Category Archives: Winter Gear

How to Be There When it Dumps

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Powder Day!

You’ve all been there. It’s still 30 minutes before first chair and the line is already snaking back to the ticket kiosks. Thin snowflakes drift lazily from the sky. The big dump happened yesterday, while you sat at your office desk obsessively checking and re-checking the resort’s website, watching the snow pile up. The day started with 3 inches of new–not enough to call in sick. By the time you checked from your desk, another 2 inches had fallen. You briefly wondered if it was too late to make it up there. Unfortunately, you just rode the elevator with your boss and never mentioned the growing nausea a quick dash from the office would require. Read the rest of this entry

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Boyne Mountain Skiing, Circa 1979

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My husband, John Kircher, was steeped in the ski industry early on at Boyne Mt. in Northern Michigan. His father built the ski area, and John’s first home was one of the hotel rooms at the base of the lifts. Not long ago videographer Barry ZeVan sent me some vintage footage from Boyne Mountain. The hotel that John first lived in is shown here.

I especially love the ballet and the mogul skiers in the video. In 1979, I was only nine years old and any kind of skiing was good skiing. But I was especially taken with ballet skiers. It sounds ridiculous now, but I often practiced lifting one ski and trailing it behind me like a ballerina. More often then not, this move resulted in a face plant, with snow smeared under my goggles and down my pants. In the end, I was relieved when this trend ran its course.

Check out this great vintage footage of John’s home, his father, Everett Kircher, and the ski area where it all started.

For more information about the making of this film, contact Barry Zevan at bnz1(at)aol(dot)com.

Summer in Chamonix

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France is beautiful in the summer. This is especially true in Chamonix, where John and I just spent a few days searching for the perfect chalet to rent for a few weeks next winter. Chamonix Mont-Blanc contains more quaintness and charm in this deep “commune” of the Haute-Savoie than all the ski towns in North America. No joke.

A Mont-Blanc Unlimited season’s pass with access to the entire Chamonix Valley, Courmayeur, Italy plus 6 days in Verbier, Switzerland costs € 780 (about $1100) pre-season. That’s 139 lifts, and over 500 km of skiing. Compare that to Whistler/Blackcomb’s pre-season price of $1,199 with 37 lifts and 3,307 hectares (or less than 1 kilometer). Do the math. That’s more skiing for less money than anywhere on this side of the pond. In spite of the great deal, locals complain about the price. Go figure.

With spectacular mountains and unparalleled access, it’s a wonder more people don’t live here. Perhaps it’s the crowds, which whittle away one’s personal space until it’s a sharp little nub of jaded localism. At the height of summer, a.k.a. last week when John and I were there, the line for the Aiguille du Midi tram can be hours long. The walking-only streets of the town are jammed with strollers stopping at every souvenir shop brimming with postcards depicting glaciers that poke their icy fingers into the center of the deep valley. It’s jaw dropping. But, it’s crowded.

We can see ourselves spending our winters there someday; perhaps not in the busy tourist-soaked center of town, but perhaps up-valley in Les Praz or Argentiere, where the pace is slower.

Still, traveling makes me appreciate Crystal, with our terrain and lift system and reasonable crowds. I love the familiar peaks and the knowable backcountry. I enjoy the familiar unpredictability, the secret places where I can escape the crowds, the little open gash between the trees that stays fresh days after a storm, the distant couloirs that with a little effort and a little local knowledge offer a smooth respite even on the busiest days.

I’ve had my summer fix now—my summer vacation. I’m ready for winter to start again. I long for that first healing layer of snow that covers over all the rough places with its uniform whiteness. Bring it on.

La Nina Watch Issued

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Two great forecasters, Larry Schick and Joe Bastardi have good news. The Grand Pubah of Powder, Larry Schick, is calling for another banner winter. This is good news for skiers and snowboarders and those of us that make our living in ski towns.

I could handle another season of this

A La Nina Watch has been issued by The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center, which means, while it’s not a sure thing quite yet, chances are pretty good for another great winter. However, if the ENSO cycle does not switch back to La Nina, they are predicting a Neutral year, which usually means good but less violent storms. So not bad either way.

