Secrets of the Steep

"Do not panic." And other wise words from 1978 about skiing steep terrain in Taos

By Weems Westfeldt

In celebration of POWDER’s 45th Anniversary, we are releasing select stories from every volume. This story originally published in POWDER’s September 1978 issue (Volume 7, Issue 1).

Two young Texans were walking through the parking lot at Taos Ski Valley, looking in astonishment at Al’s Run and Snakedance, and remarking nervously to each other about the steepness. A passing ski instructor could not resist the opportunity; and with a straight face, casually allowed as those were the beginner’s slope and that the steep stuff was over on the backside. He reported later that the whites of their eyes could be seen at 100 yards.

I know how those Texans felt. I’m a newcomer to Taos. Having taught for many years at other areas with generally less pitch, I came here to learn the Steep. On my first day here, several of the instructors went out for a run, and I, being eager to strut my stuff, decided to tag along. Up to the top of Stauffenberg Chute we went where even the weakest skier in the bunch cast himself with whoops and holler into the abyss. And there I was, standing frozen, heart beating loudly, looking down between my ski tips into the yawning void, wondering just what the hell it was that I thought I was doing there. But, aware of the subtle pressure of my colleagues, I also let out a whoop (which sounded more like a groan) and attacked the narrow chute. I did not ski well that day, but I did begin to remember what skiing near my limit felt like.

You can’t beat the mountain. It knows nothing of man’s will and courage, and couldn’t care less. What it does understand is gravity, snow behavior, and grace. And you have to move within in its laws and its processes.

It turns out that the Steep really is one of the special ultimates of skiing. Witness some of the feelings of the Taos professionals. Kevin Beardsley, ski patrol leader, spoke of a special exhilaration with the steep avalanche chutes. He described the self-challenge of passing through the barrier of your own limitations into a state where commitment and spontaneity are forced upon you. You can’t hold back and you can’t make plans. Jean Meyer, the technical director of the ski school, notes a definite need for increased awareness and a nonaggressive sensitivity balanced against the need to use more athletic and muscular movement to keep the speed down. Ski patrolman Bruce Halothouse described the lovely feeling of free-falling through each turn, while Sick Lunceford, another patrolman, mentioned a definite timelessness while gliding down steep terrain. And, according to Ski School Director Ernie Blake, the Steep clearly forces you to be correct in your timing and movement.

The Steep places the skier in a very special relationship to gravity. The need to control speed, to be aware of avalanches, to avoid falling, and to ski well places special demands on the concentration and technique of the skier. But the results are rapturous. There is an increase in adrenalin flow, a moment of taking fear and turning it into exhilaration. Also here can be a definite passage into the magical state of graceful coexistence with the various physical truths inherent in a snowy surface on a steep mountainside. It seems to me that this last point about harmony with the hill is right at the heart of the matter.

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None of the local pros I spoke with discussed the Steeps in terms of pitting themselves against the challenge themselves, but significantly, they do not place themselves in an adversary relationship with the mountain they are planning to ski. There is no sense of “me” against “it.” The day of my first disaster on Stauffenberg Chute was a day of challenge, bravery, and ego performance pressure. I “attacked” the chute, slashing and tearing, and naturally, being a chute which easily contains avalanches, it spit me out in much the same manner as Everest did to the Japanese version of Evel Knievel several years back. You can’t beat the mountain. It knows nothing of man’s will and courage, and could care less. What it does understand is gravity, snow behavior, and grace. And you have to move within in its laws and its processes. Climbers instinctively understand the need for harmony and movement within the limits, and they are instantly made aware of the consequences of breaking the rules. Hilary didn’t conquer Everest. Everest let him up. Surfers have a similar genius for playing within the power of a wave without ever imagining that they could prevail against it. Even Alpine skiers, urbanized, commercialized, land raping, slope grooming lift riders–even we, from time to time, during our best runs, become aware of the face that there is no “I” verus “it” in skiing. Instead, we become the process of relation to subtle changes in pressures, speed and textures, creating an exquisite, ego-less dance.

But the Steep is different right? The technical requirements are magnified and errors less easily forgiven. The pull of gravity is ineluctable, and the possibility of excess speed and subsequent loss of control becomes a barrier to any sort of forward motion. (I have seen people in relatively steep terrain actually refuse to move their skis forward. They sideslip down, sidestep up, and walk nervously backwards, but absolutely cannot break through the air in front of them.) The probability of performance failure and the possibility of injury present themselves in such a way as to make the commitment to movement nearly impossible. But the commitment has to be there. The skis have to be forced into the breach and the body has to be aggressively moved away from the hill. A risk has to be made. A choice must take place. The skier must attack!

We seem to have a paradox on our hands. If we cannot challenge the mountain, if we are suppose to “let it happen” and move in harmony with the elements, how can we make that aggressive, attacking commitment necessary to steep skiing? Which is it? Attack it or flow with it?

The answer is both. There really is no contradiction here. The problem is in our conceptualization. We must understand for skiing the Steep, that skiing is neither like yoga or boxing, but that it is more like karate. It contains both violent and fluid components in its approach to the environment. The edges must be like scalpels–sure and delicate. The skier must move like a bullfighter with grace and deadly precision. This, then, is the challenge the skier must face: How to move spontaneously between active and passive modes and relationships within the special and unforgiving environment of the Steep.

We must understand, for skiing the Steep, that skiing is neither like yoga or boxing, but that it is more like karate. It contains both violent and fluid components in its approach to the environment.

