West vs. East - Ski Mag

West vs. East

Features
Author:
Publish date:
West vs. East

Beneath the ridge, the snow on upper fis, sugarbush's torturous bump staircase, has hardened in the afternoon shadows-the first 40-degree pitch transformed into a glacial icefall, beyond which sits a mogul-strewn wreckage of frozen crud.

Assessing the conditions with a grin buried in a weed patch of beard, John Egan is in his element. One of the rare Eastern-born extreme-skiing stars who has stayed in the East, Egan is acting as our guide for the day. On hard snow he is without equal, but he complements this talent with optimism beyond reason; in the world of John Egan, every day on skis, no matter the conditions, is a joy.

"I thought we were here to go skiing," Egan needles, knowing that no one in the group will follow as he pushes over the lip. Setting his edges like someone splitting a log, Egan attacks the icefall before slashing through the top third of the mogul field as if it were powder on corduroy. And then, popping off a bump with a frightened-deer leap, he touches down in the trees and disappears down some obscurity of a line only an Eastern tree skier would contemplate.

Murmurs of appreciation circulate through the cluster of skiers Egan has left behind, followed by a ripple effect of humility at having been showed up by one of the real geniuses of hard-snow skiing. This, after all, is no weekend-warrior crowd. Aligned in their sponsor-supplied outerwear and cutting-edge gear are five of the best skiers in America.

Scroll the credits: Kina Pickett, 29, a Warren Miller movie regular; Chris Davenport, 31, the 1996 World Extreme Skiing Champion and one of the most filmed big-mountain skiers in the country; Brant Moles, 31, the 1998 World Extreme Skiing Champion; Heather Paul, 31, X Games competitor and 24 Hours of Aspen racer; and Kasha Rigby, 31, world-class telemarker and ski mountaineer.

All served their apprenticeships at Eastern areas that barely qualify as topographic bumps. Now, road-tripping from Sugarbush, north to Jay Peak, and back south to Stowe, they are skiing the East for the first time after migrating west. They've come to get reacquainted with the terrain of their youth. They end up getting schooled by it.

For the westernized easterners returning home, Egan's flashdance down FIS is a refresher course on Eastern skills. "You've got to be so precise," says Pickett, shaking his dreadlocked head in amazement at Egan's ice control. "You've got to always be like this," he says, pressing his hands forward in the fall-line-greeting stance that was ingrained in him as a young racer at Suicide Six, the 650-vertical-foot hill in Woodstock, Vermont. "If you let your balance go back, you're gone."

Maybe that's something Pickett and the others lost contact with after moving west. The softer snow of the West, after all, lets you shift your center of balance a little more upright. "I see guys come from the East to ski soft, deep snow for the first time, and they're so far forward they go over the handlebars," says Moles. But edge control is at the crux of good skiing, whether it is on the glare ice of an FIS racecourse or some 55-degree face in Chamonix, where a slight slip has catastrophic consequences.

The crux? It may be a well-worn axiom, but Eastern skiing makes you a better skier.

Jay peak, which got slammed in 2000-2001 with more than 500 inches of snow, is to the East what Alta is to the West-that singular mountain with a mystical ability to squeeze snow from any passing cloud. Yet despite it all, Jay is essentially an Eastern area. When the powder is tracked out and the high-humidity weather patterns typical of low-elevation mountains go to work, you end up with a snow surface that in the East is euphemistically referred to as "firm." Hope for powder when you head to Jay, but be prepared to encounter ice, crust, and hardpack in all their many incarnations.

This time, we get the incarnations. A fog hangs over the mountain, spitting a freezingist driven by a biting wind. As we sit in stunned silence in the lot, I think I see tears welling in Moles's eyes.

