Monday, January 21, 2008

Visiting Washington, trying ski boards

I just got back from the last leg of my extended ski trip. I did three days in Washington State with a couple of my friends there. The flight got in late Thursday night, so we pretty much just dragged my ridiculous amount of stuff upstairs to there apartment, which is quite nice, and crashed. One of my friends already had a belay shift scheduled at her climbing gym and her boyfriend had work on Friday, so I slept in and then caught up with her at the gym and did some climbing on something other than truss, and then we did some night skiing at Alpental, one of the four sections of the Snoqualmie resort.

My friend has been trying to talk me into trying ski boards for a while, so I did. It was interesting to have something only 99cm long attached to my ski boots. They're very wide and have very short turning radii - this set had about a 7.5m sidecut. I found that it was very difficult to try to ski them with bases flat or in long-radius turns. The extreme sidecut kept hooking up, so trying to ski them flat they acquired a lot of speed wobble, and they had a hooky, harsh feel in long radius turns. I could use the same short-radius technique that I do on skis, though. I also found that they had a very small sweet spot compared to any of my skis. Unless I was on my forefoot and exerting a fair amount of forward pressure, I had a hard time engaging the shovels or getting the edges of the boards to grip. I was a little surprised to find that I started losing control when I thought I was centering my weight - I thought before trying ski boards that I wouldn't want to be forward near as much as on skis.

Aside from trying ski boarding, the Alpental trip was a lot like night skiing anywhere else. It's supposed to have amazing in-bounds backcountry, so I'm going to have to revisit it during the day at some point.

Our plan on Saturday was to do Alpental again, but due to various circumstances, none of us woke up until about 10am. We figured at that point that we'd do an afternoon half-day. Since it's Martin Luther King weekend, by the time we got there, the parking lots were full. We ended up driving to a random small town in the East Cascades, Leavenworth. Leavenworth has Gothic script on all the signs. Once there, we discovered that they had a ski hill. So we went. It turned out to be two rope tows. I felt a little ridiculous with my custom-fitted boots and Volkl Mantras. Actually, I felt a lot ridiculous. The Volkls have a minimum speed before they start turning cleanly for me. At most mountains, it's not a very big deal to get up to speed - on the kind of run I like, usually I acquire enough speed just dropping in. Here, I had to straightline half of the longer run and then I could turn twice. The frustrating aspect of this is that Leavenworth Ski Hill isn't a small hill. They just don't run the tow very far up the mountain. Since nutcracker tows are illegal in the US, I suppose it would take a pretty large capital investment for them to use the hills they have, but I would gladly pay to ride a fixed-grip double to the top of what they have if it did go to the top. We ended up skiing the smaller run backwards a bunch of times and driving back to Seattle.

Sunday was the trip to Mt. Baker. Mt. Baker ski resort has some pretty sweet inbounds terrain, apparently formed by a combination of volcanic and glacial activity. It's quite steep, with interesting cliff bands, steep face runs, and some bowls and gullies. There was about four inches of fluff on top of older but decent quality snow. While it had been tracked out by the time we started making turns, it was fluffy enough not to pack too badly and the slopes were steep enough to deny access to people who couldn't ski it, so it was lots of fun all day. The Volkls rocked. They made the surface ski smoother and deeper than it was, turned when I wanted them to, and didn't get stuck or hook up, and they're deliciously stable. They're like magic skis.

Now I just need to figure out my next trip.

These three days were days 26-28 for me this season.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Skiing Vital Statistics (Day 24)

I'm narcissistic enough to use a hit counter on this blog, and I notice that lately I've been getting a ton of hits from searches on skiing topics. This blog is basically to give some context for my opinions on skiing equipment.

I'm a little below average size - 5'8" and 148 lbs. There are some larger skis out there that I have trouble decambering at the speeds I like to ski, which are pretty fast. For example, the 184 Mantra is a little much unless I'm charging much faster than I'm comfortable with, and very unwieldy for me on a traverse. However, I'm pretty aggressive. I think I'm about a level 8 if you're into that, but I'm the first to admit that "can ski moguls" is not the same as "can ski moguls with style," which isn't me yet. I'm not too comfortable with air, although I'll hit smaller rollers and drop off small verticals at the tops of things. So if you're reading my blogs concerning the Public Enemy, bear in mind that I wasn't using it as a freestyle ski. If the off-piste parts of a mountain aren't frozen solid, you'll find me there. Not that I don't like piste skiing. I just prefer the challenge of rocks, trees and chutes, and of course I'm all about powder when it's available.

