Impressions from my first ESA
I was going to write a very specific, day-by-day account of my experience at my first Epic Ski Academy, but as Keniski was in my group, and has already posted a superlative account of his experience, I’ve decided to shift gears and write a less detailed, rambling, but hopefully no less succinct account of my experience.
If you’ve read many of my previous TR’s, then you may have expected this one to be loaded with photographs. Sorry to disappoint, but I took my role as student very seriously, and had no desire to alter the group dynamic by making images. In fact, I held most of my usual urges in check and allowed my coach, the sublime Bob Barnes to set the pace and lead wherever and however he saw fit. The lone exception was my request that on our last run of the final day of the ESA that our group take a trip through the trees in Sneaky’s Glades, accessible from both the Big Burn and Sheer Bliss lifts.
I’ve wanted to attend an Academy for some time, and my winning the tuition in the recent essay contest cemented the deal, so I headed off to Aspen/Snowmass with a mixture of trepidation, high hopes, and a bit of skepticism. Skepticism, you may ask? Well certainly. I’ve read enough accounts by other Bears who’ve claimed tremendous growth in their skills after attending a single, 4-day clinic. Right. Pull the other one friend. I arrived with what I thought were reasonable expectations. I’ve had some excellent lessons, perhaps most notably a trio that I’ve taken over the past few seasons with the superb skier and teacher VailSnoPro. In each instance I’ve gained substantial growth and satisfaction. VSP’s influence has drastically changed the way I perform, look at skiing, and raised the bar dramatically at what I perceive to be good skiing. During my last lesson with him this past December, he provided me with a golden nugget that helped unlock a major step ahead in my relatively lame bump skiing. Should the ESA yield the kind of growth that I could expect in four successive good lessons, then I’d be well and truly satisfied.
The ESA was scheduled to begin on Sunday night, when the Bears and coaches would gather, have a meet & greet session, and break up into our specific groups. On that Sunday morning, the early arrivals gathered for breakfast then headed off en-mass to free ski for the day. This marks the first time that I’ve ever met any of the Bears or coaches that will be in attendance, aside from some quite civil correspondence here on the forums. Right from the start of that day, I sensed something from this gang of Bears that is not usually evident in any old group of skiers. These folks, though cheerful and good -natured almost to a fault, took their skiing seriously. I immediately experienced a shared sense of commitment and support that was a bit foreign, and certainly not the norm for many of the ski-school groups that I’ve been a member of.
I’ve been looking forward to meeting many of these good people for some time now, and I must say that Philpug and Trek Chick, were both as engaging and cheerful in the flesh as they’ve been on the web. Oh yeah, they’ve got some deep skills on the hill to boot. One word of caution when dealing with Philpug though, if you’ve some $ in your pocket, and care about skis, then he WILL take your money in exchange for some cool gear. He’s very good at what he does, and you’ll be both richer and poorer for dealing with the man. I wouldn’t care to argue with him over any aspects of ski gear, but he’s one of the first folks I’d ask a question and expect an honest answer from.
General hysteria pervaded as the gang tore around the upper chairs at Snowmass for a while. The snow is just spectacular and soft, and we played around as a mob for a few hours. One particular highlight/lowlight for me is when KevinF asks if we can switch skis for a run, as he’d like to try my Gotamas. (The ones from 2 seasons back, the ugly blackish ones that have normal camber.) I gleefully agree, and not just because I’m such a nice guy. KevinF is riding on a pair of Kastle MX 88’s, and I’ve been itching to try a pair of those babies. KevinF takes off down the hill, and I click in, pick up a bit of speed, and make a few turns. Suddenly, I spy KevinF, and he looks decidedly unhappy. Turns out, he’s not just displeased with my trusty Goats, he’s decided, with about 10% of the run under our feet, that he absolutely abhors my skis, and demands that I return his beloved boards IMMEDIATELY. Not certain, but he may have spit on my skis, and I suspect that the low muttering sound that I heard was possibly a rather colorful tapestry of carefully woven invective aimed at either the Gotamas, anything at all emblazoned with the moniker “Volkl,” or perhaps your humble narrator. Sigh. Okay. Guess I’ll have to wait for another day to try a pair of MX 88’s.