The one foray onto the ebonite snow in the woods provides perverse entertainment. On a good day, to ski the off-trail chutes that hang like tinsel in the crags of the summit and the myriad lines that run through the trees here, you need edge precision, quickness, and mental vigilance. On this day, you need all that-and more. Davenport and Pickett experiment with Eastern fundamentals, two guys test-driving the techniques that Egan employed the day before at Sugarbush. The exercise would be familiar to any Eastern skier who has ever ventured into the woods from the safe harbor of the designated trail network. You scrounge around until you encounter the first hint of a skiable line, probably no more than a trap-door squeeze through a copse of busted-up trees. You edge carefully by the spiky, broken branches that can shred your pants and knees, you slide over exposed roots and rock, and, suddenly you're through it, hitting upon a line of maybe 20 turns, often powder, but today not so.

Slam! Slam! Slam! Eastern skiing even sounds painful. As allies for the same ski sponsor, the older Davenport plays a mentor role to Pickett. In a grove of birch, beech, and spruce, they execute their normally smooth styles with exaggerated force: Drive a chiseling edge into the crust, establish a balanced platform while the edge gains brief purchase, then launch laterally into the next turn. Slam! Slam! Slam!

Paul isn't so precise in her chiseling. Letting her skis drift slightly too far from under her, an infraction she might get away with on the Crested Butte steeps where she relocated to a few years ago, Paul slides off her intended line, hooks a stump, and slams her right shoulder into a small birch as the ski gets ripped away. The tree doesn't so much bend as vibrate. She hits it hard.

"That was a wake-up call," Paul says, brushing off loose snow and birch bark as Moles retrieves the ski that's hung up in a tree behind her. "I'd kind of forgotten how hard Eastern skiing was. I just couldn't keep my skis turning where I wanted them to turn." The damage is relatively benign: a bruised right shoulder and a slightly bruised ego. "That's how we grew up," she says of bashing around in the trees of the Sunnybrook area of Vermont's Mount Snow. "You had to think quick and turn quicker."

After the "firm" tree skiing, the crew takes refuge in the base lodge. That night it pours rain, and, as is always the case in an Eastern winter, a deep freeze follows. The next day, the public is making a go of it in skating-rink conditions. The crew is impressed enough (or humiliated enough) to try it themselves. "It's just like when we were kids," Rigby reminds everyone.

"We grew up on this stuff and enjoyed it. This wouldn't have stopped us."

They take one run. That's enough. Davenport describes the snow surface as he jabs his pole at it: "This is a level of ice beyond ice."

Davenport was a junior race rat. But growing up racing can narrow a person's focus. You train for so many hours your arms hurt from slamming gates. Ruts and hard snow are the surface conditions you're force-fed. Then you travel on weekends to hills all around the East, where you do nothing but train and race, race and train.

"At a lot of areas, that's all I knew-the race hill," Davenport says. "We'd come, we'd run gates, and we'd go home."

So as the group climbs Mount Mansfield's summit ridge (the highlight zone of Stowe's out-of-bounds) Davenport has an ironic epiphany: After numerous visits to the area, one of the great adventure skiers in the country is discovering the most complete package of adventure terrain in the East. "I never knew this existed," he says, contemplating the rocky protuberance the Nose (the treeless aspect opposite of the Chin), with its couloir-like clefts harboring fresh snow, the wispy lines descending through rocks, and the sub-alpine stubble of sparse and battered spruce trees. "This is a playground," Davenport says.

Rigby prepped him; he just didn't believe her. Growing up in Stowe, she didn't dedicate her youth to racing; she's always been a freeskier. She'd hike up in the nastiest whiteout conditions, scrambling over rocks caked with rime ice and post-holing through breakable crust and chest-deep drifts of wind-blown snow.

Those youthful outings helped develop a cool-headed fearlessness in alpine environments. It's a character trait that's evidenced in her relaxed body language-and it's an indispensable asset in the raw, big mountains of India, Siberia, and New Zealand, where she has skied on sponsored expeditions. The summit ridge of Mansfield is a superb training ground-a big-mountain world of terrain, weather, and objective hazards on a small and accessible scale.

