Peter Kendrick's enthusiasm for skiing puts mine to shame. He bought his first pair of skis in Bethesda before Christmas. He dislocated his shoulder at Stowe in Vermont after Christmas. And here he was, eight days later and after a full day's work, standing beside his 1965 Volkswagen in downtown D.C. at 5:30 p.m. with skis in hand, ready for a 75-mile dash to Pennsylvania for a few hours of night skiing at Liberty, a resort with a modest 550-foot vertical drop that received five inches of new snow last weekend.
"After skiing ice in Vermont, this first snow might teach us more than a dozen lessons," Kendrick said, "except that a lot of skiers might be chasing the same snowflake. It could be crowded." I agreed and recalled that while last weekend's snow was still falling I had expected solitude but had encountered almost 60 other cross-country skiers in Rock Creek Park. We had figured that herds of alpine skiers would head for the slopes on the weekend, so we had waited for night skiing during the week.
A midweek survey of regional ski resorts showed that the season's first snow had helped, but hadn't completely solved the problems of, what has been a late-starting season for Eastern skiers. From West Virginia to the Poconos, resorts that had been operating with only limited skiing on machine-made snow were able to open additional slopes and trails, but most areas are still trying to lay down machine-made snow every night that the temperature is below freezing. Generally temperatures were favorable during the week, and mountain temperatures were running five to ten degrees cooler than in Washington.
Liberty is typical of present ski conditions. Its base is 10 to 30 inches, almost all artificial, and it has made snow all week. "The real change that the snow brought was in the crowd," said Hans Geier, the general manager. "On Sunday we sold 3,100 tickets, up from 1,400 a week earlier." Lift lines ran about half an hour on the weekend, according to Geier, but during the week most of the slopes were open and evening lift lines were almost non-existent. Conditions were good, but didn't seem to warrant the "excellent" rating given out over the phone.
Machine-made snow is the life's blood of resorts like Liberty in the southern and mid-Atlantic states. Even Vermont is becoming dependent on artificial snow to meet the demands of increased numbers of skiers who quickly turn natural snow into ice. The importance of artificial snow, despite last weekend's gift from the clouds, is more than academic. In my opinion it affects the equipment we should consider, the technique we should use on the slopes, and even how and how often we fall.
Artificial snow contains only a tenth as much air as natural snow. Heavier than natural snow, it tends to ice up, and because of its minute ball-bearing texture, it will shift like sand under your skis if it hasn't iced up. From these observations I reach this heresy: the days of short, soft skis are numbered in the East because of the advantages of longer and stiffer skis on hardpack, ice and artificial snow. Since most of us use skis that reach from the ground to somewhere between our chests and our chins, I'll explain my deviance.
Shorter skis became popular 15 to 20 years ago when it became clear that the ski boom meant that the slopes would be covered with packed, rather than powdery, snow. Long skis, as once measured from the ground to the palm of a hand held overhead, were necessary for powder but not for hardpack. Shorter and softer skis were easier to turn and to learn on. That led to the graduated-length method of instruction, which starts skiers on waist-high skis.
Skiing at Liberty on its hard-packed artificial snow, however, reminded me of the limits of this approach. Short skis don't have enough edge to bite into hardpack or ice, and soft skis can't make the edge cut. Longer and stiffer skis have more edge and more bite, and heavier laminated fiberglass skis, such as Rossignols or Dynastars, rather than lighter glass-wrapped skis with a foam core, such as K-2s, seem to do a better job of pushing around the little ball bearings of artificial snow.
Shorter skis also have encouraged skiers to sit too far back. Recall how you learned. You started with snowplow turns, and because the skis were short you didn't have to worry about crossing the tips. You controlled your speed by thrusting against the snow, and too often you did fine by thrusting through your heels and carving turns with the rear of your edges. Shorter skis meant that people could get by with less tip control.
However, on ice and hardpack, so common with artificial snow and increased skiing traffic, the problems of sitting back, the lack of tip control and short soft skis all emerge. You could see this at Liberty and you can see it anywhere in the East; people hit ice or hardpack and their skis spin out with the tails lurching to the side and the edges failing to hold. The characteristic fall is to land on the hip with the torso going back and the feet forward as your feet spin out, forward and away from you. It's a fall that stops you, as opposed to falling directly to the side onto the hip, from which you can often recover immediately without ever stopping. That is the characteristic fall of people who ski forward with their knees correctly over their toes and who carve turns with the forward part of their edges.
The catch is that you won't see that type of fall very often, because people who fall like that fall rarely. You'll see these skiers on longer and stiffer skis, and you'll see them handling the ice, hardpack and machine-made snow. That's my heresy resulting from our first snow. It taught me, just as Kendrick said it would: Despite the recent snowfall, Eastern skiing is still on machine-made snow.