Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Mt. Freestyle

In the spirit of "Why not?" I accepted my friend's invitation to hit Boreal with her last night. I don't remember when, or if, I was last there, but lately they've transformed themselves into an "All-Mountain Terrain Park." Since it was night, I was only in the lighted area, but almost the entire lighted area was devoted to jumps of varying sizes, boxes, rails, and even a staircase. It looked a little surreal sitting in the middle of a piste.

I've been exposed to a lot of different kinds of ski area culture, but this was something new. Since the entire mountain is a giant terrain park, it's populated almost exclusively by park rats. Which is not to say that there weren't some very good freestylers - there were. But for the most part, people were going down the mountain somewhat uncomfortably, falling off of boxes and wiping out landings, and generally doing what people in terrain parks do. Maybe with a little bit better etiquette - while I didn't see anyone using a spotter unless the spotter also had a handycam or camera, people were waiting long enough for the previous person to hit a jump to (hopefully) clear the landing area, even if they wiped out.

At most areas, the park rats are all about fifteen and doing their best to look like something they're not, wearing fairly expensive outerwear that their parents, who are higher on the mountain wearing fairly expensive outerwear, bought for them. Boreal's crowd is older than that - there were almost no parents in evidence, and it seemed like people drove there themselves, so about a 16-18-year-old crowd. While I'm sure that they got at least some help with their gear, people were mostly not wearing the matched outfits that have been showing up a lot lately, and the level of water resistance was a lot lower, which probably applied to the price point as well. Lots of wet butts, and a wide variety of jackets that were never designed for rain or a snow storm. I also saw a ton of season passes, which applies to most ski areas on week days, but was still interesting to me.

Someone I was talking to on a ski lift a long time ago commented that there's a popular perception of skaters being lazy, but if you look at the amount of time that they spend on their skate boards in a given week and count it the way you would work or education, the good ones are a very hard-working group. Watching these kids teaching themselves to freestyle impressed me, especially with my aversion to hitting jumps myself. There were a fair number of people already there when I arrived at six, and the area just got more crowded while I was there. It didn't look like they were taking one or two runs and then hitting the cafeteria, either - they were taking run after run, terrain feature after terrain feature, and fall after fall (actually not too many falls, more questionable landings that they somehow rescued.) I don't watch a lot of freestyle competition on TV or even play a lot of freestyle-based games, but seeing it in those contexts always makes it look easy. Seeing the amount of effort going into actually doing it gave me a lot of respect for the people who work at it, even the ones who aren't any good at it.

Of course I wasn't going to spend a chunk of my evening at Boreal without trying to hit some kickers myself. Since damaging my body in the myriad ways I've damaged it, I don't have a belief in my own invulnerability, so it's sometimes hard for me to do that sort of thing. I managed to do one of the smaller ones in the learning part of the terrain park, and caught air off some of the rollers that the kickers sit on top of. I think I've figured out why it's so disconcerting for me to do man-made jumps when I have relatively little trouble hitting the traverses and lips that appear on- and off-piste doing downhill skiing and snowboarding. In downhilling, whether on my board or my skis, my goal is to do difficult terrain with grace and beauty. To me, that means a fast, clean line with no abrupt direction changes and a minimum of rolling down the window, etc. When I hit a natural kicker or a traverse, I go from traveling steeply downhill to traveling less steeply downhill. My trajectory may take me away from the ground for a little while because the ground resumes traveling steeply downhill before I do, but I'm always traveling downhill and ultimately my path is somewhat smoother than the terrain was. The upwards part of hitting the man-made stuff is really what bothers me, although not being able to see the landing certainly doesn't help. The process of hitting a kicker seems to me to be one of gathering speed, getting launched into space, somehow changing attitude in space to match what the landing is (I think) going to be, and then hoping that I was right. With the little airs I'm accustomed to, I turn twice to bleed a little speed and make sure I'm stable, then point straight at where the ground drops away, and wait briefly to rejoin it, many feet but little time from where I left.

I've commented in the past that I should probably take a few laps through the park now and then so that I'll be better equipped to drop cornices, odd windblown shapes, and the other air-inducing objects that appear in alpine environments. After last night's experience, I'm much more ready to consider downhill and freestyle different disciplines. While they both require some comfort with air time, one much more than the other, the airs feel totally different. The skill sets are different too - pipe riders are supposed to be excellent carvers, whether on boards or skis, but for the most part, people I saw at Boreal weren't great turners, weren't working on their turns, and really didn't seem to need any more skill at turning than they already had. Downhillers, on the other hand, seem generally to consider turning almost the only skill there is. On the one hand, now I see terrain parks a little less as mini golf compared to the Pebble Beach of the mountains above and a little more as a different sport, or at least a very different aspect, and on the other hand, I'm even less interested in learning to ride them.

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