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How Frozen Are Your Niblets?

Ice is a skiers best friend and worst enemy all at the same time.

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By Rob Story

Lose the ice, you late-season snowpacks: Cold, dense, and impenetrable is no way to go through life.If we view snow’s melt-freeze cycle as a larval metamorphosis—and, hey, who doesn’t?—corn snow represents the mesmerizing silken butterfly. Ice, conversely, represents the ugly caterpillar—a truly hideous one, with oozing lesions and a hairy back and stuff. It’s a scientific marvel. Once spring arrives, snowpacks that moved cautiously between powder and packed-powder all winter promptly go bipolar, shifting, literally overnight, from snow’s nastiest manifestation (ice) to its most forgiving (corn), and back. Talk about mood swings…

It’s hard to believe both conditions arise from the same hydrogen-oxygen molecule. Skiers need ice, as we’ll see later, but we never crave it. Corn, on the other hand, lures skiers into tank tops and stretches their raccoon tans with grins. What’s not to love? Corn happens at an ideal interval, improving on Hard Granular’s edge hold before deteriorating into Slush’s grabbiness. Turns come easy, as corn seems to slow skis just long enough for the body to catch up. It requires scant skiing aptitude: You can likely rip corn the moment you learn that the pointy end of the pole goes in the ground.

I have additional affinity for corn because it sleeps in. So do ski writers, whose heads hurt something fierce when we fail to snooze away last night’s “research.” In a perfect world, ski writers would wake like corn does—at midmorning, stirred by the warm caresses of spring sunshine. But we rarely do, because skiing’s public-relations machine—an entire industry of chirpy, well-spoken people-persons who floss daily—exists to keep ski writers from their R.E.M. stages. We’re roused and made to experience every conceivable local attraction, though we’ll never write boo about them. (Enough with the mining museums, OK? We get it—there’s a big hole and some rusted metal. Just like in every other ski town.)

I’ll never forgive a public-relations nudge who shoved me out of bed before dawn a few Februaries ago. It was in Maine, just as a bitter Arctic low stomped temperatures to depths suitable only for vodka bottles. Skip in PR, however, thought I’d “really enjoy accompanying ski patrol early as it prepares the mountain to open.” So there I was in a minus-20 windchill, shadowing a redcoat as he painstakingly snowplowed groomers, stopping at intersections to sink “Slow!” signs into the bulletproof hardpack. C’mon, Skip, you know what happens when a narrative this boring appears in a ski magazine: The reader loses the reverie and reaches for the toilet paper.

Just to be polite, I feigned inquisitive nods. Then the patroller spracked. Hard. Slamming face-first onto a texture as pliant as a bowling ball (admittedly a cliché way to describe ice, but it’s accurate here, since the Arctic low had flash-frozen the wettest snow imaginable: man-made slop saturated further by unseasonably mild temps the day before). Splaying for traction on this glacier grease, the patroller rose unsteadily, his forehead leaking blood.

Accidents are always funnier when they happen to someone else, but I wasn’t laughing. This was ice we were dealing with, the most treacherous frozen water skiers ever slide. At some point, every skier loses an edge on polished marble. And I reckon every skier dreads that sudden, sickening lack of traction—knowing that ice, like an earthquake, can knock you over without warning.

In ski-area-management-speak, “Ice represents a hard, glazed surface usually created by freezing rain or old surface snow melting and quickly refreezing or by groundwater seeping up into the snow and freezing; also may describe a very wet surface that has been skied into a smooth surface while at above-freezing temperatures before rapidly dropping temperatures occur. When broken, ice breaks into chunks rather than granules.” Seventy-five-dollar lift ticket, anyone?

The more you know about ice, the stranger it becomes. It seems relatively harmless when serving as a punchline in Ted Williams cryogenics jokes. Or as the stage names of rappers O’Shea Jackson, Tracy Morrow, and Robert Van Winkle (Ice Cube, Ice-T, and Vanilla Ice, respectively). But ice is kind of creepy when you read about Alaskan glaciers wiggling with ice worms. Eyeless and less than an inch long, the invertebrates infest glaciers to eat algae, but if the temperature drops below five degrees, they start to disintegrate. Yeesh. I’m beginning to think ice should exist only in cocktails, where it belongs.

A few Aprils ago, when the calendar called for a corn day, I dropped into an inbounds alpine bowl under a heavy gray ceiling. The clouds ensured that the bowl, glazed with a rain crust, stayed brittle. Conditions were ideal for a little move I like to call the Earl Anthony (you know, the bowler). With edges about as keen as butter knives, I lost it, fell on my nylon-coated back, accelerated, and knocked over three perfect strangers. Most skiers experience ice this way—as a Three Stooges episode. Some, however, find it a Quentin Tarantino antihero, killing indiscriminately. One slip on such a liquid-turned-solid can shoot you into skull-busting Appalachian woods. Ice-related accidents chill page after page of ski-mountaineering journals, reciting in clinical detail how some of the world’s best skiers got flushed to their deaths.

Luckily, resorts control ice better than ever. The Northeast’s resilient blue induced Hunter Mountain engineers to devise “flex tillers. Whereas groomers with single straight tillers scrape to the nub, a multiple-part tiller is flexible enough to react to terrain changes, resulting in a more uniform, softer surface. Armadas of such Pisten Bully groomers—Mammoth alone has 40—assault ski-area ice and churn it into corduroy. Plus, the raw material is less ice-prone because today’s snowmaking guns shoot a drier plume, thanks to improvements both chemical and mechanical.

But ice is never truly eradicated, and never will be. Actually, the sport could not exist without crystallized water, because snowflakes are technically miniature bits of ice, formed in clouds when water vapor (a gas) condenses directly into treelike stellar dendrites or flattened sectored plates. Once the crystals fall to Earth, skiers make them still icier, either accidentally (by crowding onto a groomer till it’s scraped clean) or purposefully (by irrigating the Hahnenkamm downhill in the name of homicidal speed). Unable to escape ice, we attempt to minimize its harm. We sharpen our edges. We believe the instructor who promises “great results from making “small, soft, and very deliberate movements. And the realist who says, “You’ll have to be content with pivoting your skis around in a controlled skid. And the “never, ever put any weight on your inside ski guy. And the “put all your weight on your inside ski guy. And basically anyone with an opinion on how to avoid human-hockey-puck syndrome.

Ice just sucks. And sometimes, when forming a glacial crevasse, it swallows. In the final analysis, the best tactic for slick, shiny slopes is to avoid the bastards entirely.

Me, I’m holding out for corn, a kindly surface that turns intermediates into experts and experts into gods. Corn is spring’s greatest gift to skiers (narrowly beating out the bikini slalom). Savor it. Surf it till it splashes. But don’t be fooled into believing promises a snowpack can’t keep. It’s hard to depend on corn once you know where it’s coming from, and where it’s headed.