Confessions of a Double Convert
When I first linked turns on a snowboard eight years ago, I vowed I would never again take another run on skis. It was the classic scenario I was tired of trying to force turns on my skinny Dynamic VR-27s so I jumped on a rented Burton Cruiser and after a morning of bruises, I felt the magic of floating downhill sideways. Soon after, those Dynamics were collecting dust in the closet.
Ever since that fateful day, I have pursued a love affair with, or perhaps an addiction to, snowboarding that has forced me to seek powder turns in places from Vail to Valdez. And, as long as I fed her with at least 20 days a season, snowboarding has been a good mistress. Life was simple. Skiing wasn't even part of the equation no one seemed to ski anymore; all my friends had also jumped on the snowboarding bandwagon.
Then a couple of years ago, it stopped being so simple. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, skiing began to resurface in the radar of winter acceptability. Maybe it was the new shaped skis with all of their snowboard-like sidecut, or perhaps it was the crazy people like Shane McConkey, Jeremy Nobis, and Seth Morrison, who were dropping insane lines on big mountains, or sticking backflips in the previously snowboard-only halfpipes and terrain parks. The unthinkable was happening skiing was becoming "cool" again.
I will admit, I did also start getting more enjoyment out of Powder and Freeze magazines, while Transworld Snowboarding felt too young for me. I found Teton Gravity Research films showing up in my VCR and started to think that I was identifying more with the freeskier attitude than the casual snowboarding lifestyle. And most importantly, I couldn't go to Alta with my snowboard.
I finally gave in to the inevitable. It was time to give skiing another try. The problem at hand was that the ski lifestyle had agreed with me, but the sport did not. I decided I needed a way to get back into the game and fast. There were two large obstacles in the way: first of all, it had been so long I wondered if I would still be able to ski; second, it was August. I found the solution though... The X-Team Advanced Ski Clinic in Valle Nevado, Chile.
The X-Team is a partnership of some of skiing's greatest characters, both on and off the hill. Over the past nine years, Eric and Rob DesLauriers, John and Dan Egan, and Dean Decas have held these clinics, which specialize in off-piste skiing, at resorts around the world. Aimed at the strong intermediate to advanced skier, the clinics are a guaranteed way to take your skiing to the next level. Most of the clinics involve three days of skiing, but every summer they hold a week-long clinic somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere. This year, it was Valle Nevado.
Finally, after all the mental preparation and the ceremonious gathering of the gear, it was time to make my way to Chile. Apparently I was not the only one with the idea of making summer turns. As I sat on a flight from Denver to Miami, so many people had ski boots slung over their shoulders, one would think South Beach had six inches of fresh. Actually, it was the U.S. men's ski team on its way to Portillo, Chile, for summer training.
After a long journey, we finally reached Santiago, and I was instantly smitten with the beauty of the Andes. At first glance, these young mountains remind me of Utah's Wasatch Range, only much bigger. Valle Nevado is only 40 miles from Santiago, so I figured it wouldn't take long to get there, but this was before I realized that there were 51 switchbacks on this one-lane mountain pass road. The two-hour bus journey was a good opportunity for me to make acquaintances with the other clients on the trip.
There were nine other eager skiers, a group that didn't have much in common, except that they had all been on an X-Team trip before, and many on four or more. Mel, a lawyer from Seattle, has been to a dozen or so clinics, and now, in hindsight, I can see why. It all becomes clear once you spend some time with the coaches at this clinic.
We arrived in Valle Nevado with enough time to make a few runs. Since the clinic didn't start until the next day, I figured it would be good to get back on two sticks and see if I could remember how to do it. In my room, I met my roommate for the week, James Bradley, a 42-year-old Californian who looks not a day over 30. James just sold his computer hardware business, and has been to X-Team clinics in Targhee, Crested Butte, Chamonix, New Zealand, Argentina, Alaska, and now Chile. In other words, James doesn't mess around. When asked why he keeps coming back, he says enthusiastically, "I don't have a lot of friends who ski as well as I do, so I would be skiing by myself a lot. The people on these trips are always great, and the coaches are fantastic!"
