Standing at the top of Outhouse, a cascading, double-fall-line triple-pitched bump bash, I felt like Patrick Swayze about to paddle my surfboard into hurricane waves in
. It was a self-sacrifice of sorts to the bump gods - or demons, as it turned out - of Winter Park, Colo. In my defense, this particular moment in my life was B.G. - Before Guru - when my decisions about skiing had more to do with reckless hope than actual strategy. By "Guru,” I mean Bob Barnes, the resort's mythic mogul master, who would soon take me under his wing. But for now, with more amp than technique, I ignored the stickers bearing Mary Jane's unofficial logo - a Band-Aid - on the helmets around me and scraped, bounced and yard-saled my way down Outhouse. Because this run was the gateway. The gateway to The Jane.
Mary Jane, the brooding mountain just to the south of Winter Park, is arguably the top bump area in the country. She's part of the resort, but so distinct as to seem like another world. The thickly wooded mountain is draped with mogul runs of every stripe: spilling fall-line trails like the favorite, Derailer; tipped double-fall-line slopes like Hole-in-the-Wall; mean, boulder-choked chutes like Awe and Baldy. Half the time, The Jane is shrouded in clouds. She is forbidding, enigmatic, and as you approach on the winding highway, her mogul fields ripple with muscular shadows of menace. Your quads burn just looking at them.
On the ride up the Zephyr chairlift to Outhouse, I met one of The Jane's fierce cadre of devotees, a tall, gangly, 30-something who wished to be referred to only as Nihilist. He summed it up: "Best bump hill on the planet. You wanna hang with us, you better rip.” As I threw myself into Outhouse's Mounds of Death, which meshed perfectly into one another like the flesh-grinding molars of a tyrannosaurus rex, I realized quickly that the only part of me that might rip were the muscles in my groin. That's when I decided to seek professional help.
Bob Barnes, The Guru, runs Winter Park's famous Bump Jamboree clinic, and he just might be the most respected bump instructor in the country. A former racer, the director of Winter Park's Ski and Ride School and an eight-year veteran of the prestigious Professional Ski Instructors of America national demonstration team, he is constantly pushing the edge, discovering new and better ways to teach bump skiing. He's also six-foot-one and built like a tree trunk, so his students do as they're told.
It's my first morning with Bob, and he's coaching me and five others down Rainbow Cut. "Out, demon!” he yells, flourishing his poles over an army colonel who learned to ski in the '70s, as I did. Barnes has close-cropped hair and an athlete's lean face. At 49, he's no spring chicken, but he has the energy, athleticism and wild-haired enthusiasm of a teenager. "We're doing that up-down, weight-transfer retro stuff, aren't we?” Bob continues. "But with shaped skis, we don't need to do that.” Then he looks at the guy on 10-year-old stick-straight K2s. "It's OK,” he says, breaking into a smile. "You're doing great. You are in the goo of change, and it's a little uncomfortable.” We nod. We love Bob. We love being exorcised.
The goo of change is indeed uncomfortable. I am a year younger than Barnes, and suddenly I feel like I'm 7, trying to learn Rachmaninoff on a grade-school recorder. How unattainable is the musical flow with which the really good bump skiers move down the hill. We're standing in the middle of a moderate blue-black bump run, and I can't wait to try the next section. I look down at my new Rossignol limited-edition Mary Jane bump skis, and at my shins, which are sore from pressing into the front of my boots. Some of the stuff Barnes has been teaching us is starting to kick in.
When I first learned to ski, I was taught to make a distinct transfer of weight to the outside ski at the start of a turn. Bob wants me to go a lite bowlegged on the inside ski - tip it on edge slightly, toward the turn, keeping weight equally divided between both skis. The outside ski will follow - and edge automatically. He tells me to imagine arrows on my knees. If I want to go left, point the arrow on my left knee a little more left. "In the bumps,” Barnes stresses for the fifth time, "we want everything to move together. Both feet, both skis.”
In 1994, Barnes was selected as the only American on a team of international instructors tasked with bringing updated teaching techniques to Japan. Barnes says the Japanese instructors tore down steep bump runs doing GS turns. They'd make six turns where Bob would make 30. "The discipline! They'd all stop in a perfect line,” he recalls. "I had to make them loosen up: 'Hey guys, this is bump skiing! We are wild men and women!' They'd just bow and say, '
Our group is a far cry from the precise Japanese. We don't line up straight on the slope because we can't. We're just glad to stop with our skis uncrossed. We're in the most basic of three classes being taught that day, Humble Pod One: comfortable skiing blue bumps, no more than five at a time.
"OK,” says Barnes. "What is first on our bump checklist? Am I centered? I want to live in the land of center so I can ski in control. How do we get there?”
"Lift your toes?” suggests a nurse from Connecticut named Carol.
"Exactly!” Barnes beknights her with his pole. "What does that do? It pulls the shins into the front of the boot. It gives us functional ankle tension, or FAT.” He explains how maintaining that tension in your ankles forces you to press against on the front of your boots, and gets your weight shifted forward over your skis. "We don't want to follow our skis. Then we're out of control. We want them to follow us. Who's the boss? OK, what's the second item on our bump checklist?”
"Am I steering with my feet?”
Lift toes, ankle tension, get centered. Then, steer with your feet. Not with your torso or even your hips. Keep hips moving down the fall line. Simple.
It's amazing. Lifting your toes and keeping shins in contact with the front of the boot makes an instant difference. "I still do it myself,” Barnes says. "Any time I'm in a place that's difficult, I lift my toes to the top of my boots and feel my shins.”
Barnes takes off and flows down the rest of the run. He keeps his speed even and controlled, and has the grace of uninterrupted, effortless movement.