On snowboarding topics - I started last year snowboarding only. I made the switch during the brief period in the '90s when snowboards were better than commonly available used ski equipment in terms of sidecut shapes and flex patterns. I was never comfortable in the air on the snowboard, and I never got as aggressive as I am now on skis. I liked to ride off-piste, but if the snow got too rutted out or moguled up, I'd switch to groomers. Because I mostly rode smoother conditions, I have a pretty stiff setup that lets me carve quite well but isn't the most forgiving. I ride a Salomon Seek 160, which is a relatively narrow board with an intermediate flex, and I have the front binding turned out a lot and the rear one set back 20mm and turned in slightly. This setup lets me sink the tail in powder without having to pull up on the front binding although it requires a smoother transition to avoid skidding on firmer surfaces.

Last year's equipment blogs reflect me as a much less skilled and much less aggressive skier. I was still thinking about rolling my ankles and tossing my hips around to control my weight and engage my edges, rather than pushing with my outside foot, as I do now. The topics this really effects are my opinions on the Bandit B2s and Elan M777s. I don't know if I'd like the 777s now - they're considered to be an extremely stiff ski - but I'm sure I'd have different things to say about them. The Bandits have become an extremely easy ski for me to ski in a variety of turn shapes, but I still don't think they're that great for soft snow, especially when it gets deep, and they do get very squirrelly in crud. I also dislike the lack of feedback I get from them, and I feel like I only get a rebound out of them if I flex them a lot, like in a very tight radius turn or in moguls.

Hopefully this gives a little more context for people who are unwise enough to use my opinions to aide in choosing a ski to spend money on.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

I *heart* these skis. (Day 22)

I went out and bought new skis today. I had a short list from my brother, who does his research and knows how I ski, and while I investigated those options I ended up on something else - the Volkl Mantra. My mother is currently skiing the Volkl Aura, which is the women's version of the Mantra and not a ski to be trifled with - definitely living up to the "Action Mom" moniker, so she encouraged me to try the Mantra when I was trying a rental ski yesterday that I would have been able to get a deal on.

The rental shop had last year's 184 Mantra, and it rocked my socks off. At the time, I was unable to try a Gotama or Katana, which was too bad, but I spent the day saying "This ski kicks ass." Today I did the demo thing at the retail store and tried the Mantra in 177cm (the 184 felt too long,) the Gotama in 176, and the Katana in 183. It was not a good soft snow day - the groomed runs were very fast and off-piste was mostly frozen crud in the morning. This suited my purpose pretty well. I'm looking forward to taking my new skis out on fresh snow, but since they're going to be my everything ski, I need them to be stable at high speed on less-than-brilliant surfaces and able to carve ice and crud.

Skiing the 177 Mantra felt awesome. It was like dancing with one of my favorite partners - the skis challenged me to be a better, stronger, cleaner skier, and they were receptive to everything I wanted to do. They felt great doing big, linked GS turns, which are my favorite kind, but they also felt great doing long, high-speed turns over bigger radii and when I wanted to do some short-radius turns they did that too. They weren't as much fun to ski moguls on as my late, lamented Public Enemies, but I could pilot them through at a reasonable speed and if I hit a bump square and caught air, they landed very nicely. They give great feedback, but also have a pretty big sweet spot. If my weight was back, I knew it, but I could carve the tails.

The Gotamas were interesting. I'm not sure if they're actually softer or just felt that way. They were a little easier to do a clean carve on - the Mantras didn't let me rush my transition and the Gotamas seemed slightly more forgiving in that respect. They were livelier, but on crud they weren't as smooth as the Mantras, which bothered me.

