Skiing the Spine in Alaska

The New York Times recently ran an article on the “Behind the Line” video series by Teton Gravity Research. Alaska and extreme skiing: it never gets old, does it?

How the crew sets this up is pretty incredible. The behind the scenes footage is worth a look.

JP, these are for you!


Ski Tip from the Pro: Check Your Bindings

photo credit: Izzard

photo credit: Izzard

Airbags, seatbelts, life jackets: I assume they’ll do what they’re supposed to do if ever put to the test. Add ski bindings to that list. Other than being part of the annual ski tune-up, I’ve never given them a second thought. At least that was the case until I spent a few days at Mt. Tremblant.

It was a last minute trip and I was planning to replace my gear at the end of the season. I thought I’d squeeze in a few more days with the old skis and take a lesson or two while I was there. Mid-chairlift ride, my Mt. Tremblant Snow School instructor told me I better get my bindings checked. Why? Because bindings have a limited life span. And once they pass their best-before date, you could run into trouble. Your bindings may not release. Take a tumble and the results could range from a torn ACL to death. If you need to see the evidence, hundreds of painful crashes on YouTube make a pretty compelling case.

Now I’m double-checking the safety equipment I so casually trust with my life.

photo credit: Apostolos

photo credit: Apostolos

Next lesson: ski technicians cannot adjust older bindings.  Technology changes, release mechanisms evolve, and technicians will only work on bindings that are indemnified. If bindings are indemnified, it means the manufacturer stands behind their ability to function as intended. I’m pretty sure we all want our bindings to function – meaning stay on or release – as intended. If the manufacturer is stepping away from any responsibility, it’s time to pay attention.The National Ski and Snowboard Retailers’ Association publishes a Binding Indemnification List that reputable ski shops know about. And the professionals won’t touch old bindings.As I travelled along this road of binding discovery, I wondered if there was anything else I should be doing to minimize risk (aside from proper ski storage and maintenance and that’s another story). I took at look at what Mike Langran, President of the International Society for Skiing Safety, had to say. His take:  Self-test your bindings every time you go out. At the very least it could significantly reduce your likelihood of knee injuries. His suggested tests are posted below and take less than a minute. Check his article on the website for how-to photos.

Test the toe piece setting

With your ski angled so that the front inside edge is on the ground, try and twist your boot inwards so that the toe should twist out of the front of the binding. Apply the force gradually – you should not have to use excessive force.

Test the heel piece setting

With your ski flat on the ground, slide your foot back until your leg is out straight. Now try and lift the heel of your boot out of the binding. Don’t use do too much force – you’ll strain a muscle or possibly even rupture your Achilles tendon if you’re too vigorous!

Sounds pretty reasonable. Given all the joy skiing brings me, I’m happy to take the advice of experts and spend a few minutes making sure things are working as they should.

photo credit: Trysil

photo credit: Trysil

What do you think? How often do you change or test your gear?

Ski Inspiration #2: Starting with Why

Nothing like spending a day with 300 real life ski pros to get you thinking about winter.

I’m not an instructor yet, so I’m lucky to have a friend who is.  Last weekend I was invited to tag along and attend the Canadian Ski Instructors’ Alliance Fall Conference.

What I learned: this is serious business and these people are at the top of their game.  Elite athletes, physicians, early childhood educators, motivational speakers – all skiers, all passionate about what they do and all happily spending time learning how to do it better.  Lectures ranged from Sarah Pilskalnietis’ “Inclusive Teaching for Children with Autism” to John Gillies’ “How Brain Science Helps Define our Approaches to Learning and Performing” to Warren Jobbitt’s “Motivation and Mentorship“.

Jobbitt is currently the Head Coach for Interski 2015 in Argentina and his lecture focused on purpose, the ‘why’ rather than the ‘what’.  Inspired by author Simon Sinek and his views on inspirational leadership, he spoke of following your passion and harnessing that energy to drive something bigger than yourself.  Then he played a video for us.  This kind of video always grabs me, because I’m a traveller and a dreamer and an adventurer.  When you’re sitting with folks who live the ‘why’ every day, you realize sometimes life is even better than what you see in the movies.

Skiers, enjoy the 2:50 mark.

Ski Inspiration #1: Flying with Track 3


photo credit: Kelly Sikkema

I don’t need to be inspired to ski, but I can certainly be inspired to be a better person, reach higher, do more. Last weekend I had a taste of all three.

Friday night Track 3 hosted their annual Winterlude Carnival fundraiser at the Steam Whistle Brewery. Track 3 is a non-profit charitable organization that teaches children and youth with disabilities to downhill ski and snowboard. Giving disabled youth the freedom to fly is how their school program is described.

Over the course of the season, 450 volunteers get 200 kids outside to play in the snow and experience what many of us take for granted. There are 150 mentally and physically disabled children on the wait list. Once you add up the specialized equipment, travel costs and coaching, it costs approximately $1650 to get one child on the hill, hence the fundraiser.

