Snow Thyself

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Snow Thyself

Let's get one thing straight: I'm here for the powder. I came to Alta, Utah, to play in "the white room," which is what locals call the mountain when the snowfall is measured in feet, not inches. I'm here for "free refills," Altaspeak for snowfall so heavy that by the time you return to a run your previous tracks are buried. It's powder, pure and undiluted, that's lured me to pro freeskier Kristen Ulmer's inaugural "Ski to Live" workshop.

But there's a catch: Powder isn't the only thing that awaits in Utah. Let's see...three days touring Alta with ripping instructors? Check. Four nights at the rustic-chic Alta Lodge? Check. Daily yoga? Sounds good. Nightly personal-growth seminar? Hold the credit card for a moment, will you? Personal growth? Those two words rank right up there with "daily flossing" on the old fun meter. Don't I ski to forget about things like personal growth and focus on things like, say, my next turn? Visions of group hugs briefly overpower dreams of powder.

Then I come to my senses. Or maybe lose them entirely. But how often will I have a chance to ski with someone like Ulmer at someplace like Alta? A little caring here, a little sharing there—these are a negligible price to pay to live out a ski fantasy like this. Besides, I can always fake it.

Kristen Ulmer, for those unfamiliar with the freeskiing scene, is a goddess on Atomics. A former U.S. Mogul Team member, she's taken flight in numerous ski films and ranks among the best female skiers in the world. Last year she attended a five-day seminar in Sundance, Utah, designed to help people through transitions in their lives. Exploring her cerebral side inspired her to create a clinic that combines the physical (skiing by day) and the psychological (group workshops by night). Her goal was to bring together skiers willing to figure out how lessons learned on the mountain could cross over to their daily lives.

Our first meeting takes place on Thursday evening in an upstairs room at the Alta Lodge. The group of 18 (14 skiers and four coaches) ranges from 15-year-old Annie Hutchins—a Salt Lake City high school sophomore and freeskiing ripper who wants to see if she's got the drive to make it in the competitive freeski world—to Gary Hook, 57, a Washington, D.C.—based newspaper director and father of two whose quest is to master powder. I'm a 42-year-old mother of two who spent her formative adult years on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Ten years ago, I moved to a town just outside Boulder, Colo., so while my mind tends toward the cynical, my heart is ajar to the spiritual. (That's what happens when you live in a place where they sell vegan sticky buns.) Still, I'm not exactly stoked for the Thursday night share-briefly-about-your-life meeting. To my relief, it turns out that I'm not the exception—most of us are here for the skiing. Like Angela Crooks, a 35-year-old environmental consultant from Washington, D.C., who wasn't paying much attention when she skimmed Kristen's brochure and accidentally skipped over the personal-growth part. Oops. Or Camille Keys, a single mom and title-company vice president from Salt Lake, who's a skiing and yoga fanatic but admits she's "not into the touchy-feely stuff." Our love of vertical is the tie that binds us, and the general feeling about the other stuff is, well, as long as it's after the lifts close.

In her quest to guide us to spiritual and skiing enlightenment, Kristen has recruited coach/trainer/consultant Peter Dupre, 52, founder of Peak Performance, a Colorado Springs—based company that helps everyone from athletes (Olympic swimmer Amy Van Dyken) to CEOs (Charles Schwab, Michael Dell) improve their games. While Dupre, a telemark skier, is here to coach us in life, two other ski aces are present to coach us on the hill: Larry O'Neil, a former Alta instructor and current adventure racer, and Kathleen Leopardi-Andersen, an 11-year Alta Ski School veteran and personal trainer.

After inoducing ourselves, we split into on-mountain groups. I choose the middle, strong-but-not-psycho group. With me are Camille, 46-year-old Geoff Greig, a golf instructor who runs the Nike Golf Learning Centers in Denver, and 42-year-old Ali Clayton, a Vermont farmer and ski instructor.

Day One with the group is not quite what I'd envisioned. That's likely because I'm not with the group at all, but rather in bed, stricken by a stomach bug that attacked at 3 a.m. I can see snow out my window, but I'm barely able to lift my head from the pillow. I can lift the phone, however, and I persuade the guy at the front desk to bring me a Gatorade. I languish in bed until 3 p.m., when Kristen herself delivers a banana and another Gatorade. Friday's lesson: There's no infirmary at ski camp.

