This story originally ran in the December 2015 issue of POWDER (44.4). PHOTO: Adam Clark
We stood above our line, a dogleg couloir, and stared down its gut, which was steep enough to give pause, yet wide enough to boost confidence. To go first or to go last? I looked up to the endless blue ocean of sky and snow-capped peaks and then over to my friend, who stood on the other side of the notched entrance. Her eyes focused downward. Her smile betrayed her excitement. She wanted this line, this opportunity, this challenge, this rush. I gave her dibs. "Just take it slow," I said. She nodded, grinned, pushed forward, hopped around one turn--not quite slow enough--another turn, and that's when she fell. I don't know what caused the trip, but time dropped to a half tempo. I thought she would stop quickly. Instead, she picked up speed. One ski clipped off. Then the other. She gained momentum. The somersaults started. And she tumbled around the bend. I couldn't see what happened next.
Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. A friend who is former military shared the mantra he learned in boot camp with me.
A wise and experienced skier once told me in a thick French accent, "Ven you ski in ze backcountry, you ski at ze 50 percent." But skiing slowly is hard. I love to ski fast. Instinct tells me to lean into my turns, to let it fly, to feel the wind in my face and bend those knees so I can absorb all the snow's imperfections, full speed ahead. I learned how to ski by chasing people who were faster than me, mimicking their every movement. But that did not teach me technique. That taught me speed. I learned how to keep up before I actually learned how to ski.
Last winter, I started a mission to ski slowly by skiing last. Let the people and the peer pressure go. Slowing things down a notch or two brought me back to the basics and gave me the freedom to ski turn by turn. I heard the voice of my ski instructor from when I was 6 years old telling me to squeeze the tomatoes in my downhill boot. I had the time to think about the angle of my hips and knees in relation to my skis, to remember to keep my arms low and ahead, to carve a stable edge into the hardpack, to visualize a clean line through the bumps.
Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. A friend who is former military shared the mantra he learned in boot camp with me. I took it as my own and spoke it every day, using it to boost my confidence every time I stepped up to a technical dance down steep terrain on firm snow. Then a funny thing happened. For the first time in my life, skiing a line smoothly became more important than skiing it fast. Arcing a turn until the very end, gracefully unweighting one ski and weighting the other, engaging my core, pushing my shoulders down--mastering all of those myriad little movements to fly down a mountain is what skiing is really about. Only then, after I had rediscovered the art of making a beautiful, fluid, confident, and clean turn, did I allow myself to pick my speed back up. This time, I deserved it.
Back at the top of the couloir, my mind was racing. Ski in control. Did she stop? Find her skis. Is she hurt? Don't fall. The snow gripped my edges and linked up my turns. I found one ski, then the other, and kept going down. I saw her as soon as I came around the bend in the chute. She easily tomahawked a thousand feet. Her boots finally dug into the snow at the bottom of the couloir, stopping her in a seated position. Her cheeks were red and scratched from the ice. Snow was lodged in the spaces between her jacket and neck. Her goggles somehow stayed attached to her helmet, but they were dangling behind. She lowered her head into her hands. A quick assessment revealed a minor tweak in the knee, but nothing serious. We paused, and then realized we still had a long ways to ski to get back to the lifts. She regained composure and I held out my hand. "We'll just take it slow."