Spirit in the Skis: A Clinic with Jim Weiss
by Joan Rostad
"In skiing as in all things, the best always comes from the heart. Straight from the heart."
I'm at Big Sky, Montana, the first weekend in December, at an educational gathering for professional ski instructors in the region. The sky is clear, promising cold temperatures. The snow squeaks underfoot.
While waiting for other members of the group to arrive, our clinic leader tells a story. He begins, "You know, I'm always learning. Sometimes it happens without even trying." It seems he had turned on the TV that morning while waiting for his wife and happened on one of those early Sunday morning fishing shows. One fellow had just caught a bass, and was complaining to the show's host that the catch was too easy--the fish hadn't jumped around or put up much of a fight. The host explained that it was probably old, and one can't expect an old bass to jump around much. Our leader grins and says, "So, what I learned this morning is that I'm a lot like that bass--I'm too old to jump."
He waits for our laughter to subside before making his point. "Just don't expect any jumping or hopping around in this clinic. We're going to stick to the skis and the snow and leave the air to the kids. The other thing is, you'll get about what you want out of this clinic. I'll share what I know and believe about skiing with you, but it's entirely up to you what you do with it. And finally, I expect to learn as much as you today, because every time I come out and do a clinic it's a completely new experience."
Our leader is Jim Weiss, a master ski teacher, rancher, and philosopher from Wisdom, Montana, in the handsome, rugged country called the Big Hole. In the winter, Jim feeds his cows early and heads up the hill to a ski area on the Idaho-Montana border called Lost Trail Powder Mountain.
Jim's credentials are impressive. He skied on two U.S. Interski Teams, worked internationally as a race coach, and was a PSIA chief examiner for 15 years. He is unique, irascible, and exceedingly difficult, but over the years I have learned more about learning from Jim than any other individual. Naturally, I was first in line to sign up for this program called "Living Legends."
Weiss conveys his message with oddball analogies and wonderfully colorful metaphors: the way a horse runs the Breeder's Cup, how to react if a man were dying in your bathroom, the hanging of the Plummer Gang, and the best strategy for a man to ask a woman to dance--Jim seamlessly weaves all of these strands into his presentation. As he explains it, "What I talk about is more a way of thinking about skiing than a way to ski. In that sense, it's beyond technique."
Once the group is all present and introduced, Weiss apologizes, "I might as well admit that I'm not good at remembering names. In fact, I can hardly remember what happened yesterday unless I write it down. So, if I forget your name, don't take it personally. I even forget the name of my own dog. I just say, "C'mere, dog--and he comes."
We ascend the mountain for 1700 non-stop verts down a south face that was groomed wet and this morning is icy and littered with frozen chunks. Jim picked this run deliberately, I realize. He's told me that he likes to get people a little scared right from the start because then they tend to listen better. He streaks down in the lead. No one can match his speed, though some are 30 years younger.
In my eagerness to keep up I ski too fast, rattling over the frozen ruts and trusting my fate to blind chance. I stay on Jim's heels and reach the flat area at the base of the lift just behind him. I notice no sign that he's over-extended, although I'm gasping. How does he do it?
I'm impressed at the subtle way Weiss juxtaposes his frail humanity--the "old bass" who can't remember names--with his obvious superiority at skiing. His ability far surpasses anyone's in the group, and inspires us to pay attention.
When the last skier finally straggles down to the group, eyes tearing from the wind and struggling for breath, Jim asks, "Did any of you feel your thighs burning on that run?" It's only the second or third day any of us have been skiing yet this season, so the question elicits many affirmative murmurs.
Jim tells us that the burn is the result of not planning the turns to match our own endurance. We're either making the turns too long or too short. "Last year," he says, "I was watching the Breeder's Cup with the owner of one of the horses. As we're watching, I notice that when the horse enters the straightaway after the turns the jockey really jerks the horse's head from one side to the other. So I ask the owner, "What in hell is the jockey doing?" The owner explains that the jockey is simply getting the horse to change its lead, because to run a mile, the work must be distributed evenly to all four legs or the horse will become exhausted and fade before the last stretch.