Below the cliffs of the Nose hangs a jungle gym of lichen-covered boulders and dwarf spruce, all blanketed with a couple of fresh inches as smooth as angora. Davenport, Moles, and Pickett climb eagerly through the rocks, eventually gaining seemingly impossible-to-reach perches where they roost like hawks. Their plan is to jettison for a few seconds of airtime before landing on mere patches of snow.

"The consequences might not be as harsh hitting a rock or tree going 10 miles an hour as opposed to hitting something going 40 in Alaska," Moles says later of the rock-hopping episode. "But the mental prep is the same. It's critical that you're focused on maintaining control at all times. Otherwise you'll be on your butt."

Pickett steps off first, nailing his line, dropping 10 feet from rock to rock, setting a hard edge on some combination of snow, granite, and flaky lichen, then launching another 20 feet to a relatively open tract of snow. Davenport doesn't fare as well. He pops, lands awkwardly, and pitches forward, his tips burrowing into a crested wind roll. It's a double-heel ejection, and he leaves both skis in the windpack as he somersaults to a stop like a de-masted ship.

Moles watches Davenport's mishap from above with an almost Buddha-like amusement. Then he offers a post-crash analysis. "No long runouts here," he says. "You've got to be able to land and turn at the same time."

After a 25-minute hike from the top of the gondola, the group reconvenes on the Chin, Mount Mansfield's treeless high point. To the west, the Adirondacks stand in stark relief; to the east, the snowy summits of the White Mountains begin to adopt the first pink-tinged hues of alpenglow.

The planned route of descent is a mini-couloir known as Hourglass that holds every imaginable mutation of snow-powder, corn, crust, frozen crud, and slush. While the Chin lacks the sheer dimension of a place like Jackson Hole or Squaw Valley, it lacks none of the complexity. In addition to obvious routes like Hourglass, there are dozens of other lines that might be skiable, depending on the level of your skill, daring, and imagination.

Having spent most of the previous three days at Sugarbush and Jay coming to terms again with Eastern skiing, Davenport and Pickett are now turning the tables, applying Western route-finding skills to the Chin. It is a more typically Western process of visualization to look at a mountain and see not a cluster of trails but a more expansive network of possible shots. Among the rocks to the right of Hourglass, they seek out unorthodox lines that may well have never been skied before. It's a technical zone riddled with cliffs and boulders. Here, as in the backcountry of the West, one rule applies above all others: Always have an out. You never want to find yourself in some cul de sac with a cliff below you and no escape route but straight up.

Skirting rock ledges above a cliff, Davenport and Pickett make mental notes of the terrain. They take their time, moving in stop-and-s wispy lines descending through rocks, and the sub-alpine stubble of sparse and battered spruce trees. "This is a playground," Davenport says.

Rigby prepped him; he just didn't believe her. Growing up in Stowe, she didn't dedicate her youth to racing; she's always been a freeskier. She'd hike up in the nastiest whiteout conditions, scrambling over rocks caked with rime ice and post-holing through breakable crust and chest-deep drifts of wind-blown snow.

Those youthful outings helped develop a cool-headed fearlessness in alpine environments. It's a character trait that's evidenced in her relaxed body language-and it's an indispensable asset in the raw, big mountains of India, Siberia, and New Zealand, where she has skied on sponsored expeditions. The summit ridge of Mansfield is a superb training ground-a big-mountain world of terrain, weather, and objective hazards on a small and accessible scale.

Below the cliffs of the Nose hangs a jungle gym of lichen-covered boulders and dwarf spruce, all blanketed with a couple of fresh inches as smooth as angora. Davenport, Moles, and Pickett climb eagerly through the rocks, eventually gaining seemingly impossible-to-reach perches where they roost like hawks. Their plan is to jettison for a few seconds of airtime before landing on mere patches of snow.

"The consequences might not be as harsh hitting a rock or tree going 10 miles an hour as opposed to hitting something going 40 in Alaska," Moles says later of the rock-hopping episode. "But the mental prep is the same. It's critical that you're focused on maintaining control at all times. Otherwise you'll be on your butt."