The Katanas were interesting as well. I only took one run on them, and if someone offered me a pair or I could afford to buy a dedicated powder ski right now, I'd be into them, but they weren't my ski. East Face was groomed today, so I was doing a test run down East Face, a very long, very steep straight run and down a shoulder immediately skier's left of East Face that tends to have the smoothest morning snow if it's been a little while since the last new snow and the freeze-thaw cycle is really kicking in. Because of the freeze-thaw cycle, East Face was basically a sheet of ice in the morning. The edge engagement of the Katana is odd - I couldn't just press with my outside leg and start engaging the edge. I had to really lay them over, and it wasn't as positive as I'd have liked. I actually slid out of a turn on East Face and lost a ski. After that, I decided that rather than completing the run down East Face, I'd traverse over to where I'd been doing my off-piste run. The skis didn't ski with the authority that the Mantras did - they seemed to have more desire to get on top of the crud, while the Mantras had been more interesting in holding their line. In the interests of giving the skis their best shot, I cut through some untracked patches near the bottom of the run. They do have an amazing ability to turn in smoother, deeper snow, but unfortunately that's not most of the skiing I do.

After handing in the Katanas, I bought a pair of Mantras and gave the shop guy my bindings. They're on their third pair of skis now and those poor brakes have been stretched far beyond what Salomon intended. I love those bindings, though. I completely forget them when I'm skiing and they always release when I need them to. Thanks, Mom.

After hurrying to get some food in me, me in a uniform, and the whole assemblage clocked in, my supervisor offered to let me go skiing for a couple more hours. Of course I accepted. Went out to the car and grabbed my Bandits, which I'd taken along as a backup ski on Saturday in case renting didn't work out and my brother's Public Enemies, which he wanted me to try, drove me nuts. It was an odd feeling to be on such a lightweight ski after spending the morning and the day before on Volkl fatties. I discovered the only soft snow on the mountain while skiing those - there's an odd little run called East Face that sits on the south side of the Mt. Lincoln ridge run travelling east. There's a cornice running south on its western border, and after about a hundred feet the ski area ends. There's a rope line through the middle of the run, with open/closed signs and a "don't hike above this sign" sign at the bottom that seems totally random and bizarre. Anyway, I'd dismissed this run in the past because it's very short, requires a traverse out, and faces south, which usually means thin coverage and bad snow. For whatever reason, I decided to give it a shot today. I think because I'd been hitting east-facing runs that seemed like they should be getting a lot of sun and finding very firm crud. It turned out to be really nice. It didn't take long before I started traversing along the cornice and dropping in (and I finally did a couple fully-airborne drops) before taking my couple of turns and traversing out.

In the afternoon I checked in with my department again. It must have been a very quiet day, because my supervisor and the dispatcher had both left, and when I was able to get in touch with the department head, she gave me the rest of the day. So I went to the retail shop and picked up my Mantras, complete with venerable S850 binding. Of course I went straight to my new discovery. Dropping in on the Mantras was a completely different feeling - the landing felt very solid, as if the skis wanted to stick it. The snow was mostly packed into big, soft moguls, and that was a very different feeling too. The B2s are amazing at slithering through the ruts in a mogul field. These skis don't do that, but it didn't mess up my line to go over a mogul or carve through it. Like my Atomics, they make the whole mountain ski smoother.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Does this make me extreme?

I managed to break a ski today. I don't think I was being stupid or going too fast. The conditions weren't brilliant, but we take what the Snow Gods dish out. I'd been planning to go to Alpine Meadows since I've got a ton of Sugar Bowl days and wanted to see something different, but it was raining when I left the cabin and since it's pretty high already here I figured I'd better go someplace really high. So I went to Mt. Rose, which I'm quite fond of for the Chutes runs there, which are exactly what they sound like. I didn't break my ski on one of those.

It was very windy at Rose, with the frontside runs being pretty much scraped out and a lot of exposed rock, mank, and weird mini-cornices everywhere that had more exposure. A lot of the ungroomed snow also had a fairly heavy quality; I later heard that it had drizzled a little bit in the morning before I got there. Between taking a while to leave the house, buying gas, and deciding to go to Rose, which is further away than Alpine, I didn't get there until 10:30.