By 8:30 that evening, I've recovered enough to join the group at dinner. While I sip tea, Ali tells me that our group skied that morning with Kathleen, who showed them some of Alta's finer chutes and had them hike to some of her favorite spots. In the afternoon workshop, each person drew a timeline of his or her personal history, highlighting important events in childhood, college, careers and relationships. Some expounded at length and in detail about their lives, and most posted their timelines on the wall. Others, like Camille, were happy to simply fold the timeline up and be done with it. I'm only mildly sorry I missed it.

On Day Two, my stomach bug is gone. I join the group for the daily 7 a.m. yoga class, led by the mellow and self-deprecatingly out-there Larry. A fire crackles behind him, and the windows face the mountain. We inhale this alpine pastoral as Larry works us into a wonderful warm-up. I dream of powder, thankful that the personal-growth session is still nine hours away.

Our ski sessions run from about 9 to 1. Instructors rotate each day; today, Kristen leads our group. Take a moment here to consider just what this woman is able to accomplish on two sticks. While the rest of us ski on snow, she transcends it. There's an effortless grace to her every movement—nothing wasted, everything inspired. But her experience is as a skier, not a teacher. Her challenge now is to communicate to us how to ascend, if not to her lofty skiing plane, then at least a bit closer.

We cruise for a few runs before coming to rest above an unnerving chute. Kristen coaches us to think of a mantra before we drop in. "Shins," suggests Ali, who is working on staying forward by keeping her shins in contact with her boot tongues. "Try using a word like 'charge,'" Kristen counters, attempting to shift Ali's focus from the physical to the mental. Then Kristen asks me what's most important for me when I ski powder. I tell her that it's to make sure I relax. She takes my words too literally, reminding me that in these conditions (powder on top, crud underneath) you shouldn't be too relaxed. Ulmer's correction unnerves me for a time until Geoff, the golf instructor, steps in. "I can tell that you're a total feel learner," he says. "As soon as you think, it messes you up." Nothing like spending two hours with a guy who then sums up your life and your skiing in two sentences. I smile, because Geoff is right. I stop thinking and start turning. Just like that.

Later, as I'm finding my rhythm, Kristen offers a thought that sticks with me: There's no such thing as trying, she says. You either do something or you don't do something. "Don't think about getting in the front seat (forward on your skis)," she says. "Just get in the front seat." I work to stay in the front seat for the remainder of the day, taking a few runs with my group before heading to the lodge. I barely have time to rip off my ski boots and slip on my flip-flops before heading to the 4 p.m. seminar. Here it comes.

Pillows on the floor, no shoes and a large circle. I'm just thankful there's no incense. It's bad enough that I might have to "share." Peter Dupre asks us what we learned while skiing. John Nelles, a 46-year-old actor from Toronto, volunteers a story about getting separated from his group. At first he was scared to brave a steep stretch alone, but then in his mind he heard the voices of the group cheering him. "I can do this," he told himself.

"Is this guy a living Hallmark card or what?" I wonder silently. But he's so genuine that I can't dismiss him. After all, he discovered a technique to calm himself and get down the mountain. Much to my surprise, I soon find myself speaking. "What I learned was to trust what I know," I venture, referring to my miscommunication with Kristen. "I know that whenever I do anything physical—or mental for that matter—relaxation is the most important thing. If I'm tight, nothing works." A couple of people nod in agreement. We break into groups to talk about our biggest strengths and deepest fears. It's easier to open up in a small group. Even Geoff, who's confessed he prefers to be a silent observer, is talking. We're all ingesting a big slice of vulnerability pie.

There's more togetherness and chatter through dinner. I find myself longing for some downtime, but not so much to skip the Lodge's homemade gingersnaps and cinnamon ice cream. After dessert, Kristen calls a quick meeting upstairs. Alta's mayor of 33 years, the completely adorable octogenarian Bill Levitt, comes up to introduce himself. "At my age," he says, "I don't ski to live, I live to ski." Next, Kristen tells us that Alta General Manager Onno Wieringa has arranged for our group to ride up the mountain 45 minutes before anyone else the next morning. "Early-ups" is what they call it here, and it's a rare honor.

The timing of the gift is magical, as 26 inches of fresh snow fall overnight. The locals in line glare as we board the chair. It seems perfect that Zen-like Larry is our guide today. For hours, he feverishly leads us to every unmarked patch with pitch. The powder's float and forgiveness grant each of us brief flights of freedom, ephemeral glimpses of something beyond ourselves. Finally, we must slow Larry down. "Remember how important you said breathing was?" we ask.