A Brief Intermezzo
Round about noontime, the gang starts to separate. TC and Phil are off to meet some of the coaches, some head to the steeps, and others to groomers. I decide to head to the base and switch out my Gotamas for my “skinny skis”, a pair of 88mm Mythic Riders in 178cm. Just as I’m about to head back up with my “carvers” I’m fortunate enough to bump into TC and Phil. They’ve just seen some of the new arrivals into their rooms, and the new gang will meet up in about an hour to make some turns and scout out the terrain for the upcoming days. Feeling a bit peckish, this trio headed off in search of succor and settled in at The Stewpot. TC has Beef Stew, Phil opts for Mediterranean Lamb with Cous-Cous, and only because I’m a serious clam junkie, and even though the nearest live shell fish bed is at least 1,500 miles away, I opt for a bowl of NE style chowder. There’s nothing like a healthy dose of saturated fat to make a mouth happy, especially one that’s half a continent away from its paramours’.
The Game Changes Drastically
So this sated trio waddled contentedly back to the ski racks to pick up our boards and meet the newly arrived group of coaches and Bears. Slowly, as if drawn by some unseen force, a substantial gathering of SERIOUS BIG DOGS formed around us. I quickly find myself surrounded by such Epic luminaries as Bud Heishman, Cgeib, Tog, and THE MAN HIMSELF, El Queso Grande, the fabled, respected, honored, feared, and actually very friendly, Bob Barnes. Bud makes a particularly sinister impression on me. First off, he’s a pretty big guy. Secondly, his visage is hidden behind a half-face mask that reminds me of a cross between a women’s lacrosse face guard, and a Hannibal Lechter Halloween costume. Is that a slight trickle of blood that I see slowly dripping from behind this horrifying grin? Is he looking at me? Holy Macaroni Batman! (You’ve got to be old enough to get the Burt Ward quote. Not what I was really thinking, but I’m self-editing.) I’m shaking in my boots already, (and my boot fit perfectly, didn’t know I could shake in them,) and we’re not even on a lift yet, where he can sink his teeth into my unguarded neck. Then, he speaks, and all of those horrific thoughts of mine melt away. Gee, what I swell guy. Our new group heads up the Village Express lift, and all’s going swimmingly as we chat amiably. Once off the lift though, as if energized by some primal urge, the mob takes off at a speed that was absolutely breathtaking. I mean that all of these folks can fly down the mountain. I am by far the weakest link in the chain, and do my level best to keep up. Not only are they fast, but every one of these big dogs is laying down deep trenches with every turn, gliding along with what appears to be effortless grace, and smoothly rolling on down to the next lift. Stopping? They don’t need no stinking stopping.
I frequently refer to my own skiing with a self-deprecating sense of humor here on EpicSki, but am not quite as weak a skier as I make myself out to be. There is no need for me to belittle my own meager skills amongst this bunch though. To make a not too subtle comparison, these folks are all riding on rocket powered roller coasters and I’m wobbling along on a pair of 1960’s vintage metal clamp-on style skates with a few sticky wheels. Even though we do not venture onto any really demanding terrain, just trying to keep up with this gang has me tottering on the jagged edge of my abilities. A particular high point for me comes when I follow them down the relatively flat upper part of the bump run that passes beneath the High Alpine lift. Not wanting to be left too far behind, and possibly being blown off entirely, I relied on that golden nugget that VSP imparted on me during my last lesson, ski what is by far the longest uninterrupted bump run of my life, and manage to join up with the EpicSki posse before they can leave me in the dust, just at the start of the steeper section that constitutes the end of the trail. Following the lead once again of my eminently more graceful companions, I try and rip the steep section with the same gusto that I enjoyed on the earlier part. While not entirely spastic, I do manage to ski the section with a modicum of flair, and at a speed that I’d never before attempted. I do manage however to jam my left shin pretty hard into the tongue of my boot during an “oops” moment, but complete the run in a vertical position, and think no more of the momentary twinge of pain. This will prove to be an issue that will assert itself in a moderately ugly fashion in the hours and days to come.
Back in the lodge I take off my right boot, and all’s right in the world. Then, while taking off the left one and yowza. That really hurt! Seems that my shin-jamming incident has yielded a golf ball sized bruise on my shin, and getting out of the boot was no fun at all. I make a run to the hotel’s ice machine, throw a few cubes into a glass along with some medicinal Jameson’s, and use the rest to make a cold compress. I’m not at all happy with the prospect of trying to get that boot on again in the morning.
