I'm currently in the process of trying to save my Tecnica Diablo Fires, boots that I bought about two months ago and may have to replace. While I don't want to replace them, because it would cost a lot and I don't think I'll be skiing enough next season to justify the process of getting something in a more appropriate class and better fit, it would also present the opportunity to do the above. The other reason I don't want to spend the money on boots is that I'd rather spend it on fatter, stiffer skis. Probably not significantly longer, but we'll see what I like when I demo some stuff.
In researching the possibility of both new boots and new skis, I'm discovering that the stiffer boots, wider, stiffer off-piste skis I want in a real, practical way, and powder skis I'm drooling over are described as being for experts. I'm described by the ski equipment industry as an expert. I find the idea of me as an expert slightly amusing, although I won't deny being flattered.
However, much as I may want gear the industry calls "expert," possibly even a (softened) race boot, I don't feel like an expert. I still think that it's over-posting when I ski past the signs that say "expert only," and I think that any "cliff" signs I ski past are a little ridiculous. At the same time, I've bagged every run at Sugarbowl except for the Palisades, and I'd take a shot at that run if there was snow on it. I collected a fair number of double-diamonds on my Kirkwood trip too, though not always as well as I would like to.
Which brings me to my point - I've been told that the black belt in karate, and most martial arts using a similar belt system, represents the level at which a student is ready to start really learning the substance of the art. Everything that comes before is groundwork. Aside from airing off of things, which continues to bother me, and jibbing, which is a specialty of its own, I can, to varying degrees, handle everything on the mountain. Not necessarily that well, or that gracefully, but safely. Which is to say that I think that I've got almost all the tools. At this stage, I think that what's left is to make everything I do more fluid, but I've also come to think that that's what really defines a good skier. Which is to say it's not what you can do, but how well you can do it. I don't want to use labels like "Advanced" or "Expert" to describe myself, because I don't think they express the room for improvement I think I have and I think they're static labels for something that's more of a process. Which is why I like the belt comparison.
A feature article I read in Powder Magazine a while ago talked about the writer's experience in finding ski partners outside of a skiing context - apres ski bars, the office, even on the lift ride up. He writes that some people will tell you that they're really badass, and can ski everything, etc. etc. My brother and I ran into that in the hot tub at Whistler. When you take this person to the top of whatever lift the next morning and get ready to drop into something fun and interesting, however, they freak out and can't do it. On the other hand, the writer mentions meeting people who will just say, "I'm okay." The next day, they're ripping down chutes, hucking off of things, and doing the whole mountain the way we all wish we could. My response to the question of how good I am is more of a resume quote - I'll say what I've skied at the resort in question. Apparently I'm better than Mr. Badass, but not good enough to be secure in the knowledge of how much I have left to learn.
All of which brings me back to the question of labels, which seem like they ought to be useful. The problem is that, with a few exceptions involving drops and chutes, an intermediate skier can safely descend pretty much the entire mountain. It might take a very long time and involve side-slipping, but it can be done. So if the level is defined by the terrain skied, and this person rides the tallest lift and then sideslips down most of the mountain, they've just achieved advanced. And while technically I've dropped a cornice, as my brother points out I may as well claim to have done a double misty, whatever that is, off of it if I'm going to claim to have done it well because it was more a matter of scoot-scoot-fall-tumble-tumble. I maintain that if I'd had the opportunity to do it again, I'd have made it look good, but the hard fact is that I did have a shot, and I didn't make it look good. From a factual point of view, I still did drop the cornice, to the same extent that that intermediate just bagged Upper Headwall or Death's Head Chute, or Doom Bowl.
So Expert? I'm really not. I think that that label ought to be reserved for the folks who take whatever terrain and conditions are handed to them and make it look good, not just the hero snow. What about Advanced? I don't think I make moguls look good enough for that, and stop and start too much in the double-blacks, at least unless I've memorized them, although I've also started picking lines that aren't shown on the map. What about advanced intermediate? That's also the guy who just started linking his turns down Pony Express, and if we hit the mountain together, I'd be impatient and he'd be mad at me for taking him down "that!?"
Both the American and Canadian ski instructor's organizations use many more level gradations - nine and eight respectively - and include levels that seem descriptive of where my skiing is. Too bad nobody will know what I mean if I go around saying, "Level 8." Of course, ski resorts don't help matters by describing green, blue, and black runs as "Beginning," "Intermediate" and "Advanced."