Larry leads us to one of his favorite powder shots. It's "a bit" of a hike—well, maybe for Larry, who's a triathlete. But I would call it a huge climb. My chest pounds. My lungs scream. I would remind Larry, once again, about the importance of oxygen—if only I could speak. Instead, I continue to climb, as one often must in Alta, to get big vertical. As soon as I reach our destination atop Gunsight, I forget the pain. The view is an astoundingly long funnel of white, like something Dr. Seuss would draw for the Grinch. And indeed, having this much fun, on this much open-ended steep with almost no one else around, feels more than a little bit evil.

We've been together nearly nonstop for three days of group-a-go-go action: group meals, group skiing, group workshops. The packed schedule means I've barely had time to chew the Lodge's amazing bacon at breakfast. Showers are rushed, hot tub visits are scarce, and most of us lack the energy to visit the Lodge's cozy after-hours club (what they call bars in Utah). I don't have time to lament the lack of an in-room TV or make a single business call. But the constant togetherness isn't entirely a thorn. It's enabled us to bond more quickly than I would have imagined (or thought I wanted). And those bonds are creating an ease among us that helps with personal growth more than the seminars. We've become friends. We've also become one another's teachers, students and advisers—on-hill and off. Geoff helped me understand that my brain can get in the way of my success on snow. Larry taught me that driving my inside knee down the fall line helps initiate my turn. Off the mountain, I learned that we're all teachers, that listening to other people's experiences helps us with our own. My favorite bit of wisdom, however, was an old Chinese saying that Peter passed along: "Fall seven times, get up eight.hn Nelles, a 46-year-old actor from Toronto, volunteers a story about getting separated from his group. At first he was scared to brave a steep stretch alone, but then in his mind he heard the voices of the group cheering him. "I can do this," he told himself.

"Is this guy a living Hallmark card or what?" I wonder silently. But he's so genuine that I can't dismiss him. After all, he discovered a technique to calm himself and get down the mountain. Much to my surprise, I soon find myself speaking. "What I learned was to trust what I know," I venture, referring to my miscommunication with Kristen. "I know that whenever I do anything physical—or mental for that matter—relaxation is the most important thing. If I'm tight, nothing works." A couple of people nod in agreement. We break into groups to talk about our biggest strengths and deepest fears. It's easier to open up in a small group. Even Geoff, who's confessed he prefers to be a silent observer, is talking. We're all ingesting a big slice of vulnerability pie.

There's more togetherness and chatter through dinner. I find myself longing for some downtime, but not so much to skip the Lodge's homemade gingersnaps and cinnamon ice cream. After dessert, Kristen calls a quick meeting upstairs. Alta's mayor of 33 years, the completely adorable octogenarian Bill Levitt, comes up to introduce himself. "At my age," he says, "I don't ski to live, I live to ski." Next, Kristen tells us that Alta General Manager Onno Wieringa has arranged for our group to ride up the mountain 45 minutes before anyone else the next morning. "Early-ups" is what they call it here, and it's a rare honor.

The timing of the gift is magical, as 26 inches of fresh snow fall overnight. The locals in line glare as we board the chair. It seems perfect that Zen-like Larry is our guide today. For hours, he feverishly leads us to every unmarked patch with pitch. The powder's float and forgiveness grant each of us brief flights of freedom, ephemeral glimpses of something beyond ourselves. Finally, we must slow Larry down. "Remember how important you said breathing was?" we ask.

Larry leads us to one of his favorite powder shots. It's "a bit" of a hike—well, maybe for Larry, who's a triathlete. But I would call it a huge climb. My chest pounds. My lungs scream. I would remind Larry, once again, about the importance of oxygen—if only I could speak. Instead, I continue to climb, as one often must in Alta, to get big vertical. As soon as I reach our destination atop Gunsight, I forget the pain. The view is an astoundingly long funnel of white, like something Dr. Seuss would draw for the Grinch. And indeed, having this much fun, on this much open-ended steep with almost no one else around, feels more than a little bit evil.

We've been together nearly nonstop for three days of group-a-go-go action: group meals, group skiing, group workshops. The packed schedule means I've barely had time to chew the Lodge's amazing bacon at breakfast. Showers are rushed, hot tub visits are scarce, and most of us lack the energy to visit the Lodge's cozy after-hours club (what they call bars in Utah). I don't have time to lament the lack of an in-room TV or make a single business call. But the constant togetherness isn't entirely a thorn. It's enabled us to bond more quickly than I would have imagined (or thought I wanted). And those bonds are creating an ease among us that helps with personal growth more than the seminars. We've become friends. We've also become one another's teachers, students and advisers—on-hill and off. Geoff helped me understand that my brain can get in the way of my success on snow. Larry taught me that driving my inside knee down the fall line helps initiate my turn. Off the mountain, I learned that we're all teachers, that listening to other people's experiences helps us with our own. My favorite bit of wisdom, however, was an old Chinese saying that Peter passed along: "Fall seven times, get up eight."