The real news from Mr. Schick is the snowpack still lingering from last season. According to him,

“the snow has not completely melted above 5000ft here in the Cascades – that is pretty rare. Some areas are reporting their highest August 10 snow depth – snow will stop melting by September and already melt is slowing in higher elevations (and no heat waves in sight) so I expect carry over snowpack – this is how ice ages begin!”

Ice age! Now that would be good for the ski industry. Just saying.

The next ENSO update will be issued the first week of September. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

According to Joe Bastardi, not only will this winter be good, but so will the following three years. In fact, he’s predicting winters similar to the late 1970s, the good old days when I was just a young skier catching snowflakes on my tongue. He credits the negative Pacific Decadal Oscillation, solar activity and recent volcanic eruptions. Let’s hope he’s right.

Working at a Ski Area

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Call it serendipity. In the past few days, several people have asked me about ski area work. Perhaps the uncertainty of our economy has people scared. Maybe our culture is shifting away from acquiring “things” and instead looking for a better way to live. Or it could be that coming off the heels of a fabulous winter has some people thinking. Why not move to a ski area?

If you plan to make the move, there are several factors to consider. I’ve talked about some of these before, and plan to hit on more of these as we head toward winter. Today’s post is on ski area work.

First, consider your skills. Ski area workers are notoriously underemployed. Those with Master’s Degrees work as waitresses. Doctors become ski patrollers; business majors are baristas. That doesn’t mean you have to take any job you can get. Most of us would have a hard time as a lift operator. The unmotivated ones whittle away hours in the lift shack, the faraway look in their eyes getting more and more jaded. The motivated ones, with mad shovel skills and a friendly smile, are quickly promoted to another position. If don’t mind a brainless job and are completely without other skills, being a lifty might be a place to start. Just don’t stay there. Having said that, here a few of the jobs available at your local ski area.

  • Lift Operator. As I said above, this is an entry-level position. Pay starts in the $7-$8 range and the day includes shoveling the loading ramp and being nice to the customers. While it’s a low-skill job, it’s an important one. You’re in charge of a multi-million dollar piece of equipment with the potential to kill someone if you aren’t paying attention. Still, lifties usually last a single season–either moving up to another job or moving on entirely.
  • Ski Instructor. These guys have a coveted job. They get to be on their skis, cut lift lines with their class and get tips at the end of the day. But there is a down side. It is getting harder to find a position as a ski instructor. With more applicants filling positions, today’s would-be instructors must at least complete PSIA Level 1 training, and often need a Level 2. Pay can be as high as $14 an hour plus tips.
  • Cat Crew. Cat drivers have it pretty good. They spend their nights chopping moguls and laying down corduroy and have their days open for skiing. This is the closest thing to the perfect ski bum job I’ve ever seen. Only problem is the hours. Most cat drivers start at midnight and drive until the lifts open. Pay rates are slightly higher than ski instructors and previous experience in heavy machinery is a must.
  • Ski Patroller. This is the best job on the mountain. Of course, I’m a little biased, but it’s true. Patrollers must have first aid certification (most have Outdoor Emergency Care and/or EMT) and be strong skiers in good physical condition. A typical day might include waking at 4 a.m. to throw explosives for avalanche hazard followed by a powder run back to the patrol shack. Next up could be a toboggan ride, a shovel project, putting ski racks out or any other number of catch-all jobs completed by patrollers. Be prepared to work hard, but the effort is worth it. You might even save a life. Pay starts at $10 an hour.
  • Marketing. Today’s marketing budgets are shrinking and not just in the ski industry. But, with social media outlets, marketing dollars don’t have to go to big ad campaigns. Ski areas need someone to send out tweets and Facebook updates about weather conditions and upcoming events. While this can feel a bit like an office job at times, it’s more mentally stimulating than shoveling your ramp and a great position for anyone wanting to meet new people.
  • Management Positions. Ski areas are looking for serious, high-caliber men and women with management skills. While many of these positions are filled from the ranks, you might be surprised how often these jobs get filled from outside. If you have experience as a manager and aren’t afraid to spend time in the office, look for openings in upper management. My husband is the General Manager at Crystal, and he spends a good portion of his day skiing. While he works harder than me, (and I’m pretty tired at the end of the day) he still fits in time to check the conditions and operations on the mountain. Of any job at a ski area, being the owner and General Manager is certainly the best. But it’s not for the faint of heart. Running a ski area isn’t nearly as fun as just skiing there, but it’s pretty darn close to living the dream. Salaries vary widely.
  • Other. Ski resorts have a myriad of non-resort-specific jobs. Waiting tables is a great job at any resort, especially if you work nights. Usually, there is little turnover in these carefully guarded positions. Resorts have retail outlets, and these guys are often hiring. Try to get midweek days off to beat the crowds when you actually can get on your skis. Ski areas also hire baristas, ticket sellers, mountain hosts, and other unskilled jobs. These are a good way to get your foot in the door.

