I’m not going to sugar coat it. If you’re living in the east, this winter so far…rhymes with ducks. It’s hard for skiers to feel the joy of the season when greeted with a palette entirely composed of mixed browns. That said, these situations always provide some upside, or at least an opportunity for growth.
In times like these—as in California’s dreaded winter of 76, when our ski team went for a hike deep in Desolation Wilderness (in tennis shoes) on New Year’s Day—my Dad’s favorite adage comes to mind: “All snow is good snow.” That includes the proverbial white ribbon of death, an apt description for the only ski trails available to eastern skiers thus far.
If it wasn’t clear before, I think we can all now agree that snow would have been the most appreciated gift this holiday season. Without it, we are tethered to bare earth, which is totally fine for those who do not appreciate the alternative. This season so far is one big reminder of what a unique and sacred privilege it is to be able to glide through our mountains with our people.
The absence of that privilege tipped off, first, moderate depression, and then significant freaking out about how and where to find training and racing possibilities. It is understandable, after putting in all the work over the summer and early season, and creating momentum towards racing season, to want to keep it going. It’s a shame to waste all that prep and abdicate to fate by pressing pause. So we scramble. We look for snow further north, for cheap airline tickets west, for any possible interface with the white stuff.
Even amidst the chaos, it is worthwhile to take a moment and step back, to remember the long road. As critical as every phase of every ski season seems at the time, great athletes and great skiers have and will always find a way to succeed in less than ideal circumstances.
One way to think of this disastrous season is to look at it as one of skiing’s many unpredictable challenges. An enforced break like this is almost like having an injury—in this case an acute lack of snow injury. As with snowless seasons, it is never the right time to get injured. However, very often people come back from injuries stronger. This happens because, after a requisite and understandable period of sulking, they switch gears and figure out how to make the most of their time off snow.
Tommy Ford, who effectively took two years off due to a nasty broken femur, is a fine example of this. Would he have been able to win a World Cup run at Alta Badia (Haus of gnarl) any sooner in his career had be been slogging his way up the ranks all that time? We’ll never know, but certainly something happens when you are deprived of what you love to do. You value it more, focus on each opportunity more, and cherish the good times more.
This regionally-specific crisis is also a good time to recognize that the ski racing world is small and that we’re all in it together. A shout-out here to the programs and ski areas in the east that have figured out how to get training, pull off races and make plans to find time on snow. And a HUGE shout-out to the programs and ski areas in the west that have been able and willing to accommodate the snow refugees from the east. Survival of this sport depends on such flexibility, hospitality, generosity and community spirit.
So what can you do to make the best of this late-breaking winter? Here are a few suggestions:
Get strong. Less time on snow means more time to keep building your base of core, cardio and leg strength. When the snow does come, you will be ready to rip, and still be fresh and healthy at the end of the season.
Watch…a lot. Watch World Cup footage, your own video, anchor in your mind the good skiing you want to emulate. Visualize it, dream about it, make it part of you.
Make the best of what you’ve got: It’s no coincidence that low snow years produce a general uptick in slalom skiing. If all you’ve got is slalom, ski a lot of slalom. If you don’t have enough for full courses, do a lot of drills until you are the most balanced and technically correct you can possible be. There is great honor in having the discipline to create value in meager conditions.
If you escape to winter, go big! Let’s say you get to snowy mountains but you can’t get training. Ski yourselves silly, in all kinds of terrain. Bank as many miles as you can no matter what the conditions, even if it’s not on your ideal progression. At a certain point disregard the charts and graphs and just ski—it all counts.
Make up for lost time: When winter comes, and it will in some degree, make the most of every session on snow. Exploit the good fortune of the west and make plans to get out there and enjoy it late season if you can. This may be the year NOT to go to Florida for spring break.
Be patient: This goes for everyone, not least the people bent on early “talent selection.” Kids who live in the west or have been able to get a lot of time on snow are going to be comparatively faster— for a while but not forever. That can create a lot of anxiety, energy that would be better spent focusing on your own performance. A lot of the imbalance can work itself out by March, but only if you stay positive about your own progress.
Believe: I think back to the advice of many coaches and an interview with one coach in particular about kids who can’t get as much time on snow in the off season. “It’s only a disadvantage if you feel like you’re missing out. If you are doing other things that you truly believe are making you better, you’ll come out fine.”
Like I said, this is tough. There is not a whole lot to celebrate about the situation in the east. But there are things to be done. If nothing else it reminds skiers that snow is a precious gift. When we get it, we’re going to appreciate every flake of it and hit it hard for the rest of the season.