I head off for the first official event of the ESA, the meet and greet session where we placed in our groups, and meet our individual coaches. I’m placed in Bob Barnes’ group along with the lovely and talented Marty, Margaritamarcia, and the as yet unaccounted for Keniski. This proved a very pleasant few hours and was further enhanced by some free beer. A chat with Bud and Bob Barnes about my shin yields the suggestion that I use a hairdryer to warm and soften my boot before putting it on, and again before taking it off. For those of you who have ever met me or seen a photo, you may well know that I spend very little time or money on hair care products. Shampoo is simply an efficient means of cleaning my head, and it’s never crossed my mind that I might actually want or need a means of drying my no-existent coif. Fortunately there is just such an appliance in my hotel room, so I’ll be good to go for the rest of the week. The bruise stayed with me for the duration of the ESA, but did not really inhibit my skiing much. It did however make walking in my boots spectacularly unpleasant, and as a result I opted out of hiking all the way to the top of Highlands Bowl. I did however head up a few hundred paces and made the run down with Bud and GWskier. That tale will be recounted a bit further on in this report.
As I noted earlier, Keniski was in my group, and his observations and superb TR covered much of this material, so I will not recount it here. Likewise, others have already mentioned the material presented by Alpinord, Weems, Charlie, and Packy. Rather, I’ll just embellish on a few of my particular perceptions, observations, and sensations.
As my classmates Marty and Margaritamarcia were much more experienced skiers than I am, I’m probably not really an astute enough observer and interpreter of movement analysis to accurately assess their progress during the clinic. However, Keniski was much less experienced and it was much easier for me to appreciate the IMMENSE growth in all aspects of his skiing. I was simply astonished at what a difference four days made in the man. Initially tentative, by the time we were finished he’d voice his new mantra “Dive and have faith”, and drop into terrain that he would not have even looked at the week before, and really ski it. Not survive and get down, but ski!
As for my own impressions, well that’s one serious can o’ worms. Right from the start, Bob’s thrust was aimed, (at least in my interpretation,) at offensive skiing. Please read Keniski’s TR for the clinical particulars, but this was a serious change in my entire point of view; intoxicating, liberating, and exhilarating. The idea that you start a new turn when you don’t think you’re going fast enough was a bit counterintuitive, but once given the chance, I’m not thinking about heading back to my old mindset. This concept also resonated deeply with something VSP has been coaxing me towards for the past couple of seasons, what he refers to as “the moment”, Bob calls “neutral”, and what I assume Weems calls “the edge change.” It’s that moment, when one turn ends and another begins that I interpret to be the cornerstone of what good skiing can be built on.
All aspects of my own skiing seemed to gain strength at a rate that I still cannot really believe. Aside from a case of the yips following a moderately spectacular but painless tumble in the Highlands Bowl, I’m now skiing steeps, bumps, and some trees with a speed, fluidity, and confidence that I hardly believe possible. The growth that I feel is simply extraordinary, and well beyond anything that I could have reasonably expected before the ESA began. There’s not an ounce of skepticism left in my little brain in regards to the potential benefits of this program.
On an entirely personal level, I found skiing with Bob Barnes to provide me with a benefit that I’ve not experienced before in a lesson. It just so happens that Bob and I are of similar age, height, weight, and build. It’s easy for me to watch him, and try and emulate what I see. I found this to be a wonderful asset.
I tried my best to be a good listener, and follow directions. It’s with a smattering of pride that I can only recall one specific incident where after being asked to perform a specific task, Bob looked me and said, “That ain’t it.” In a similar vein, Bob never once looked at me and said, “Don’t do that.” Perhaps my major source of pride it the fact that Bob Barnes has seen fit to use a bit of my own terminology to name one of his types of turns. Following a heavy lunch, our group, sated and suffering from post-meal bloat, tended to make our first run of the afternoon a rather sedate affair. On Wednesday, during our easy, almost do-nothing-but-bank turns, I came up with the moniker “Nap Time Turns.” To my infinite pleasure, the name stuck.