During our last free hours on the mountain, Geoff, Camille and I ski together. Camille shows me the ropetow at Snow Pine Lodge, where she first learned to snowplow and where she taught her kids, now 21 and 19, to ski. She guides us to some of her favorite spots off Alta's High Traverse, and we find some chutes on the backside of the mountain. Camille says that despite her initial personal-growth resistance, she'd love to take the clinic again. Geoff, who wanted to be pushed outside of his comfort zone on the mountain and in his interactions with people, is also pleased with the experience. "I'm learning to let go on the mountain—I saw glimpses of what it feels like to let it fly," he says. "And I made a bunch of friends, which I almost never do."

I select Alta's premier run, High Rustler, as our final foray. I challenge the group to ski top-to-bottom without stopping. I don't quite make it, but Camille does and I have Geoff give us both a congratulatory kiss anyway.

At our final dinner, Kristen emcees, passing out baseball hats and issuing awards. Gary Hook receives the "Black Knight" award, à  la Monty Python, for his stubborn refusal to let the powder get the best of him. I earn the "Human Dolphin" prize for a little mishap I had involving bad visibility, ice and some netting. We all laugh and then say our good nights. On Monday morning, Larry conducts a final yoga class before we head home. At its close, there is indeed, as I had feared, a group hug. And yes, the Human Dolphin takes part.

Details

Kristen Ulmer's Ski to Live Workshop
Jan. 22—26 at Snowbird and April 1—5 at Alta.
Cost $1,695 (Snowbird) and $1,495 (Alta). Price includes accommodations, some meals, lift tickets, instruction, seminars, and transportation to and from the Salt Lake City airport.
Information 801-733-5003; ulmer@xmission.com;kristenulmer.com
Who Will Like It Intermediate, expert and professional skiers who enjoy powder skiing and are also open to exploring personal issues in a group setting.
Who Won't Those who prefer groomed runs, plush accommodations and nightlife.

Click the slideshow below to view photos of Kristin Ulmer's camp.ght."

During our last free hours on the mountain, Geoff, Camille and I ski together. Camille shows me the ropetow at Snow Pine Lodge, where she first learned to snowplow and where she taught her kids, now 21 and 19, to ski. She guides us to some of her favorite spots off Alta's High Traverse, and we find some chutes on the backside of the mountain. Camille says that despite her initial personal-growth resistance, she'd love to take the clinic again. Geoff, who wanted to be pushed outside of his comfort zone on the mountain and in his interactions with people, is also pleased with the experience. "I'm learning to let go on the mountain—I saw glimpses of what it feels like to let it fly," he says. "And I made a bunch of friends, which I almost never do."

I select Alta's premier run, High Rustler, as our final foray. I challenge the group to ski top-to-bottom without stopping. I don't quite make it, but Camille does and I have Geoff give us both a congratulatory kiss anyway.

At our final dinner, Kristen emcees, passing out baseball hats and issuing awards. Gary Hook receives the "Black Knight" award, à  la Monty Python, for his stubborn refusal to let the powder get the best of him. I earn the "Human Dolphin" prize for a little mishap I had involving bad visibility, ice and some netting. We all laugh and then say our good nights. On Monday morning, Larry conducts a final yoga class before we head home. At its close, there is indeed, as I had feared, a group hug. And yes, the Human Dolphin takes part.

Details

Kristen Ulmer's Ski to Live Workshop
Jan. 22—26 at Snowbird and April 1—5 at Alta.
Cost $1,695 (Snowbird) and $1,495 (Alta). Price includes accommodations, some meals, lift tickets, instruction, seminars, and transportation to and from the Salt Lake City airport..
Information 801-733-5003; ulmer@xmission.com;kristenulmer.com
Who Will Like It Intermediate, expert and professional skiers who enjoy powder skiing and are also open to exploring personal issues in a group setting.
Who Won't Those who prefer groomed runs, plush accommodations and nightlife.

Click the slideshow below to view photos of Kristin Ulmer's camp.

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