Problems with Powder
Early Spring 2002
Skiing powder, so sought after by expert skiers, can be problematic for the beginner.
I used to live in Carlsbad, NM. My television was usually tuned to the Weather Channel. Skis, boots, poles, and tire chains were always at the ready. Ski Apache was only an hour and a half away. And it got some snow. Far south, yes, but it is at an elevation of about 10,000 feet. True, one winter seemed more like summer. Skiers would not only link turns but snow patches all the way down. An island-hopping adventure. But in a good winter there was never a powder shortage.
One time I got up there and tackled Apache Bowl during a blizzard. I’ve also tried it twice after a blizzard, in light snowfall. But each time it was DEEP POWDER, and I was a blue-run, intermediate skier. The first time I tackled the bowl I learned that powder is different.
Like, where did my skis go? I guess they’re under there somewhere. I learned that turning is different. Until I learned better, each turn resulted in a violent face plant and goggles full of snow. One day, I got a glimpse of the pleasures of powder. I couldn’t feel the bottom; I felt like I was floating and flying. I even managed a few turns without face plants. It was great. However, on my last run of the day (the one that one that causes trouble for everyone), I had a choice: the easy and quite scenic “game trail” or going off piste down through the bowl.
You’re never going to learn to ski powder if you don’t try, I told myself. Good advice, but not for the last run: Believe me, for that one you should choose a nice, easy glider. Anyway, I chose the bowl. My previous trips had given me some amount of confidence, and so I picked up speed and linked some turns past boulders and through trees. Then, at a higher speed than I’d ever achieved in powder I suffered an extremely violent face plant. Is this really worth it? I asked myself as I pulled my face and snow-filled, broken goggles out of the snow. I looked around for my skis and saw nothing but snow. Then I saw what might have been a ski tip behind me. I reached for it with my left hand. All of a sudden an incredible searing pain traveled through my hand and up my arm. I was in trouble. The lifts were about to shut down and here I was with what turned out to be a broken hand. Moreover, I was far off of any trail, in between a bunch of rocks and trees. And it was snowing moderately. But it seemed to be on the increase. For a moment I contemplated the prospect of spending the night buried in snow at 11,000 feet. That not being an attractive option, I managed to find a pole and began using my good hand to wave it madly at people on a distant lift. This was my only chance for rescue, unless a member of the ski patrol happened to cross my section of the bowl on a last-minute sweep. Somehow I got all my equipment together and hoped for the best. I was relived when a couple of guys skied by and said they’d inform the people at the bottom of the lift. Then they skied off.
I was doubly relived when some Good Samaritan skied by and said he’d stick around until somebody showed up to get me off that mountain. We heard a snowmobile approaching from below and thought rescue was moments away. Then we heard the sound of the engine retreating. The same thing happened with a snowmobile trying to approach from above. Finally, a ski patrol guy, to whom I’ll be forever grateful, though I didn’t get his name, skied down with a toboggan. He got on his radio and informed the base area that that I was too injured to help myself (actually, I think he may have said I was a lost cause or something to that effect) and he would need help.
Shortly thereafter, a guy who appeared to me to be a member of the Mescalero Apache tribe (the tribe owns much of the ski area’s land and runs it as well). The Apache skied down and helped me onto the toboggan. After that, the patrol guy put my arm in a splint. Soon the ski patrol guy was pulling me down the bowl, down Upper Deep Freeze, then Lower Deep Freeze, then a run in front of the lodge where everybody took note of the latest casualty. I was taken to a clinic that I never knew existed and was put in a room with the rest of the day’s casualties.
The medics asked me if I had any friends to help me. Unfortunately the answer was no. But I and several others determined that I could drive. Though I had standard shift, my right hand and arm were okay. However, my guitar playing was forever compromised because of the injury to my left hand. Little did I know I’d have to deal with arhritis on top of the break.
Needless to say, I became interested in what the secret was for skiing powder. However, for the moment I had to get to a hospital, where I was X-rayed, told I had probable fracture, got ace-bandaged up, and was told to see an orthopedist back in Carlsbad. The nurse practitioner (I didn’t get a doctor) gave me some pain meds, complete with child-safety cap. Shortly thereafter, I was back at the Smokey Bear Motel in Capitan. But I couldn’t open the bottle of meds with my broken hand due to the child-safety cap. So I got a hammer out of the tool kit in my car and smashed the bottle to bits on the sidewalk. That worked. I was tired of being in pain.
Anyway, back to powder skiing: I think the true answer is that the skills needed to ski powder are subtle and beyond words. You just have to ski it long enough, and the answer will come. I heard one guy say he couldn’t ski powder until, all of sudden, one day he could. The ability just descended upon him like a gift from Heaven.
There are however things you can do to hasten the epiphany. You can ride exta-wide “fat boy” skis (if I hadn’t arrived late I would have rented them). You can try putting equal weight on both skis, sort of making both skis your downhill ski. You can also try keeping your weight just a little bit back, so your ski tips occasionally peek out at the snow. An Olympic gold medalist did tell me that my suspicion that keeping your weight just a tiny bit back might be right–but only after I agreed not to tell anybody that I heard it from her. Thank you, Debbie.
Unfortunately, I moved to Louisiana shortly after learning the powder secrets, so I still don’t know if they work. One thing I do know: If I ever get near powder again I will rent some wide skis. As I said, I almost did it the day I broke my hand. However, the rental guy actually talked me out of it. He said he had just one pair of fat skis, and nobody ever rented them (of course not, the locals knew how to ski powder and the tourists didn’t know to ask for them). The next time I try powder I’m taking my newfound knowledge, wide skis, and possibly a private instructor along with me. I did have a private instructor once whom I asked about going to the Bowl. He talked me out of it. I guess he felt I wasn’t ready. So later I tackled it alone. On the last run of the day. Brilliant move.