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In Defense of Tree Skiing
Yes, two celebrities died crashing into trees. But skiing deep powder in the untracked woods remains one of the greatest thrills on snow.

By John Briley
The Washington Post
Sunday, January 25, 1998; Page E01

My first true experience tree skiing involved neither skiing, in the conventional sense of that word, nor trees, at least in the plural. I was with friends atop one of the many wide bowls in Vail, Colo., a foot of fresh snow underfoot. We were staring down at a vast and untouched pitch of snow, a white blur interrupted by a solitary pine tree some 200 yards down. Having never skied raw powder before, and having spent most of my time on well-groomed trails, I sought advice.

"Just bounce back and forth, with your skis about shoulder-width apart, and pretend there's a basketball under your boards that you have to rotate your feet over on every turn," my friend Dave told me. "Give it a try. You can't get hurt here, this place is wiiiide open." I set out, pointing roughly downhill along the ridiculously steep slope. Within seconds I found myself traveling at a speed not conducive to bouncing back or forth, and certainly not conducive to envisioning basketballs beneath my heels. Like a true novice, I stuck my arms out wide as though I might fly my way out of trouble, and proceeded into a swooping arc that planted me directly in the path of the solitary tree, the only one anywhere nearby. A nanosecond before a certain bone-crushing impact, I flailed backward, kicking my skis skyward, and landed a confused mess in the lower branches of the stoic pine. The tree did not flinch.

My friends arrived seconds later in a laughing pack, and tried to reinstruct me on just how to ski powder. I did not know it at the time, but I had just embarked on a more lofty crusade -- a mission to learn to ski the powder that lies among the trees.

A few weeks ago, 12 years after my first smooch with a pine tree, I was dancing through one of the few groves of tightly packed trees found at Squaw Valley, Calif., on Lake Tahoe, laughing my way through three feet of fresh powder with friends, fully confident that I was among the last people on that mountain likely to run into a tree while skiing.

I have, through those 12 years, grown to rank tree skiing as a passion, a subject of my daydreams, a major factor in my winter vacation choices and an activity I would never give up voluntarily, no matter how many celebrities die doing something that appears very similar. Roughly 24 hours after we slashed through the Squaw forest, somewhere near the south end of Lake Tahoe, Sonny Bono missed a turn, hit a tree and died. Or perhaps Bono didn't miss a turn (skiers' parlance for failing to get the skis around, on time, to where your brain said they should be). Maybe he caught an edge, lost balance and found his body leaning to the side, an uncontrollable mass of flesh and bone headed for dead-solid wood. Or he may have crossed his skis' tips and lunged forward. Or, another possibility still, his skis may have slid beneath a hidden branch, tripping him up like a runner encountering fish line strung across his path. Such accidents happen, weekly if not daily, on ski hills around the world. And they are far more likely to have fatal consequences upon those who choose to hurtle downhill in close proximity to immovable objects.

So, then, why take that chance? Why risk spine-ripping injury or death when there is as much speed to be found on the more open runs provided by every commercial ski operation, when even a minor screw-up in the woods could leave you stranded on a mountain alone, at night, in bitter cold?

"The trees offer beautiful terrain, breathtaking scenery, challenging skiing and snow that is protected from the wind and the sun by those very trees," says my friend and fellow tree skier John Muldoon, who spent the 1990-91 season skiing in Jackson Hole, Wyo. "And if you know where you're going and you ski in control -- that's the key -- you will have the time of your life."

Ski industry groups decline to estimate the number of skiers who take to the woods, but a significant minority of resorts, most located in the West, promote their "glade skiing" or "tree skiing" areas. My own experience suggests that tree skiers are a tiny cult that varies with the resident culture of each mountain. In Park City, Utah, a few years ago, some 10 days after the most recent snowfall, I led some friends into one of my favorite steep glades. I feared the powder had long ago been discovered and slashed away. But to my pleasant surprise we found the 15 inches that the last squall had dropped totally intact, ignored by perhaps thousands of other skiers who'd passed nearby every day. Every ski resort has its ski bums, those in-between-real-lifers who spend a season or a year living and working at a ski mountain. They tend to exhaust the groomed runs after just a few weeks, and often head to the trees. Some resorts have a handful of tree skiing bums, some dozens.

Muldoon, like all who have spent time exploring the mountain hardwood, has seen his share of close calls. He recalls "flying through the trees one day, a treacherously steep pitch, when a friend of mine went flying head first through the top of a tree. She was semiconscious, upside down in the upper branches of this tree, hanging from her skis and powerless to undo her bindings. If I hadn't been there, who knows?"

Another acquaintance, Craig, who lost four friends to skiing accidents during four years in Vail, has a far more gruesome tale. "This guy I knew was tucking down the women's downhill run at the end of the day, I mean Mach 5, no-holds-barred speed, and something happened," he said, his face darkening. "No one knows what, but he skidded off the trail, flew into the woods and ended up impaled on a 15-inch branch sticking out of a pine tree . . . about 10 feet from the run where all these people were skiing by."

So what, again, is the allure of skiing in tree groves? It's the utter peace and quiet of gliding through winter's most exquisite portrait, with mounds of glistening snow atop and around pines, guarded from the wind, deaf to the shrill atmosphere of a packed slope and oblivious to almost everything else around you. It is the rhythm of sinking into and floating out of nature's goose-down pillow, turn after turn, as your adrenaline rises and yet you grow calmer. On certain runs, it approaches a soul-cleansing experience, leaving you breathless and free of all worry, with only one goal: back to the top for another go.

But such pleasures don't come without stipulations.

"Rule number one," friend and expert skier Sean Casey said on the day he taught me to ski in the forest, "is never do this alone, no matter how good you get or how good the skiing is. You screw up in here and bonk your head on a tree, nobody will find you for days, maybe even ever." Rule No. 2: "Don't look at the trees, look at the openings between them. You will gravitate to what you are looking at and if you focus on the trees you're probably going to smack into one."

A third rule, which has unquestionably saved my life: "Always make sure you can stop." Even armed with such wisdom, a venture beyond the relative safety of the marked runs is indeed a risk, and only for the well-trained and highly experienced skier, someone who has mastered all the standard downhill moves and is in excellent physical condition as well. A middling weekend hack who decides to try tree skiing alone and without instruction is a statistic waiting to be tallied.

"I did have a friend hit a tree the other day, because he and another guy were skiing too close together," said Bob Hartenstine, ski school supervisor at Vail. "Luckily, he was all right. But most incidents are due to distractions or to not paying attention."

Curtis Crooks, assistant patrol director at Squaw, advises taking safety a step further. "If it's new snow, and a lot of it, we recommend skiing with a transceiver," a Walkman-size device worn mostly by back-country skiers to allow them to find each other in the event of avalanche or other catastrophe. On a 1996 helicopter skiing trip in the Canadian Rockies, I received a 30-minute training course in using a transceiver to find buried skiers and am pleased to report the devices work. (One popular transceiver is marketed by Ortovox and retails for around $250.)

As an incurably dedicated tree skier, I welcome the admonitions. I love to hear people question the sanity of speeding down forested pitches. The more people who shy away from my paradise, the longer the powder stays virgin for me -- and the more the people who are at higher risk for injury will stay on the well-groomed runs. I suppose I may well die in there one day, but if this happens, I'll die happy.

So the next time you're swooping down a well-trafficked blue run and hear yelps of joy from behind a dark pine curtain -- exhalations that sound as though the trees themselves are laughing at the world -- consider what you're missing and think about giving it a try. But remember: Don't look at the trees.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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