"You see," Jim continues, "skiers are in the same situation as the racehorse--we have to change leads or all we'll care about is getting some rest for the supporting leg. We'll either quit the turn by relaxing into a skid sideways or we'll start another turn prematurely to release the tired leg.
"We have to know when to switch leads," he says, "and when to drive and when to coast, just like the jockey managing the endurance of his horse in a race." Jim pauses and adds, "We need to plan the size of our turns so we don't get too tired. Now, a turn is a part of a circle. By focusing on the shapes of the turn--how large or small the circumference of the circle is and how long you remain on the line--you can manage your endurance and ski better longer. Think about that while you ride the chair up."
We return for another attempt at the icy, south-facing run after pausing for a pep talk. "If you're having trouble staying in control on snow like this, it's because you're not listening to your skis," says Jim. "That may seem silly: listening to your skis. But when your skis aren't holding and you're skidding when you meant to be carving, the skis are in trouble and they're telling you that they need something that you're not giving them. If you're not paying attention, you might think the skis are causing you the problems, when it's really your inattentiveness that's causing problems for the skis."
Jim says our skis will tell us when to drive and when to coast. "When they get in trouble, often it's because you're just coasting when you ought to be driving. Think about it while you ski down to where I stop," he says, spiriting down the hill without stirring up even a wisp of snow.
When we regroup, he asks us to make short turns toward a lone pine in the distance. While we manage little more than controlled directional skidding, Jim, who arrives last, lays down crisp arcs. His skis leave a finely drawn line in snow that was unyielding to the rest of us.
He asks one of the group members to make short, pivoted edge-sets down the fall line. Jim says, "This is not a bad turn, as some would have us believe. It's just a turn that's way to one side of the spectrum. On the opposite side is a highly carved turn."
He asks the question, "If we're skiing in a steep chute, which would be better--a pivot to an edge set or a long carve?" He listens for a response, gets none, and continues, "I know I'd want to use a quick pivot in that situation, because I'd want to control my speed. On the other hand, the purpose of the carved turn is to release your speed. I don't know about you, but when I ski I like to feel the wind on my face. I'm after the adrenaline, because if there's no adrenaline I might as well stay home."
"This may seem strange," Jim adds, "but what I'm really talking about is releasing the spirit in the skis. Riding a clean edge releases my spirit, and that's the reason I ski."
Jim pauses, perhaps unsure of the group's tolerance for matters of the spirit, and proceeds to matters of fact. "In the final analysis, don't we choose turns that are more or less skidded or carved according to the situation at hand?" he asks. "A generalization I can make is that skidding is effective only at slower speeds and in shorter radius turns. It becomes less and less effective as speed and size of the turn radius increases. Therefore, carved turns have a wider range of effectiveness than skidded turns. That doesn't mean they're necessarily better."
Jim then asks us to traverse across the hill by tipping the skis up onto the edges and holding the edge all the way across the hill without slipping. "If you listen, your skis will tell you what they need in order to hold their line," he says. "Begin by shaving the snow with the uppermost edge of the shovel of the skis and then move that pressure back, so that the whole ski follows that line."
Our guide explains that this primary movement is what he means by "the drive." The coast, on the other hand, "is when you're just staying on the track, just relaxed and holding onto the direction set by the drive." He asks us to traverse each direction, going from driving to coasting to driving to get a feel for the difference between the two actions.
Jim then asks for another set of traverses, this time checking the tracks for signs of slipping. On the third set he asks us to consider the shape of the line we leave in the snow. "The line left in the snow following a clean traverse is an arc, which results from standing on an edged ski. The shape of the arc in a traverse is solely determined by the ski's sidecut and camber, which, when drawn out, would form part of a very large circle. The traverse, therefore, bears a striking resemblance to the turn."
"The challenge," Jim adds, "is to make our circles as clean as our traverses, for, as the great Austrian Professor Kruckenhauser [Stefan Kruckenhauser, author of The Austrian Ski Teaching System, 1955] said often enough, `Turns are nothing more than continuing from one traverse to another.' I'd take that a step farther and say the turn is a traverse, only with more bend to it."