Pickett steps off first, nailing his line, dropping 10 feet from rock to rock, setting a hard edge on some combination of snow, granite, and flaky lichen, then launching another 20 feet to a relatively open tract of snow. Davenport doesn't fare as well. He pops, lands awkwardly, and pitches forward, his tips burrowing into a crested wind roll. It's a double-heel ejection, and he leaves both skis in the windpack as he somersaults to a stop like a de-masted ship.

Moles watches Davenport's mishap from above with an almost Buddha-like amusement. Then he offers a post-crash analysis. "No long runouts here," he says. "You've got to be able to land and turn at the same time."

After a 25-minute hike from the top of the gondola, the group reconvenes on the Chin, Mount Mansfield's treeless high point. To the west, the Adirondacks stand in stark relief; to the east, the snowy summits of the White Mountains begin to adopt the first pink-tinged hues of alpenglow.

The planned route of descent is a mini-couloir known as Hourglass that holds every imaginable mutation of snow-powder, corn, crust, frozen crud, and slush. While the Chin lacks the sheer dimension of a place like Jackson Hole or Squaw Valley, it lacks none of the complexity. In addition to obvious routes like Hourglass, there are dozens of other lines that might be skiable, depending on the level of your skill, daring, and imagination.

Having spent most of the previous three days at Sugarbush and Jay coming to terms again with Eastern skiing, Davenport and Pickett are now turning the tables, applying Western route-finding skills to the Chin. It is a more typically Western process of visualization to look at a mountain and see not a cluster of trails but a more expansive network of possible shots. Among the rocks to the right of Hourglass, they seek out unorthodox lines that may well have never been skied before. It's a technical zone riddled with cliffs and boulders. Here, as in the backcountry of the West, one rule applies above all others: Always have an out. You never want to find yourself in some cul de sac with a cliff below you and no escape route but straight up.

Skirting rock ledges above a cliff, Davenport and Pickett make mental notes of the terrain. They take their time, moving in stop-and-start slow motion like ships seeking the entrance to an unknown harbor. Any channel of navigable snow through the rocks will do. Eventually, a small opening appears, a slot of snow leading to another ledge, at which point the search resumes as they work to solve the puzzle of the descent.

As much as anything in the Chugach, Hourglass and its surrounding goat paths are no-fall zones. Except here you don't need to fall 3,000 feet to wreck yourself. In the main chute, Paul and Rigby crank a series of flawless telemark turns through the throat of Hourglass before they're forced to move delicately around a tongue of unedgeable ice in the shadow of the rocks. Smack that ice off balance, and you'd be rag-dolling your way onto the spikes of broken spruce saplings.

The experience energizes Davenport. "That's total adventure skiing," he says, emerging from the maze of rocks into the lower-angled slopes at treeline. "That's just the kind of skiing I like." A few days earlier, he would have been disinclined to make the same comment about the prospects of skiing FIS. But four days back on home turf have restored his appreciation of Eastern skiing and of the skills it breeds and demands. It is an attitude shift that John Egan would no doubt applaud.

Flashback: Kina Pickett
Hometown: Woodstock, Vermont
Home hill: Suicide Six, Vermont
Flash from the past: "I skied without poles for the longest time. I even skied in bump contests without poles. I think it was after I fell off the lift and busted both skis when I landed in a mud puddle that I decided poles were a good idea."

Flashback: Heather Paul
Hometown: Bedford, New Hampshire
Home hill: Mount Snow, Vermont
Flash from the past: "'Piperville' was the coolest kiddie play-and-ski area on the East Coast. It could have been considered an early-day terrain park, with jumps, gates, moguls. They had an Easter parade, and my brother and I dressed as chickens and won the competition for best costume."

Flashback: Chris Davenport
Hometown: Manchester, Massachusetts
Home hill: Attitash, New Hampshire
Flash from the past: "Growing up at Attitash was all about causing as much trouble as possible-skiing gnarly, closed lines, poaching french fries in the cafeteria-without getting caught. We felt a lot of pressure from the race kids at Wildcat, who formed a club called the Crazy Kids. To become a Crazy Kid, you had to do dangerous tasks: walk on thin ice, crawl through long culverts, jump out of buildings into trees. We had a lot to live up to."