Anyway, the best conditions were in the Chutes for a while, but the better ones got skied off and scraped out around 2:30 or 3 o'clock and I decided that there was too much exposed rock for me and started lapping the backside runs instead. Which are significantly easier.

It took me about one run on something groomed to decide that I wanted to drop in from between a couple big rocks and do the crud line under the lift. So I did. Sections of it were really bad, but sections of it skied really nicely too. I was having some trouble keeping the skis on the ground when I did it, so I thought I should try to link a bunch of short-radius turns rather than doing the bigger turns I generally prefer. I went over to the groomer on the next run and linked a bunch of short-radius turns, then went back and did the under-lift line again, although with an easier entry. It didn't take very long before I was doing my usual longer-radius turns again, going from perpendicular to the fall line to perpendicular to the fall line and transitioning slowly because the chatter was making it hard to do a clean turn any tighter. It was on one of these turns that I had a close encounter of the arboreal variety.

I'm not sure if I fell and then hit the tree or hit the tree and then fell. I think I probably got sucked into the treewell, then fell and hit the tree at about the same time. In any case, I caught it with the front half of my right ski and snapped it right above the binding, then stacked onto my skis. Those of my fans who like me intelligent and with full motor control will be glad to know that my head never came close to hitting anything. The binding released as it was supposed to and there was no pain, although I would have been happier if it had saved the ski too. After I got up and assessed the situation, I discovered that it's much harder to step back into a binding when it's attached to a broken ski.

At this point, a number of thoughts came to the surface of my mind.
"I'm not a person who breaks skis."
"I didn't hit that hard - it shouldn't have been enough to break a ski."
"I edged and waxed these last night."
"I wonder if I get enough street cred for this to look for a replacement on TGR?"
"I refuse to take a ride down with Ski Patrol in the sled."
"I'm not that good at carving on one ski, but I guess now is the time to learn."

Ultimately, I didn't do the one ski carving thing - I can handle putting all my weight on my uphill ski when I'm doing something that's not that steep and is smooth, but I was still in the middle of the tree run I'd been doing. I traversed to a smoother part, which wasn't that difficult, then took my first turn on the new setup. I caught broken ski at the fold and wiped out. After that I decided that the new game was going to be "keep the break out of the snow." I considered not putting my foot back in it and carrying it down on my shoulder, but decided that having poles where I was would be more helpful than removing the broken ski and only having the single unbroken ski to control my descent. So I did one turn centered and parallel, then leaned way back and did another one all the way on the tail of the broken ski. I pretty much alternated those for about two thirds of the vertical in the back bowl at that resort, and by the end I was even linking my turns.

There's another parking lot at the back side at Rose, and a shuttle is available for people who, for whatever reason, can't ski back to the main parking lot. I decided that I was proud enough of myself for skiing most of Rose's vertical on one and five eighths of a ski once, and didn't need to do it again. So I had the lift op call for the shuttle, and went into the lodge for a pit stop and a hot chocolate. The front side was bad enough on two skis.

That pair of skis is now back at Porter's Sports, where I bought them. They're going to contact K2 about a warranty replacement tomorrow when the manager they need is present and K2 should be available to contact, but they weren't very optimistic. I hope that K2 decides to replace them, and if they do I'll be happy enough to keep skiing Public Enemies, but I don't think I'll buy another pair if they don't. They were a great ski for me when I bought them, but I'm skiing more centered and more aggressively than I was at the time and I think it's time for something more. And better technique as well.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

19 Ski Days, new gear

15 Sugarbowl, and 4 Grand Targhee.

I spent the tail end of last season trying to get my ski boots to work for me. I thought I might have solved the problem I was having with them - shin bang - but because of how bruised my shins and ankles were by that time, I couldn't tell. The problem came screaming back during the Grand Targhee trip at the beginning of the season. I even spent a day in rental boots and part of the next trying a pair of Salomons that I thought might be better. The conclusion from all that was that my Tecnicas weren't working for me, but the Salomons wouldn't either. My first ski day at Sugarbowl was actually half on the snowboard and half on skis in new boots. I knew it would be a busy day, so I did first tracks on the board before going to Granite Chief down in Truckee.