The low point of my own personal performance occurred while skiing in Highland Bowl with Bud and my new friend GWskier. Unseen by either of my companions, I subjected myself to a rather ignominious tumble and found myself at least 30 vertical feet from my poles, lying comfortably on the steep slope in very deep, soft snow. The thought of trying to hike up to retrieve my poles by clambering back up through hip-deep snow was not in the least appealing, or even practical. In what I think was probably the worst thing that anyone said about me during the week, (at least as far as I know,) Bud turned to GW and muttered: “Oh s#@*. Now I’ve gotta go pick up the garbage.” I said it before, and will say it again: Thank you Bud. At least you didn’t have to pay for your beer that evening.
Weems was due for some upgrades at the body shop, so I’ll have to wait for another day to share my first day on the mountain with that erudite gentleman.
I never did take advantage of the opportunity to ski with either Dave Grogan or Charlie MacArtur. We were all offered the chance to do so during the two afternoons when electives were offered. At Ajax, both Dave and Charlie were offering guided tours to the hidden shrines, but I opted instead to continue my session with Bob as I thought that I was gaining so much from the morning session that I could not turn down the chance to keep on with “the girl that I brung.” I also had the chance to ski with either and or both of the local gurus during our Highlands day, but opted instead to head up to The Bowl, shin bruise or not. Aside from Charlie’s enlightening “centering” presentation, my most lasting impression of these two fine gents was based on our bus ride back to Snowmass from Ajax. Both talented and animated joke tellers, Dave entertained the back of the bus crowd with a raucous, animated, and hilariously vulgar tale of a Kiwi, an Aussie, and a sheep. Charlie countered with his no less vigorous telling of the tale of a pair of nuns and their fateful encounter with a vampire as they were driving through the Transylvanian countryside.
My only runs with Bud came on the day before the Academy, and during our Highlands afternoon. His skills are of course flabbergasting, his perceptions astute, his instructing chops top drawer, and his company just delightful. I would dearly love to ski more with him.
I hold Bob Barnes in the highest esteem and would need a very good reason not to ski with him on any given day. I tended to look at things like this: Legend has it that Mozart was a notoriously poor piccolo player. However were I granted the opportunity to listen to him play the piccolo, I’d jump at the chance, just as I would relish the chance to hear him do most anything that had to do with music. Should Bob care to illustrate the finer points of wedges and wedge christies for a long, slow run, (as was the case on the final free-skiing day, and this bit of wisdom was most specifically for Tog’s benefit,) then I’m all ears and happy to join in and learn from whatever aspect of the sport he cares to share.
A cruel virus assailed my new buddy Tog early during the ESA. The bug packed a serious wallop. I’m tempted to be politic and write that our friend was unwell, but am reminded of one of Peter O’Toole’s lines in the film My Favorite Year.When his young companion has had too much to drink and states that he’s about to be unwell, O’Toole’s character retorts, “Ladies are unwell; Gentlemen vomit.” As a result Tog spent some time in a horizontal position and we were deprived of his company on the hill, dining table, and drinking halls for a while, and he was sorely missed. Tog did however make a fairly rapid recovery, and was back on the mountain in fine style for our last day.
Snowmass is not exactly a hot spot regarding late night action. The bar at the Silvertree Hotel, while inviting and comfortable, announced last call at around 10:00. Hardly the type of place for serious booze hounds to lie about their lives and share tales of daring do. Cgeib has developed a taste for a late-night beverage that consists of a cup of coffee enriched with Kahlua and Cognac. That sounded quite appealing to me, so I decided to order up a round. Alas, by 9:30, they were out of coffee.
My only other regret about the Academy is that I did not have the chance to ski very much with most of my fellow students, specifically those who were not in my group. I had brief chance to free ski on Friday with Bbinder and Peter, and enjoyed their companionship mightily, (and in fact experienced a bit of adventure in the Hanging Valley,) and shared a little hill time with Jaysuds and Longjohn during the elective session on our Ajax day, but those brief interludes only made me want to spend more time with all of them. Seems that the days sped by much too fast.
My New Bear Buddies And A Gift For Colorful Language
All the folks that were in my group know of my fondness for them, though one quote that I attribute to Keniski, (though it may have originated with Bob,) rings through with particularly clarity. I am speaking of course of the can-do attitude implicit in the phrase “Dive and have faith.”
