Winter is here and with it the snow sports enthusiasts are coming out to play. There may not be much snow here in Seattle, but there are those of us who find refuge — and a whole lot of fun — in the mountains. Skiing is no casual hobby and takes a huge chunk of practice to master, but the rewards are tremendous. Skiing is not for the faint of heart, nor for the faint of budget, but even broke college students like me find a way to make it work.
For me, skiing is a beloved pastime, and I’ve been doing it since I could walk. You won’t be able to hit the black diamonds and the tree runs right off the bat, but anyone with the courage and dedication to try it will find skiing is a rewarding challenge.
First off, you need the right gear for snow sports; jeans and a sweatshirt won’t suffice. I generally have three basic layers of clothing on before I hit the slopes. An under layer, a mid-layer, and an outer layer. Depending on your personal comfort needs, you may want to add or subtract a few layers. For an under layer, I usually go with sport leggings or long johns, some wool socks, and a sport long sleeve. Basically anything relatively warm and flexible will do, no need to get fancy.
For a mid-layer I throw on a sports jacket or hoodie. You may want another layer of pants, but I’m generally comfortable with just leggings before the outer layer. An outer layer consists of snow pants and a snow jacket along with gloves, goggles, a face mask or scarf, and perhaps the most important piece of gear, the helmet. I skied without a helmet for almost 10 years and I can honestly say I’m lucky to be alive. Even while learning, and skiing at slow speeds, you will fall, and when that happens, you want something to protect your head.
Layers are essential when skiing because you want to be warm. After all, you are on a mountain much colder than most sledding environments. They are also advantageous because you are exercising, and it may get a little toasty inside those layers. When that happens, you want to be able to shed a layer without freezing.
Boots should fit snugly so your foot doesn’t move too much in the boot, but not so tight that you’re in pain. Your feet will get sore at the end of the day no matter what; even pros get sore feet after a long day on the slopes. Being a skier means embracing the pain and knowing that the pure bliss of taking off your boots at the end of the day means you did well and had tons of fun.
Then there are skis. As a rule of thumb, the tips of the skis should reach your eyebrow when standing upright. As for width, it’s up to you. Wider skis are generally for deep powder and thin skis are for groomed runs and speed. A good pair of all-terrain skis will take you a long way if you’re not sure what kind of snow you’ll be skiing on. It can be beneficial, though expensive, to get a pair of skis for powder, another for speed skiing, and maybe even a third pair for tricks.
If you’re buying used skis, some big no-nos are scratches and dents on the bottom and along the side of the skis. Scratches and dents on the top of the ski, however, won’t affect your ride and may even add to the “rad skier” aesthetic. With skis, especially used, it’s important to make sure that the edges are sharp. This allows for better turns when you hit the slopes.
It’s always beneficial to take your skis to the shop for a tuneup, but most of the time all you need is a good coat of wax. It helps to get a hot wax done at the start of the season, but hard wax will do just fine in between runs. It depends on how much you’re hitting the mountain in a season to tell when to wax, but typically if your skis start to lose their glide, it’s time for a thin coat.
The colored symbols on the runs refer to the difficulty level. A run with a green circle is the easiest, a blue square is moderate, and a black diamond the next most difficult. Double black diamonds are expert terrain and orange ovals are terrain parks. You can find these difficulty rankings in virtually any ski resort in the world with slight variations between countries.
I grew up skiing White Pass, a smaller resort along U.S. Highway 12 in central Washington where a black diamond there may be considered a blue run by Stevens Pass standards. Yet I was able to gain speed on the runs, and find some fun powder off-trail, conditions permitting.
Stevens Pass is a slightly larger resort along Highway 2 in Skykomish, with killer powder so far this season. Known for its backcountry lines, playful tree trails, and a killer terrain park, Stevens Pass is a rad place to ski for the more advanced, and a great learning experience for those starting out.
Any mountain will do for skiing, but seasoned snow sports enthusiasts will each find their favorite mountains to shred based on their skill set and what they find most enjoyable. One mountain may have more speed runs, bigger terrain parks, softer powder, better off-trail, or more challenging terrain.
Know your snow lingo
You already read my references to powder, oh glorious powder. Powder is freshly fallen, extremely light snow formed by small flakes. Powder is extremely soft so if you wipeout, you basically fall into a pillow and emerge covered in snow. Skiers and snowboarders alike love powder because its consistency creates an amazingly fun ride. Powder is the snow that lets you feel like you’re flying. Get creative in powder, because there is basically no fear of getting hurt during soft landings, allowing for the greatest risks and the highest rewards.
