Several years ago, I was standing at the bottom of a pristinely groomed Colorado slope with Tamara McKinney, the best U.S. female skier ever, when another racer made his way down the lower steep, etching scars in the hill with quick, powerful edge sets.
Under her breath she whispered, "What did that mountain ever do to you, boy?" In the skiing world, McKinney is known as a master of touch, the gentleness that allows for the strongest force to be applied inconspicuously. The subject before us was not employing such touch, an affliction not uncommon among ski racers who are taught at an early age to worship the carve. Carving, especially with today's equipment, is relatively easy to master, but it is touch that makes a good skier great. Touch is the nuance of movements that allow a skier to maintain balance and control at 6 or 60 mph with seemingly imperceptible effort.
As important as touch is to competitive skiers, it is a skill that must be found, not taught. And don't bother searching for it by logging miles in the gates that, while boring the hell out of you, will only lead to a ceiling of competency. The best way to learn about touch is by freeskiing. That is freeskiing in the original sense of the word, all-mountain skiing for the sake of itself. Unfortunately, the term is now associated with judged events and dramatic video clips. In fact just the other day a grandmother lamented to me about her grandson's interest in "that freeskiing stuff." But the freeskiing I refer to is simply about skiing outside the confines of competition and training, it's about having fun, letting loose and exploring in all conditions.
As a junior racer my pack of teammates and I freeskied far more than we trained, following coaches through all manner of snow and terrain. As racing became more consuming we trained more, but actually skied less. With all the time spent inspecting courses, warming up, slipping the course, and resting between runs, we had less and less time available for actual skiing. Today, the emphasis on the competitive aspect, rather than the sport itself, is even worse¿and it comes at an even younger age. In prioritizing this way, the joy of the sport gets lost somewhere amid the pressure of moving up in the ranks. Too many coaches and parents, in focusing only on training, miss the opportunity to build the skills in kids that can lead to greatness or at least a lifelong passion for the sport. I remember how sad it was the day I heard a coach explaining to his 8-year-old racer on a bluebird powder day that the kid had to train because he had freeskied the previous afternoon. It's too late to help that youngster, but for any others who are trying to justify ditching training for a morning of powder skiing, I am here to provide ammo.
In theory coaches agree that freeskiing is a good thing, but in practice they fall short of the ideal volume, especially when it comes to powder. Powder is like mainlining the pure essence of freeskiing into your veins. The combination of weightlessness and speed is quite nearly an out-of-body experience, and it's good for your technique, too. True, if your powder excursions are limited to 6 inches of light snow over a groomed boulevard, this involves little more than sitting back and swiveling. But in wilder territory it becomes an art, invaluable to racers and anyone else who seeks ski mastery¿and touch.
Skiing powder teaches you that leaning on your tails will scoot you through a flat section. It shows you how to adjust to the sudden acceleration of crossing other tracks. In a tight spot, you learn to jam your feet straight down to slow yourself, to stop suddenly with a hip-check. The benefits of a disciplined upper body are never more evident than in powder, where the decreased foot mobility means erratic arm and torso movement will bring you down like a sack of potatoes.
In powder it is vital not only to look ahead, but to feel ahead to the messages yourr skis are relaying. They will alert you to changes in snow depth as well as to the sun and wind exposure that has affected the snow's consistency. Occasionally you encounter sunken obstacles which test your reflexes and agility. Powder sinks you into a reverie, teaches the nuances of balance and weight transfer, but also demands that you react with quick fluidity. These moves can save you in a race situation, enabling the types of recoveries that make the difference between hit-and-miss performances.
You need not wait for the ideal bottomless feather-light snow to call for a powder day, because the best teacher is what most would consider the worst powder. Northwestern skiers are perhaps the most fun as ski partners because they never let soggy snow or nasty weather get in the way of a good time. You'll rarely hear a Northwestern skier complain about conditions, pine for lighter powder or balk at daunting crud. They handle it all without breaking stride and are the way I imagine skiers used to be¿adventurous, adaptable and happy to be outside. They're in tune with touch, and into the sport in the healthiest way.
Fortunately, even beyond the Northwest, nature intervenes regularly to throw a wrench in the best laid training plans. I remember my first U.S. Ski Team camps fondly, not because of any fine performances, but because all our training was snowed out. Instead of running downhill we skied powder for two weeks and turned the camp into a clinic on touch, skiing bumpfields submerged in 2 feet of new snow and learning to do 360s with the assurance of a soft benevolent landing.
Once on the national team, our most productive summer camp, in South America, was also where we got the biggest dose of freeskiing, much of that in the form of powder. Affected by the same weather systems of the California Sierra, Las Leñas and Portillo were frequently pummeled by Pacific storms that would put all training to a screeching halt. When the skies finally cleared, the slopes¿thanks to less than vigilant grooming¿took days to pack. By then even the powder-phobes were stir crazy, and they devoured the mountain, hairy chutes and all. When training did resume we were physically spent, but spiritually refreshed and skiing much looser. We were in touch with our skis. In truth, it is likely the power of renewal, more than the skills it takes to ski powder, that provides the biggest benefit. Powder puts the fun back into the sport, lifts the pressure of competition and reminds us of the freedom that sets skiing apart from other more regimented sports. I have no way of knowing this for sure, but I suspect that on our deathbeds we will not remember the run when we really nailed the gate over the knoll, but we may well remember the random winter morning when we were gasping for air through a cold wet grin while looking back uphill at our tracks.