How? How do we meet that challenge successful? How do we go through the fear, the hesitation, the speed, the lack of concentration, and all that clutter that is necessary to leave behind in order to create the dance? How do we arrive at the attitude which allows us to make those moves? And what are the moves?

One of the secrets seems to be a temporary demystification of the environment. I talked at some length with Max Killinger and Chilton Anderson, both supervisors in the ski school at Taos Ski Valley, and they both seemed almost confused when you talk about the special thrills of the Steep. Both men are experienced steep terrain skiers and are very sharp about choosing just the right terrain for their classes. But they, and others here in Taos, do not seem to spend much time thinking about the Steep as opposed to other sorts of terrain. Bruce Holthouse of the ski patrol, said that he feels that the Steep is very exciting, but so is a well-carved turn on intermediate terrain. Jean Meyer even goes so far as to say that he prefers the sensitivity to the snow that can be developed in the environment where breaking speed is not the best priority. All of these men are excellent steep mountain skiers, all of them look at the Steep as simply one of many advanced skiing situations, and all are aware that all slopes look like cliffs to some people. Their efforts seem to be more holistic in the sense that they think about skiing in general more than the Steep in isolation.

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I find myself, after a season here (I’m a slow learner), beginning to feel the same way. One starts to look at the Steep more objectively as one becomes accustomed. I feel I am entering that comfortable place where the Steep does not appear to be steeper than it actually is. An amusing example of this type of attitude took place when I asked patrol leader Kevin Beardsley about it. I said, “What do you feel, for example, when you’re at the top of Al’s Run?”

“Oh,” he said, “I thought you were talking about steep terrain–like slopes of 50 degrees or more.”

It’s all relative, huh! The trick is in realizing that the Steep and the snow within it are variable. Good steep skiing happens when you take each turn, each situation, as it comes. And when you realize that the moves in the Steep are the same as the moves in normal skiing, only more intense.

Learning to ski and enjoy the Steep involves learning to completely divest oneself of all concern with anything other than the mechanical move of the legs and skis on the snow. The reason it is so difficult is that all of the extraneous thoughts about future disaster or past failure must be eliminated in the very face of their imminent presence. In order for disaster to be avoided, its possibility must be ignored in favor of simple rhythmic, mechanical moves. The oncoming turn must not be filled with “Oh God, this is steep; I hope I don’t go too fast; I hope I don’t die, I hate my ski instructor.” Instead, we must have, “Drive through, plant the pole at the edge and drive through again.” Or better yet, as Scooter lecoultre says, “Turn the Mothers.” In other words, to ski the Steep, you must concentrate on skiing, instead of on the Steep.

The moves themselves become more definite and precise on the Steep. The need to slow down at the end of each turn is more mandatory than aesthetic. Therefore, the knee and ankle flexing movements which absorb the impact of losing altitude in the turn and which bring the downhill ski back underneath the body, cannot be stored or stiffly performed. They must be firm, continuous and precisely timed. The stabilizing influence of a proper pole plant, superfluous in the flats, becomes an integral part of the balancing act in the Steep and actually helps create anticipatory tension for the turn. The decision to edge early on a weighted ski or pivot first on an unweighted ski or pivot first on a unweighted ski becomes a much more critical determinant of the overall radius and speed of the turn. Commitment must be total and correction time is limited.

On Steep, everything is magnified so that normal mental and physical skiing skills must be employed with a much higher degree of concentration. And that brings us to the point of skiing in the Steep. Its beauty and its challenge are to be found in its need for heightened concentration and heightened awareness.

Pointers: If the attitude is right and the concentration is there, there are certain special tricks to help creak through some of the psychological barriers.

1. Do not stop. Stopping gives the meantime to cloud up. The “looming” effect takes over. The steepness looms up before you, your imminent demise looms into your mind-view, the inevitable failure looms onto your ego. Keep moving, you won’t have the time for all that garbage.

2. Do not traverse. Some clever souls learn to psych themselves out even while moving. The body-mind, uncommitted to descent, becomes idle with nothing to do but scare itself to death. If you are in doubt about where to turn, turn right there. You have already waited too long.

3. Do not abandon ship. There is a strong temptation to project the body weight off of the skis, causing the downhill ski to take you for a ride. You must realize that there are two parts to the turn, that the body must first move straight down the hill in order to stay over the accelerating skis enough to drive them through to the end.

4. Do not plant the pole before the tip of the ski. You have too far to go to get around it. Reach down the fall line from your boot and plant the pole directly underneath the outstretched hand. This will help block the torso in a manner facing downhill, and at the same time, draw the body out away from the hit to allow freedom of movement of the legs.

5. Do not look around for a nice place to turn. You won’t find it. The place to turn is right down the hill from you, so keep your eyes in the fall line.

6. Do not ski technically different than on the flat. Change weight and edge wisely, extend against the inside edge of the outside ski, bend you knees to come through, and turn the mothers. It’s all the same, one you have to commit more faithfully.

7. Do not hug the hill. The desire to hold onto the hill is a perfectly sound one and should be indulged. But the body should move away from the hill so that the holding on can be done with the edges. The edges are stronger than the fingernails.

8. Do not panic. Steep or flat, you butt is the same distance off the ground.

9. Do not go to the Steep immediately. Practice in the flats first. You have to learn to walk before you can fly.

10. Do you get discouraged. It’s not that you can’t do it. It’s that you haven’t practiced.