Corduroy is the finely ridged snow on groomed runs. Packed powder can also appear on groomed runs but it mainly refers to powder that’s been tracked out. Tracked out is a common term when the good snow has been skied through again and again so that it becomes compact. Tracked out goes hand in hand with crud snow. Crud, also called chowder, is powder that’s been skied through and is no longer fresh.
Crust is snow that is fluffy underneath but has a crusty top layer caused by rain, or a melting and freezing cycle of the snow. When crust forms, the snow underneath can be wet and heavy, which drags down the skis and makes for a rougher ride. Bulletproof is a term coined for compact, icy snow tough enough to withstand a bullet. Trust me, you don’t want to be skiing on this.
Enthusiasts like to get to the mountain right at opening, after a night of snowfall to get first tracks. First tracks are those glorious first runs on fresh powder that no one has hit yet. Imagine the temptation you had when you were young and saw freshly fallen snow. You wanted to just jump in and mess it all up, right? Well, that’s what skiers and snowboarders feel with first tracks.
A fall line refers to the natural line of descent on the mountain. You’ll see a lot of slanted fall lines beneath the ski lifts. Skiing slanted fall lines can be tricky, even for more advanced skiers and snowboarders, so I recommend saving them for later if you’re a beginner.
Sometimes skiers will refer to flat light, which is caused by gray skies and dim light that makes changes in terrain hard to see. Sometimes you’ll get something similar to this on a sunny day when snow reflects the sunlight causing snow blindness. In this case, the snow is so bright that the changes in terrain seem to melt together. This is why goggles or sunglasses are a must.
There is literally no better training for skiing than actually skiing because the activity is a full-body workout. This seems detrimental because the point of training is to get ready for the season before it starts, but there are some simple exercises that you can do to prepare for an excellent season before hitting the slopes.
Sometimes the best training for skiing is an easy run. Cardio excercises will increase muscle and decrease fat somewhat evenly throughout the body, and is a good way to improve physical endurance; an important part of skiing. Squats are particularly helpful as well because they increase strength in the thighs, which is vital for the sport.
Skiers especially may also benefit from arm exercises and weightlifting. If you find yourself in a place on the mountain where you need to use those poles, strong arms will definitely help. Since skiing is a full-body sport, why not throw in some ab work outs? These strengthen your core and help keep you in control at the very center.
Lessons are offered at virtually any resort you want to ski, but it’s best to check the website for prices, levels, and schedules before you decide to take lessons. Many resorts also offer classes on backcountry safety if you’re thinking of skiing off-trail.
Training is extremely important to skiing and boarding, and you will definitely notice an increase in skill level when you’re fit for the task. It’s incredibly important to always be in control when you’re bombing down a run because one slip and you’re tumbling head over heels the rest of the way down. Training will also help you stay on the mountain longer and make for a fulfilling day.
Bring some buds
Skiing alone is fun and all, because skiing always is, but it’s best to grab some buds. No, I’m not talking about Budweiser. It’s important to have someone to ski with even if you’re a pro, because even the best skiers can find themselves in sticky situations. Snow bros are important because whether or not you know each other well, they will always have your back.
Toward the end of the day I was skiing with two of my snow bros and we went down a black diamond called Pegasus. They were shredding it and I was a little behind, trying to keep up but doing alright, until I caught an edge and biffed it. My legs tangled together, one ski detached, and I ended up sliding uncontrollably down half the mountain. Once I finally stopped, I lied there, grateful to be alive in a situation I thought would end otherwise.
My snow bros came to my aid with both my skis. We later found my poles and they rallied me to continue on down the run. If my bros weren’t there, I don’t know how I would have made myself get down the rest of the slope. Also, if I were injured, it could have taken a long time for ski patrol to find me.
Snow bros are the best friends you will ever have. We take care of our own on the mountain, whether we’ve been friends since childhood or just met that day. When the people you’re with will wait for an eternity just to make sure you get down the hill, you know you’ve found some good ones.
If you’re now convinced that skiing is the best winter sport out there and you want to give it a try, there are many clubs on campus where you can find your ski family. Most clubs are open to all skill levels, so if you’re a beginner, you can meet other first-time skiers.
Reach writer Taylor McAvoy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @TaylorMcAvoy105