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Yankees Can Learn to Ski Western Powder

Learning to Ski Powder at Aspen Highlands


Yankees Can Learn to Ski Western Powder

Follow The Leader

Copyright Mike Doyle

Can a couple of proficient Yankee skiers ski in snow they're not used to - like maybe powder over the edges of their skis? Yes they can, powder skiing is definitely a learned skill that Easterners can master. I know, because I sought out an Easterner turned Aspen Ski School Instructor to give my daughter and myself some needed pointers in the art of skiing powder. Katie and I met up Jeff Nagel, born and raised on skis in New York and New Hampshire, and now an Aspen/Snowmass PSIA instructor at Aspen Highlands, and set out to ski some not too very deep powder.

Even though Aspen had not gotten a significant storm in a couple of days we knew there were areas of deep untracked snow but that was not really where we wanted to be. As Jeff indicated, you don't learn to swim by being thrown in water over your head, you first learn the techniques of floating then swimming and this applies also to skiing powder.

Powder School

Our lesson day was cloudy and very cold when we started school at 9 AM. We reviewed our skiing experience with Jeff so he could get an idea what terrain we should start on. We then headed up on the Exhibition chairlift, a high speed quad that took us mid-mountain and put us at the Merry-Go-Round restaurant where we would be taking several breaks throughout the morning.

Lessons are important but so is safety and after a couple of short warm-up runs Jeff noticed Katie catching a little white on her face between her goggles and her gaitor. We immediately stopped, warmed up, wrapped up better, and then noticed Katie's water reservoir tube had frozen! Leaving this to thaw, we watered up and headed back out. Remember, even though all three of us were New Yorkers and a little cold wasn't going to stop us, it's necessary to stay safe.

Once back on the slopes we headed to the summit and worked our way down the blue square Broadway trail. Then it was into some ungroomed little side trails where we could start to get a feel of some powder over our boots. This is deep enough to feel a little buoyancy of the snow underfoot. Jeff knew that as Eastern based skiers we are naturally inclined to favor weighting the downhill ski while turning, and that's one of the biggest problems to overcome when skiing powder.

Floating on the Snow

You can visualize what actually happens once it's explained properly by someone who, like Jeff, has been there and done that. In deep powder you are actually floating and not riding on a firm, solid base, so when you "push" on your downhill ski you are throwing yourself off a balanced and floating plane. Once you have that visual in your mind, you can see why you get immediately out of balance by sending the downhill ski deeper into the snow than the other ski.

If you think of it as floating or skimming you can understand why "powder skis" are wider and create more of a surface much as a surfboard does in water. Once you have that concept down pat you can run some not too deep blue trails, pickup a little speed, and staying centered over your skis you will feel the lifting effect. This balanced stance is the center you will keep to start making turns. How best to learn this is to follow an instructor.

Katie and I skied most of the morning off the Cloud Nine chair, following Jeff to the sides of the groomed trails and down some short black trails that had some deeper snow off the not so big bumps. You can learn a lot of the basic powder technique in a morning lesson, but proficiency comes with practice and learning to use an easy up and down motion through the turns. Jeff mentioned that even back East you can practice this particularly on the sides of trials after a snowfall.

Jeff, who likes to hike up to Highland Bowl and who backcountry skis in Alaska, didn't get us into anything too deep, because falling and getting up in deep powder is a whole other day's lesson. Think about it for a minute - if your ski comes off, it doesn't stop right there because the brakes aren't digging into anything solid. The ski could be 10 feet away - somewhere under the powder! Beside that, getting yourself upright again without struggling like a beached whale has to be learned by most Easterners.

Learning the Basics

It was a fun day learning the basics of powder skiing and taking some action photos, surrounded by what many powder skiers consider the ultimate in-bounds backcountry powder skiing in North America. When you learn from an Aspen/Snowmass instructor who knows the snow you have been brought up skiing on and knows the style you bring to the powder it gives you that added confidence of "Yes, I can learn to do that, too."

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with a complimentary class for the purpose of reviewing those services. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our ethics policy.

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