The school that I teach for has a Freeride team – they ski all over the mountain (including cliffs for some of them). The last lesson day of the season they have an informal competition, and, for the second year, I volunteered to take pictures of them. This lets me keep my sports photography skills up, and lets me work with a great group of kids. Oh, and it excuses me from helping out from helping out with the other “last day” activities, though I still found time to reprise my role of “Mr. Catsup” in the hot dog line.
The chosen location for the competition was 7th heaven, a double-black diamond section at the top of Stevens pass.
I am a decent off-piste (“ungroomed” for the non-skiers and/or less pretentious among you) skier. By “decent”, I mean that I can get down most slopes that don’t involve the words “drop” or “cliff”, and that I ski them with occasional flashes of competence. It’s a little harder to ski with a 5lb camera (Canon 7D + 70-200mm F2.8L 2.8 IS II lens) on my chest, but it’s not too bad.
After a warm up with the team on Big Chief (where there was some surprisingly nice powder (and no, I just can’t call it “Kehr’s Chair”…)), we headed over to Skyline, and then up the 7th Heaven Lift (yes, it is as steep as it looks), which is 4 years older than I am but luckily, far less cranky. The original plan was to head over to the side of Rock Garden (a bumped but not super-steep run), but there was a fair amount of skier traffic, so we headed down Cloud 9 and hooked back towards Meadows above the Skyline run, to a steeper and less bumpy run.
There was some very nice snow; the kids skied down to get the feel of the run, and I skied down to set up above a small clump of trees.
Shooting on a steep slope – this one looked to be around 45 degrees – takes a bit of preparation. Actually, just taking off your skis takes a bit of preparation, lest you sink in and slide down the hill, and I spend 5 minutes carefully down the snow to try to get a 12” wide platform I can stand on. Then, I take my skis of – carefully - and stuff one at each end of the ledge so people can see me, and then enlarge my ledge with my boots. I get the camera out, get it set up, get my shooting gloves on…
And then I wait. and wait some more. The kids need to ski down to the bottom, and then cycle up two lifts, then work their way back around to this slope. The time that it takes is directly proportional to how cold it is, and since it’s pretty darn cold, foggy, and lightly snowing, it takes a long time. Eventually they come back, and the shoot goes well; I shoot for 20 seconds, wait for the kid to ski the bottom half and be scored, and then shoot the next kid. I think I’m doing pretty well but I can’t really tell; the eyepiece has some snow in it and there is a lot of frozen snow on the camera and lens. My hands are pretty frozen even with gloves on them. (editors note – they came out quite nice. See gallery here).
I finish shooting, check signals with the two coaches, and get ready to leave. The camera goes back on the chest carrier, coat closed, and gloves on. I pull my goggles down and find that they are totally ice-covered, but a minute of scraping with my fingernails fixes them up. Skis on, and I’m almost ready to ski out – after I demolish the ledge that I built, so that nobody gets tripped up by it. I climb up until I’m on top of it, scrape snow down into the ledge, and then compact it a bit.
To ski out requires a small traverse, then a short tight-ish section until the slope open ups. I start to slide forward to get into position, sideslip a bit, and am surprised to find that I have fallen over backwards. Falling down is not a great idea on this sort of slope, and it’s especially bad to fall over backwards. I get up, slide forward again, make one turn, and at the bottom of the turn I lose balance and fall over backwards again. This freaks me out a tiny bit, which always inspires me to ski better. Ha ha – of course it doesn’t – it actually makes me much more tentative.
I think I know what is going on, but to fix it I will have to pull my skis off, and since I’m in the middle of a tight section without great visibility from above, it’s really not a great idea to stop. I muddle my way through one turn, do a huge (and unstable) traverse, and then stop and pull of my skis.
I find what I expected. The bases of my skis were facing uphill, and they got the same coat of ice on them that my goggles did – but the ice was only on the front of the skis because the back half was stuck in the snow. The meant that whenever I went to push them sideways, the front would stick and the back would slide downhill. I scrape them off with a plastic piece on my gloves, and finish the slope.
So – Important Safety Tip – it’s not a great idea to leave your ski bases exposed when you stick them into the snow.