Jim continues, "When you're traversing well, you have your skis tipped up and you're showing your bases down the hill. That is, if I'm below you, I can easily see what color the bases of your skis are. In a carved turn, you want to show your bases to the outside of the turn. At certain speeds, this can result in showing your bases up the hill at the start of a turn."
Jim then requests that we try showing our bases to the trees lined along either side of the hill. "Drive your skis around the line of the circle you're in, but keep your eyes on the next circle and the circle after that," he advises. "That helps you be more specific about where you want the skis to go. If you're not specific about what you want, you must be satisfied with what you get."
"The point," says Jim, "is that when our minds are on the side, the skis go sideways. Now, if skis were meant to go sideways, the engineers would have turned up the sides rather than the fronts. The skis are meant to slide forward along their length. That's how they "like" it, and if you will listen to them, they will tell you through their vibrations whether you are leading them in the right direction or not. When your mind is forward and ahead around the next circle, your skis will go there."
After a quick, "Follow me," Jim leads the way down the last headwall, a long steep pitch where the conditions are particularly icy.
I'm amazed at the difference between these turns and the ones I made the first time down. I'm going faster than the speed that earlier scared me, yet now it's pleasantly exhilarating to feel the wind in my face. My eyes focus on the imaginary line ahead of me; my skis scribe the snow with an accuracy that inspires confidence. "That was great!" I yell out when I ski into the group, but Jim acts like it's no big deal.
He continues straight-faced, "Say there's a guy dying in your bathroom." This strikes us as funny, but Jim reins us in. "The door is locked. How are you going to get in? Are you going to ease up to the door and give it a push or are you going to get a run at it and hit it hard enough to bust the hinges?"
The drive in skiing can be very intense and powerful like that. It can also be applied lightly and with finesse. "It depends on the resistance of the snow, but my rule of thumb is to give back to the snow a bit more pressure than it gives me," he explains. "I want one intensity of drive for skiing wind slab and another for skiing hard pack. While hard snow doesn't resist our movement through it, like powder or crud do, it does resist our grip on it, which calls for finesse more than power."
I think back to the first extreme--those situations where you just have to get a run at it and power through--and imagine how I'd drive the skis through the moist wind slab now that I have the dead guy in the bathroom to consider. Weiss takes a moment to appreciate the sunlight glinting off the Spanish Peaks, and says, "Good skiing is more than technique, it also has to do with attitude."
Next we try "outriggers" (the drill, not the adaptive tool), although Jim doesn't attach a name to the exercise. He simply requests that while keeping our weight centered over the inside ski, we feel the pressure that builds during the turn under an unweighted, but highly edged, outside ski. Then he has us move our weight to the outside ski at the moment we feel the most pressure. We try with varying degrees of success. I know when I've got it, because the newly weighted outside ski cuts under me with a power that I don't supply. It's the power of an unleashed ski, and when it happens it's an incredible rush.
Jim points out that the pivot turns we were doing earlier are an example of the human doing most of the work and the ski doing relatively little. "But when we carve a part of the circle, we're basically asking the ski to do everything and the human to simply arrange things," he says. "The best way to describe it is that it's like setting up a math problem to reach the solution with the least number of steps." He thinks a moment, looking for a more concrete example. "See, I'm nearly 60, but I still want the same things from skiing that I wanted in my 20s. But over the years I've learned to use my mind more than my physical strength and endurance. I try to do as little as I can and still have the ski do what I want."
He asks us to take the feeling of the outriggers into short turns down the fall line. The snow surface changes from mellow machine tracks to extreme hardpack, particularly on the south headwall where a water line had burst a few days ago. I'm making the best turns of my life, but Jim doesn't seem to notice. The turns aren't quite there yet. I feel no disappointment, just impatience to get back up the mountain so I can try some more.