Eddie holds a special place in my pantheon of Bear buddies. (Sorry but I don’t know your Bear handle. I did not have a chance to bid you farewell and share contact info. If you’re reading this, please send me a PM, as I’d love to communicate with you.) He skis great but his real impact on me, (having become a skier at a relatively advanced age,) is the fact that a slightly older gent not only skis so well, but that he continues strive and improve as is evident by his very attendance at the Academy. His example is tremendously uplifting to me, and I most certainly wish to emulate his stellar example.
Perhaps the single greatest thing that I heard all week, and is in fact a phrase that has since become an indelible part of my own rather eccentric personal colloquial vocabulary, comes thanks to GWskier. Upon reaching our chosen gate to enter Highlands Bowl, GW, Bud and I took a little while to recover our breath, allow our pulse rates to regulate, and enjoy the view. (Some might call this “procrastinating”.) Bud, as I’d expect from such a major player, was as cool and patient as could be. I know I had more than a modicum of trepidation regarding our ensuing descent into what was probably the steepest slope that I’d ever tried to ski, and I more than strongly suspect that GW was experiencing similar anxiety. Keeping the whole situation in perspective, we were a pair of adult recreational skiers facing a rather daunting challenge. We were not young Doughboys awaiting the whistle to go “over the top” of the trenches into No-Man’s Land, or otherwise heroic true believers, or victims of circumstances beyond our control. Still the idea of those famous red-neck last words, “Hey y’all. Watch this,” resonated gently in my head. Finally, rested, ready, driven, and committed, GW decided to man-up. He strode forward, clicked into his bindings and declared, (in his mellifluous, thick as molasses Louisiana drawl,): “Okay boys. Let’s kick this chicken.”
ESA vs. Group Lessons
There are some substantial advantages for a dedicated skier whishing to improve rapidly that make attending an ESA a very appealing choice as compared with a week of group lessons. (I’ve not been able to afford private lessons with the instructor of my choice, so all of these aspects may not hold true of such sessions.)
First, the coaches at the ESA were all supremely qualified and experienced professional educators. Keeping that coach for successive days allows the coach/athlete relationship to flourish and develop quickly and effectively.
In a standard group lesson, Lord only knows who will be in your group. I’ve been fortunate to enjoy companions who are for the most part up-beat and ready to learn, but have also found others who are petulant, adverse to change, argumentative, or otherwise dissatisfied. At the ESA, you can pretty much bet that every single member of your group is a dedicated skier with goals similar to your own, and is someone who is going to give his or her best effort and be supportive of all other members in the group. I found all of the members of my group to be nothing short of stellar company, and they were all extremely encouraging to me at all times. I hope that they can say the same regarding my own comportment.
Video analysis is a startlingly valuable tool and the ESA uses it to incredible effect.
Many full-day ski lessons meet an hour or two after the lifts open. Then the groups are formed. There will usually be a ski-off, followed by group juggling and another brief conference ensues before the groups really get going. At the ESA we were on the hill when the lifts opened and skied until they closed. That’s a potential increase of nearly 50% in actual skiing time per day.
The Bears have got a certain vibe that is in itself a major plus. I felt at least a modicum of real kinship with every single person that I met at the Academy, with the lone exception of bshon. Either the man had an aversion to my presence, (quite understandable,) or as I suspect is really the case, time and circumstance simply did not allow the two of us to really get acquainted. I have met some way cool folks in some of my ski lessons, but I can honestly state that it would be my sincere pleasure to spend more hill time with every single person that I met at the ESA.
As a direct result of attending my first ESA, I now ski faster, smoother, and more efficiently. I’m able to enjoy terrain that I would merely have approached in survival mode prior to the Academy, and ski it in an aggressive manner. More of the mountain is thus accessible to me than ever before, and thus my options have drastically increased, and so as a consequence has my level of enjoyment of the sport. I’ve gained an appreciation of the subtlety of some of the movements that define good skiing, and am reaping the rewards of the physical sensations that come hand in hand with making dynamic turns. I can now ski long runs without stopping, and with much less effort. I was completely satisfied with all aspects of the ESA and it far surpassed my expectations. I most certainly wish to attend another one next season. If fortune allows, I will do my level best to make it so.