
Finally, I taught myself to turn and stop my skis and was able to graduate from the rope tow hill to the T-bar hill. Learning to ride the T-bar is a story unto itself (Don't sit on it! Put it behind your butt and let it pull you up the hill!).
Our group of eight skiers on Saturday decided to go without ski lifts of all kinds, including snowmobiles. The plan was to ski 600 feet up a mountain and then ski down through the trees in search of knee deep powder. I've never really been a Telemark skier, and my equipment is a sad reflection of that fact. I had a pair of 52-inch Alpine poles, a pair of well-used size 11 Italian leather lace-up boots and the latest, greatest tele skis from K2, called "World Piste." I had rented the big fat skis from a local shop, and the plan, if I survived the climb, was to make parallel turns all the way down the mountain.
I was one of three in our group who lacked climbing skins, and it was quickly apparent that the blue wax I had corked onto the bottoms of my skis wasn't going to do the trick. I stopped to apply some sticky pink wax that resembled bubble gum, and from then on, I had ample grip on the snow. But the guy who was blowing my mind was John Wither, who was steaming up the mountain on a pair of vintage wooden skinny skis. His equipment didn't offer any of the modern advantages the rest of us enjoyed -- no metal edges, no plastic bases, no climbing skins, no rigid buckled boots. Just a classic pair of 210 cm Bonna wood skis.
"I've been using them for 30 years," Wither said. "I know I got them in the mid '70s. They were well-known as the best skis available. They were hard to get, and I remember thinking, 'I can't believe I got them.'" In 2005, Wither's beautiful skis look decidedly quaint next to the current year's Telemark skis.
Wither's old boards have edges made of strips of compressed beechwood known as lignastone. When he skied Saturday, they were prepped with a year-old coat of pine tar to repel moisture and a fresh coat of extra blue wax. "The snow was perfect for me," he said. "I had just enough snow sticking to my bottoms to climb up, and then it was deep enough to control my speed on the way down."
After two solid hours of climbing and what seemed like 25 switchbacks, I found myself longing for the old rope tow at Tyrol Basin. But then, I would have missed out on all the fun.
Our reward for all of our exertion was a ski run which will stick in my mind for many years. It was very sweet and all too short. But somehow, when you've earned every turn, you savor each arc through the powder all the more.
Now all I need is a pair of 210 cm Bonnas.