At the top, Jim spins another tale. We're eager as children at storytime. "When I was starting out, I worked at one of the race camps at Mt. Hood, and that was really exciting because all sorts of people would be training there at any given time. The Austrian Team was there, and when I wasn't working I used to follow them around, hanging back about 20 feet, just within earshot. And I can tell you, the Austrians hated me for pestering them. In the lodge at night, I'd be sitting there, reading a magazine or something, and the Austrians would walk by and just glare at me. But I learned a lot from hanging around them, imitating the way they skied, and trying to piece together their conversations. Now when somebody listens in on me when I'm talking with someone about skiing, I don't mind a bit. In fact, I'm kind of flattered."
Taking aside a man whose weathered face confirms a lifetime of skiing, Jim says, "This part's for you, Wayne. You're skiing too safe--standing right over the skis all the time, like you don't really trust them to behave unless you're right there directing things." Although Jim says that this part is for Wayne, the anecdote about the Austrians has invited the rest of us to listen in and take part in the learning, too.
The exercise for Wayne is the crabwalk/flying wedge, but again Jim doesn't bother with a name for it. He simply says, "Do this: Move your hips across from one side to the other, tipping up the skis and riding that edge until the next crossover with the hips. It helps to have your skis apart, either in a snowplow or wider parallel stance."
We follow Jim's demo with our weaker versions, afraid to let our hips hang out so far from our feet. Wayne has it backwards: he's throwing his outside hip and sliding all over the place. After a few more tries, Wayne starts to get it, but he's fighting decades of habit.
While we're working on it, Jim tells us about the Plummer Gang. "They were an outlaw bunch that the vigilantes hanged at Bannack in the late 1880s. There were 24 that needed hanging, and after a while the vigilantes got a bit bored with it. So they started playing around, and discovered that no matter how you twist and turn a hanging man, the feet will always line up with the body." Weiss is grinning as he pantomimes. "This is good to remember when we're trying to get the feet and the hips as far away from one another as we can." Jim pushes off, demonstrating an extremely extended crabwalk. "The feet and the body separate, but they come back together again," he says, slowing down the transition to show how the lower extremities fold into a neutral position before each edge change.
But Jim cautions us that there's another side to it. "Have you ever had your inside ski suddenly take off in another direction when you're skiing deep snow?" We nod. "The ski with the least resistance aligns most easily with the upper body. When the inside ski scissors like that, some degree of twisting of the upper body is the cause."
Jim takes each of us aside as he did Wayne, allowing the others to listen and watch while he gives us a particular task. My task is to drive the turn earlier in its arc, and also to move out of the arc sooner. In other words, if points on a circle are like the numbers on the face of a clock, Jim's suggestion is to aim the arc from 12 to 6 rather than 1 to 7.
We take three more runs after learning what our particular focus should be. We ski as a group, but Jim continues to work with us individually, stopping to talk or calling out as he passes. We go back to some of the exercises, practicing the new moves in their simplest form before testing them at the speed Weiss prefers to ski.
"You're getting there," he says encouragingly, "but you'll have to work on it." I'm thrilled that he's noticed a change. I feel a big change in my skiing, though I also feel my movements are more exaggerated than necessary. "That's okay in the beginning," he says. "You'll tone it down as you get a better feel for timing your movements."
At the conclusion of the clinic Jim shrugs off our effusive thanks. What we think of him is not the point. "See, it's all in the philosophy," he says. "What's important is how you offer yourself to the skis. We're like the guy in the bar who sees an attractive girl and naturally wants to dance with her. He can either walk up to the girl and grab her and make her dance with him--and she might do it, though she won't like it--or he can go up to the girl, say something nice, offer to buy her a drink, and then ask her to dance."
Pausing for effect, Jim smiles and says, "The difference is all in how you offer."
I found this photo of Jim online taken at a horse clinic -- I included the caption for its added information (UM School of Journalism photo).
Chinook Swindle, left, and Jim Weiss discuss the day's training schedule during the afternoon of Oct. 15 at Majik Arabians. Swindle, Weiss, and Hochstetler are all horsemen in addition to being ski patrol buddies. Weiss was a coach for the Olympic ski team before becoming interested in horses and both Weiss and Swindle have attended clinics to improve their horse training skills.