I want to do that
, I think as I watch him.
Little by little the sections of five or 10 bumps are getting easier. We move on to blue-black bump runs, and rather than approaching a section with an I-hope-to-hell-the-ski-patroller-who-sleds-me-down-isn't-a-cute-woman-because-I-don't-want-her-to-see-me-cry attitude, I begin to see a stretch of moguls as a simple rhythmic composition. The bumps are the mountain's music, and if you want to play, you'd better learn to listen. Skiing them is like a dance with a powerful, exacting partner. Unlike on groomed terrain, where you can set the rhythm of your turns, in bumps you take your cues from a force much greater than yourself, and every line has its own beat.
Barnes has us pair off at the top of the hill. One partner kneels, grabs the tips of the other's skis and tugs them back and forth. We rock back and forth, unstable, unbalanced. Then he has us lift our toes, feeling the tension in our ankles and our shins against the front of the boots. Now when our partners push and pull, we're rock solid. Then he has us ski backwards, turning, down a groomer. When you do that, he explains, you naturally press forward and feel the front of your boot.
By the end of the day, my legs are putty. On the last lift, I ask Barnes if he likes any other sport as much as skiing.
"Motocross, he says.”
"Do you do it much?”
"We have a track up in Granby. For two years I was state champion, 40-plus. My kids are
good.” Barnes gets animated. He quit competing because he was tired of getting concussions. He also says that before his kids were born he and his wife used to go for weeks at a time to Hawaii to windsurf. Both sports are a lot like skiing - the balance, timing, speed and, of course, fantastic wipeouts. Barnes shakes his head. "Just don't ask me what my middle name is,” he grins.
That night Kim, my fiancé, and I refuel with half-pound mushroom burgers at the Crooked Creek Saloon, an old-time mountain bar just up the road in Fraser. It's a place where you can swing to a country rock band. When we do, I find myself lifting my toes.
Ten days later I come back for the second clinic. Barnes graduates me to Pod Two - comfortable in black bumps, doing 15 at a time. We begin doing laps on the runs I've eyed with longing all these years. Railbender, Phantom Bridge, Boiler, Trestle. I begin to get a feel of flow. I lose it, regain it. When I start to lose control, I flex my toes, regain center, do a quick turn and resume. Incredible. I begin to think about staying in a slight crouch when I turn, skipping the stand-up motion Barnes has been trying to break me of. I begin to hit each bump, absorbing the shock with my knees, then steering with my feet off the side - just a slight tip of my edges as my skis slip around the mogul and head down the fall line, then a slightly more aggressive drive of the edges as I complete the turn.
Most amazing, though, is how much less tired I feel. Some of Barnes's efficiencies are having an effect. The feeling of linking five or 10 bumps together in a fluid series is like a shiny gift. I love it. That evening, celebrating with the class at the Club Car lodge over wine and plates piled high with nachos, I think how cool it is to learn to do something you've always dreamed about.
On the third and final day, Barnes puts me on his little teaching skis. He's developing a program with Salomon called Super Parallel. He says it teaches people to turn as efficiently as possible.
I step into fat, 120-cm Salomons. They are soft-flexing but torsionally rigid, so they can hold an edge. The idea is to keep me centered - if I sit back I end up on my butt - and they turn so easily that I keep my weight even between them. We swoop in fast GS turns across groomers. We go through the bumps of a blue-black mogul run on the Winter Park side called Over 'N' Underwood. Piece of cake. The short skis are responsive, easy. "Super Parallel is really about super-simultaneous,” Barnes says, "getting everything synergized, going in the same place at the same time. So you end up having total flow. You're more organized and having more fun.”
Then Barnes has to go to a meeting. I click back into my Rossis, take the Zephyr to the top of Winter Park and skate over to a gate. The sign reads "WARNING: Outhouse is a steep, long mogul trail with no escape to easier terrain. EXPERT ONLY!” The fall line spills below. I take a breath and push off.
The first bumps are easy and seductive, and I'm getting a rhythm. Am I centered? Yes. Am I steering with my feet? Now I am. A brilliant sun throws the shadows of the pines across the right side of the run, fringing the rippled slope. The second pitch drops away. I stop, take a few breaths and start again, picking up speed. Two ravens fly out of the trees, flashing like black mirrors. I pass three sideslipping snowboarders barely surviving the slope. I am no longer just a survivor. I am enlightened. I am awakened. I am A.G.: After Guru.
At the bottom, I look back up the studded hill. No big deal. Maybe I'll head over to Persimmons Bowl, I think. I'm
I'm capable of skiing powder now.
SIGNPOST: Winter Park/Mary Jane
3,078 skiable acres; 3,060 vertical feet; summit elevation 12,060 feet; 348 annual inches; 143 trails; 25 lifts. Tickets (2006—07 prices): $81; child (6—13) $39; senior (65—69) $66
Winter Park's revamped base village features new condos at Fraser Crossing and Founders Pointe, from studios to three-bedroom penthouse suites. Call for prices; 800-729-5813. Down the road in Tabernash, Devil's Thumb Ranch is a year-round resort and spa with charming log cabins, each with a woodburning fireplace; $295—$850;
The Ranch House Restaurant at Devil’s Thumb Ranch serves up organic fare and fine wine in a rustic-chic A-frame. Snag a seat by the roaring fire;
; 800-933-4339. In town, saddle up to the sleek bar at the Untamed Southwest Grill for a handcrafted brew; 970-726-1111.
Denver International Airport is a 90-mile drive. Take I-70 West to exit 232. Drive 24 miles on Hwy. 40 over Berthoud Pass to Winter Park.
- SKI MAGAZINE, JANUARY 2008