I threw on my gear and went out on the hill with James. Conditions can only be described in one word...UGLY. It had snowed eight inches during the night, but the previous snowfall had been meager, and all the new stuff did was cover up the rocks. After taking a chairlift, followed by a 5000-foot Poma lift to the top of the mountain, I thought I was in heaven untracked powder everywhere. I jumped into the first patch I could find, and was greeted by the horrific screams of my brand new skis, which were being pierced by the underlying rocks. After a 10 minute walk out of the minefield, I took a look at my new pride and joys, which now had an 18-inch long core shot right to the edges. What a way to start.
I did a couple runs with James, who is a very good skier, and I was flailing. Not only did I have no idea how to ski correctly, but every muscle in my legs paid me back for the last few sedentary months I spent behind my desk. I started to wonder if I was in over my head. Oh well, I guess we will see how it goes once I get some coaching. It will be very tempting to go and grab the snowboard.
Over the last nine years, the X-Team has developed a fantastic system for teaching you to enhance your skiing a combination of drills, insightful personal tips and instruction, philosophy, video analysis, observation, and, most importantly, just skiing. Each day, we would ski with the instructors while our runs were being videotaped. The students were grouped by ability and assigned a coach, with the coaching switching each day.
Now with our 10 clients together, and two of the three coaches, we hit the hill. (Dean was waiting for his skis which didn't make it with his flight.) We all went up and took a couple of cruiser runs. Eric and John are great coaches, and the quick tips they gave me on balance got me started on the right foot. The first challenge was to weight my turns correctly. I was definitely not doing that, because I have been skiing in a very bad position, back on my skis with my legs straight. After they showed me the correct athletic stance, with my knees bent, and weight centered over my feet so I can balance and weight my skis independently, I improved significantly. This is where I first discovered the shape ski revolution. The K2 X-15s have definitely changed the way I look at skiing When balanced correctly, the slightest pressure on the edge of the skis will begin a sweeping carve turn. It really is quite amazing, and when you do it right, it feels great. The urge to stand sideways on a snowboard is starting to fade.
Day two brought even more enjoyment to the program. It was a gray day, and the resort needed some snow, but there was still enough to kick around. The hopes and dreams for the big dump were still heavy in my mind. Deano was now with us, which added an element of fun to the game. After the morning drills on the groomers, we found and did some steep runs, which I was having problems on, and yard sales were common. Even though I was a little worse than all the skiers at the clinic, I always felt encouraged, and everyone, coaches and clients alike, was very helpful and understanding.
It was obvious that I wasn't a strong enough skier to be at this clinic, but the fact that I have snowboarded so much has quelled my fear of speed and terrain, which means I can get by, and I know that with the help of the X-Team, I would improve by leaps and bounds by the end of the week.
The days that followed were unbelievable. We finally got that dump we were looking for and although it was only 10 inches, it made for some great powder skiing. I could feel my improvement; my comfort level was increasing steadily; and my falls, although a little less frequent, were as entertaining as ever. As the week progressed, we explored jumping off cornices, skiing in tight couloirs, hiking, and heading into the backcountry. We hiked on a beautiful bluebird day to the incredibly steep and deep. Who needs a helicopter?
By the end of the week, I was feeling great on my skis, and I felt like I wanted to devote my life to skiing. My biggest problem was that I was returning to summer in the States, so I would have to wait a few months to practice my new-found skills. I'm not quite ready to put my snowboard up on e-Bay yet, but I can definitely say that skiing has become fun again. I implore all the snowboarders who haven't rediscovered skiing to give it a shot. You will be pleasantly surprised.
As for the X-Team clinic, I can't think of a better way to improve your skiing. You will get 10 times as much out as you could ever get from regular resort-supplied instructors. You will learn all-mountain skiing from some of the best, and you are certain to make some friends along the way.
See you at the Grand Targhee clinic in December.
Brian Levin, wishing ski boots were as comfortable as snowboard boots for MountainZone.com