Flashback: KashaRigby
Hometown: Stowe, Vermont
Home hill: Stowe, Vermont
Flash from the past: "Before they allowed snowboarding, we'd hike to the Stone Hut (in the woods below the Nose) with our boards in the middle of the night. It was always a big party, then we'd ride down at sunrise. But there's no need for my mom to know about the ragers we had up there."

Flashback: Brant Moles
Hometown: Racine, Wisconsin
Home hill: Grand Geneva Resort and Spa, Wisconsin
Flash from the past: "There was one steep pitch right at the bottom of the mountain. When they groomed it, you'd have a slide for life right into the base lodge. We'd be sitting inside having lunch when all of a sudden, bam! And you'd know what happened. Sometimes there was blood. It could get pretty ugly."

nd-start slow motion like ships seeking the entrance to an unknown harbor. Any channel of navigable snow through the rocks will do. Eventually, a small opening appears, a slot of snow leading to another ledge,, at which point the search resumes as they work to solve the puzzle of the descent.

As much as anything in the Chugach, Hourglass and its surrounding goat paths are no-fall zones. Except here you don't need to fall 3,000 feet to wreck yourself. In the main chute, Paul and Rigby crank a series of flawless telemark turns through the throat of Hourglass before they're forced to move delicately around a tongue of unedgeable ice in the shadow of the rocks. Smack that ice off balance, and you'd be rag-dolling your way onto the spikes of broken spruce saplings.

The experience energizes Davenport. "That's total adventure skiing," he says, emerging from the maze of rocks into the lower-angled slopes at treeline. "That's just the kind of skiing I like." A few days earlier, he would have been disinclined to make the same comment about the prospects of skiing FIS. But four days back on home turf have restored his appreciation of Eastern skiing and of the skills it breeds and demands. It is an attitude shift that John Egan would no doubt applaud.

Flashback: Kina Pickett
Hometown: Woodstock, Vermont
Home hill: Suicide Six, Vermont
Flash from the past: "I skied without poles for the longest time. I even skied in bump contests without poles. I think it was after I fell off the lift and busted both skis when I landed in a mud puddle that I decided poles were a good idea."

Flashback: Heather Paul
Hometown: Bedford, New Hampshire
Home hill: Mount Snow, Vermont
Flash from the past: "'Piperville' was the coolest kiddie play-and-ski area on the East Coast. It could have been considered an early-day terrain park, with jumps, gates, moguls. They had an Easter parade, and my brother and I dressed as chickens and won the competition for best costume."

Flashback: Chris Davenport
Hometown: Manchester, Massachusetts
Home hill: Attitash, New Hampshire
Flash from the past: "Growing up at Attitash was all about causing as much trouble as possible-skiing gnarly, closed lines, poaching french fries in the cafeteria-without getting caught. We felt a lot of pressure from the race kids at Wildcat, who formed a club called the Crazy Kids. To become a Crazy Kid, you had to do dangerous tasks: walk on thin ice, crawl through long culverts, jump out of buildings into trees. We had a lot to live up to."

Flashback: KashaRigby
Hometown: Stowe, Vermont
Home hill: Stowe, Vermont
Flash from the past: "Before they allowed snowboarding, we'd hike to the Stone Hut (in the woods below the Nose) with our boards in the middle of the night. It was always a big party, then we'd ride down at sunrise. But there's no need for my mom to know about the ragers we had up there."

Flashback: Brant Moles
Hometown: Racine, Wisconsin
Home hill: Grand Geneva Resort and Spa, Wisconsin
Flash from the past: "There was one steep pitch right at the bottom of the mountain. When they groomed it, you'd have a slide for life right into the base lodge. We'd be sitting inside having lunch when all of a sudden, bam! And you'd know what happened. Sometimes there was blood. It could get pretty ugly."

Related