Twenty-two years ago I quit my teaching job in favor of a year ski bumming at Crystal. I figured I’d get a good season in while I regrouped and planned my next move. Fortunately for me, I never did regroup. Instead I found exhilaration, crisp beauty, great friends and true love. If you decide to move to a ski area, just remember that you might love it so much you never leave.

How about you? Anyone thinking about taking the plunge? Let me know. I’m happy to answer questions or offer words of wisdom.

Ski Racing Specifications Change

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FIS, the International Ski Federation, in an effort to “find ways to reduce the risk of injury and improve safety” among ski racers has announced new specifications for alpine equipment. In a nutshell, the skis are getting straighter and longer. In a time when recreational skis are curvier and shorter that ever, it seems FIS is taking it old-school.

Andrew Kircher cranking a turn

I just signed my step-son’s FIS application. He’s a ski racer and will be affected by this new change. According to Andrew, the new ski shape will require racers to attack the gates in a different way. Instead of starting a turn early and arcing it around the gate, these skis, along with the new rules for setting courses, will encourage racers to stivot, using more of a braking/skid method to navigate the course. A stivy, as it’s known in the racing world, is a technique currently used to make tight gates, often found in technical GS courses that a racer would otherwise be unable to arc around. The racer points his or her skis in the direction of the next turn well before the gate and skids on the ski past the tight turn. Once the ski is pointed again towards the following gate, the racer sets his or her edges once again and hurls toward the next turn.

This will slow racers down, which as a parent watching my step-son reach speeds on skis that I’m not even comfortable driving in a car, should be a good thing. But I’m reserving judgement. Andrew spent years learning how to turn early and not scrub speed. He knows how to gain time on the flats, keep his arms together when he reaches mach speed and eek out every mph possible out there on a course. Ski racing and skis have developed over the years, and now, thanks to side cut, has progressed to a point where a racer can set an edge early and ride it gracefully around a gate. The sport might just be losing it’s aesthetic.

Check out this video that Andrew put together explaining the difference between the stivot and the arc. Notice that when a racer carves very little snow sprays behind his or her skis. When stivoting, on the other hand, the snow flies.

This change will certainly shake up the sport of ski racing. The most adaptable athletes will have an edge. Perhaps the advantages in weight will even out a bit, opening the field to more slightly built athletes. Skiers, such as Ted Ligety, who seem to have mastered the art of the stivy, might well have an advantage. Then again, Ligety also knows how to lay down a graceful arc, and with the new skis that skill may no longer be necessary.

World Cup athletes have not reacted well to the news. I can see where they’re coming from. They have perfected their art over a lifetime of ski training, and to change the equipment now would be a tough transition. But racers have transitioned before as skis got shorter and more side cut.

As ski manufacturers and athletes scramble to meet the new criteria, I’m reminded of Vinko Bogataj’s spectacular fall during the opening scene of The Wide World of Sports, where his “agony of defeat” could be felt by all. Let’s just hope these new straighter skis bring about less of those falls, and more of the “thrills of victory.” Ahh, the human drama that is sports!

The Skiing Gender Gap: Another Perspective

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After such a great response from last week’s post offering a little advice to would-be women ski bums, I’m offering here another side of the coin: the politics of relationships on the slopes.