When I bought my Tecnicas last season, it was from the back room at Summit Snowboard, which Sugarbowl owns and uses to dump some of its older ski equipment as a sideline to selling snowboards. Needless to say, the boot fitting process was done entirely by me, and not very well. I got the shell fit right in terms of sizing, but my skinny little heel and ankle get lost in that part of the boot. I spent a bunch of the very end of the season trying to save the boots, including getting the tongue shimmed, parts of the liner trimmed, material added to the liner, and a booster strap. That setup sort-of worked if I skied with the buckles quite loose, but that resulted in a sloppy feel. Unlocking the flex helped too, but made things even more sloppy.

This time, one of Granite Chief's three boot fitters helped me. These guys spend most of their time at the store selling or working on ski boots, and I overheard one of the more junior sales staff being instructed to spend his downtime trying on boots. They know their stock. The process started with me talking about where I ski and whining about what I didn't like about my old boots. Then I think I tried on about half a dozen different boots that were close but wrong in one way or another before ending up in the Rossignols I ultimately bought. Funny enough, the first pair of Rossis I tried were excruciating, but one shell size larger and they work really well. After choosing the boot model, the fitter, James, balanced it. I'm not entirely sure what that means, but it involves standing on a plate with lasers, setting the cuff cant, and something done in the back room, probably grinding the boot board. Finally I had the teeth the buckles engage moved to a tighter notch and my booster strap transferred over from the previous boots. I'd dropped in my foot beds during the process of trying on different pairs. After all that, I bought the boots, went back up to Sugarbowl, and had time for a little bit of skiing before the end of the day. My turns were magically more even, and the shin bang pain is gone. Sweet.

The other big gear issue for this season was a pair of Atomic GS 11 racing skis I bought in the Fall. During the Grand Targhee trip, I went to have the binding set and tested for my boots and the bindings failed a safety check. I was eventually able to get them replaced at the Starthaus, but between work, a little faulty information, and not wanting to front a whole bunch of money since I wanted to get them replaced by the eBay seller, it took some time. So, of course, when I went to the Starthaus I was able to fill out a warranty form and pick up the skis mounted with a new binding the next day. I could have done it the same day if I didn't have to drive to Sacramento and pick up a friend.

One of the things I love about my racing bike is how it can be fast, responsive, smooth, snappy and comfortable all at the same time. I'm used to the idea that when you make something better in one respect it loses in others, but the racing bike is just better at everything than other road bikes I've had. I haven't owned any other carving skis, but compared to the piste performance of my other skis, the new racing skis are also better at everything. They hook up incredibly well, turn like they're on a track, transition beautifully, and make the mountain ski smoother. As long as I keep my wait centered over the binding, they're also incredibly easy to ski. I just push with my outside leg and they turn. I had them out for a while in the afternoon today on more beat up surfaces than the smooth groomers I'd had them on in the past and it turns out that they're even good in moguls. Between the stability and low swing weight, as long as I stayed centered and charged, they were fine. The only things I can think of to dislike about these skis is that they don't transform into powder skis or possibly a jet fighter and they make the mountain ski smaller. There's only one run at Sugarbowl that's long enough for me to want to control my speed on these to keep them at a speed I'm comfortable with - I mainly control my speed because the runs are open and I'm afraid that if I cross another run or go over a roller too fast I'll find someone waiting around for me to hit them. I generally don't like Northstar very much, but I think I need to pay them a visit at some point this season so that I can do the backside the way it's layed out to be done.

Now that I've experienced these skis, I'm really sorry that most people never get to use true racing equipment. These things are way too much fun. Not that I'm complaining. When I got to try a carving snowboard, it showed me how much more responsiveness a snowboard can be made to have. One of the things I think I'm gaining from using the Atomics from time to time is
a better feel for what carving feels like when it's working. No piece of equipment can make me a better skier, but these skis give me much better feedback as to how well I'm skiing and I think they're helping me to make me a better skier.

I'm still loving the Public Enemies, but since we're actually getting storms this year, I may need to demo some powder skis if I do another longish trip to Tahoe.