Flat Is Back

First Tracks

For some reason, I’d gotten on the wrong lift. I was riding a chair apparently designed for seeding a field. It had as much pitch as Kansas.

This sort of thing happens all the time because I never look at trail maps. I refuse to. There are plenty of signs, directions, and other people trying to control what I do every day. Why should skiing force me to toe the line?

When my skis touched the top ramp, I skated off and chalked up my mistake to experience. I poled and skated and poled and skated and poled and skated some more. I thought about tucking, but that seemed too aggro for a slope dotted with first timers swerving back and forth in the wedge. So I started thinking about cycling and beers and lunch-and I almost fell. Thanks to the pronounced sidecut of today’s skis, the outside edge of my left board tried to divorce itself from my leg. I spun around into an ass-first snowplow, keeping myself upright by putting my hands down on the snow. Beginners passed me by as I tried to recover.

I simply don’t pay attention on flat trails. Neither do many of my friends. We think because we’re not screaming down a couloir or ripping a steep groomer, flat skiing should be autonomic and mindless. But it isn’t. Flat skiing is among the most treacherous activities in the sport.

Without momentum, it’s much more difficult to balance. It’s even harder to carve a turn. Try it sometime. Find a blue run-the flatter the better-and then lay symmetric arced turns going 10 miles per hour. It’s hard. But there’s a payoff: Take a look at the skiers who hail from piddly mountains. Ingemar Stenmark, who won 86 World Cups and two Olympic gold medals, grew up skiing the wild and thrilling 1,200 vertical feet of Tà¤rnaby, Sweden (it has one chair). Phil and Steve Mahre learned to ski at White Pass, Washington, with its 1,500 vertical and four chairs. And current hot U.S. teamer Kristina Koznick hails from Buck Hill, Minnesota. Vertical drop? Three hundred feet.

Short vertical drop does not necessarily mean low pitch-there are tough turns at any of those mountains-but you can bet that Koz, the Mahres, and Ingemar all had to work hard to find speed and balance on less-than-precipitous terrain.

If you work turns on the flats, there’s no promise of Olympic metal or a company sponsorship. (If that were the case, my years training on the 600 vertical feet of Pat’s Peak, New Hampshire, would have given me the World Championship.) But respect for easy terrain will make you a better skier.

At the very least, you won’t fall down on cat tracks anymore. Er, I mean, I won’t fall down on cat tracks anymore.