Fellow ski journalists John Naye and Claudia Carbone put together a “He said/She said” on the sport of skiing and I’m reprinting it here with permission. I’d be thrilled to hear your reactions to this one. Here it goes: (kk)

Ski slopes can be fertile hunting grounds for the sexes, but that Mars/Venus thing can also turn those slopes into a battlefield. Ski hills are the perfect place to test compatibility, but they can also test our patience. Can you survive taking a run together, riding the chair together, and agreeing on lunch together?

Not too long ago I was discussing this subject with a female friend of mine, who happens to currently be the President of the North American Snowsports Journalists Association, a position I also held a few years ago. Claudia lives in the Colorado ski resort town of Breckenridge, and because she works as a skiing ambassador for the resort, she sees her share of skiers and riders trying to work out their gender based differences. For fun, I asked her to write some comments about skiing with men to which I could write a counter point about skiing with women. Here’s a part of that.

She says:

Just try to keep up with Christina, photo by Andrew Longstreth

I love to ski with a man. I’ll take a date on the slopes over après-ski every time. But if you want to ski with this downhill diva, then pay attention. For starters, where does it say that guys have to be the leaders? You think you own the mountain. You get off the lift and zoom, you disappear. Okay, I may not always know where I am, but getting lost together could be romantic, could it not?

Guys love to talk the talk, especially in the bar the night before. Usually the ones who brag the most ski with the grace of Chewbacca. Of course, everything has got to be an unannounced contest: who can ski the fastest, the longest, the most runs, the steepest terrain. It seems that no matter how exhausted or frightened you might be, you’ll never ever admit it..

A bite of chocolate and a squirt of Gatorade isn’t lunch. I want a full sit-down meal. Besides marking the end of morning and the beginning of afternoon, lunch is an opportunity for a make-up check. You men do understand that, don’t you?

Mountain scenery takes my breath away. If you want to do the same, stop occasionally and savor the view. And speaking of scenery, don’t dress like a dork. Zip up your jacket, cut off that collection of old lift tickets, and don’t even think about wearing jeans as ski pants.

Another thing: I get so tired of hearing “Come on, you can handle this.” I’ll make that decision myself, thank you. If you lead me astray on the mountain, I’ll cut you off after dinner!

Now, let’s go rip it up.

He says:

Ah, get over it Claudia. If men didn’t lead the snow parade, there wouldn’t be enough ski patrollers in all of recorded history to find all the tender-gender types lost out there on the mountain. When’s the last time you actually saw a woman read and understand a trail map?

This guy can ski, photo by Kim Kircher

I love to ski with women too…but it’s not unconditional love. Since when did whining become an Olympic sport? It’s too cold, too hot, too steep, too foggy, too early, too late, just about too anything.

And how can there actually be “too much powder?” Why do women always want to have a leisurely breakfast on a powder day? Why am I the jerk if I want first tracks? You could happily meet me later, couldn’t you? I know you’d find that trail map handy then!

One of the biggest things that bugs me about skiing with chicks is when I ask them 500 times if they want to try something a bit more “aggressive” and they keep saying yes. Then I take them to a… BLUE run and…. HOLYMOTHEROFGOD… it all hits the fan, and I instantly go from Mr. Charm to Mr. Mean.

What happened to that women’s lib thing, you know, all that equal treatment under the law. Does the simple fact that I invited you to go skiing mean I get to pay for everything…. your lift tickets, ski rental, meals, spa bills, everything? Then, if I do, the first thing I hear is “that was an exhausting first run – I’m going to the lodge. See you at four.” Not much value for that $60 lift ticket, is it?

I don’t think you women realize your real ability. You may be the most technically sound skiers in the world – but will you push your speed a little….no way. I mean, where is the sense of adventure? Then you decide to stop and chat half-way down a run, then pout about being left behind. Save the chatter for the chairlifts, that’s what they’re for.

And one more thing. Don’t ask me – don’t ever ask me – if you look fat in stretch pants!

Thanks John and Claudia for offering your perspectives. I, too, often witness this push and pull on the slopes. Now dear readers, it’s your turn. How far has the sport tested your relationships? Hit the comment button and tell us your thoughts.