Children waiting for the freedom to fly? Let’s help cut the wait list. How?

If nothing else, tell one friend about Track 3, and that friend may tell one friend and so on and so on. You may have someone in your midst who could make the difference between a name on a list and a child on the snow.  

Bumps, Bowls and Boy Scouts

At first I thought of betrayal, but there was no wrongful intention.

Two of us, somehow fooled into thinking we were ready to take on this monster. Alone, but for a few other hapless souls similarly led to believe they were Olympians-in-waiting. We struggled to ignore the fear as we tried to make our way out of the bowl at Whistler. (A bowl being a large, open, bowl-shaped area of a mountain, usually with few trees and lots of snow.) What happens when you don’t make it down before dark?

Couloir Extreme entrance cornice

photo credit: kcxd

I think we have all found ourselves in this situation at some point or another, and if you haven’t, some day you likely will. A friend convinces you to take on a challenge that in your heart you think may be just a bit too much of a leap. Why not portage those 10 miles, bike down the muddy hill, swim across the lake, ski the double-black bump run? We agree, or acquiesce, because we want to be that person. We’re not, or not yet, but we say yes. And that’s how we end up in a bowl, too far down to climb back out, having ignored that nagging feeling as we started in. Down the slippery slope silently, or loudly, wondering how to make it out without breaking a leg.

This scenario requires a touch of emergency management training. It is a time for which you should always be prepared. That’s the motto of the Boy Scouts. They could help.

Apparently, the key is to stop. I mean STOP. This is the Boy Scouts of America planning tool for wilderness survival priorities. I like to over-prepare, so I read up and will share their advice.

STOP stands for Stay Put/Think/Observe/Plan. It’s a tool to help you think properly about how to deal with a survival situation and establish what you need to do and in what order. Here’s the checklist:

  • Admit there is a problem and think about it in a positive, productive, and creative fashion. This increases the chances for a good outcome.
  • Control your fears and avoid panic.
  • Decide to live.
  • Focus on what you can do — not what you cannot.
  • Analyze your situation and plan a course of action only after considering all aspects of your predicament and keeping in mind your safety at all times.
  • Don’t make unnecessarily quick judgments. How you think about your situation is the key to survival in an outdoor emergency.

I am not planning to employ these emergency survival skills every time I try something new. I only need to push – not exceed – my limits to improve. Still, I like to think through what I should do if things start going downhill fast (no pun intended).

Let’s assume you are already on a run that is well beyond your level. Pause, catch your breath and then start to traverse the hill. Do not remove your skis if you are on a steep incline as you could start sliding and lose all control. Take it slow. Don’t get ahead of yourself – and don’t spend too much time in your head or fear will take over and rob you of the ability to act. That can get chilly on a mountainside. Move deliberately, stay positive, stay focused. Eventually you will reach the bottom.

Mike Langran is a Scottish doctor who specializes in skiing safety and related issues. He is also the President of the International Society for Skiing Safety (ISSS) and a Director of the Scottish Snow Sports Safety Study.

His advice? Don’t let experienced friends convince you to take on too much too soon.

Ski Tip from the Pro: Brush Your Teeth

Counter rotation. Upper lower body separation. Scenes from an old Houdini magic trick? Nope. These are standard terms I try to decipher every year while standing atop an icy hill. This year I’m getting a head start and figuring out what they mean and how to improve my ski season before the hills open.

I consulted a friendly CSIA Level II ski instructor for some suggestions, which he was happy to share (and has more to follow). So, before it’s time to line up under the ski school bell, you may want to try this little move and improve not only your skiing, but quite possibly your dancing and golf as well.

If you watch mogul skiers, the only thing you notice are the bouncing knees. Take a look at the first clip. The upper body is silent. This demonstrates what the experts call upper lower body separation. You see it with ballroom dancers when their footwork propels them across the dance floor as they continue to hold their arms high and locked with their partner at an exact, unflinching distance. Golf is another sport where power and advanced play require this separation. According to Tom Watson in Golf Digest, “separation between the lower body and upper body is the key in any sport where you use the hips to create arm speed – think tennis serve or baseball swing.”

If you can figure out how to distinguish the upper from the lower, the top from the bottom, you’ll have an easier time progressing. All fine and dandy, but how do you practice this in the off-season? Brush your teeth.

Or at least use the minutes of teeth-brushing time to practice turning your leg from the hip socket. Hips and shoulders stay facing forward. Knees and feet turn from side to side with the turn initiating from the femur at the hip socket. Practice isolating and rotating one leg at a time. Just keep the hips and upper torso steady and solid. The clip posted below may not be as glamorous as the first, but even superstars need to build the foundation.

Incorporate the leg-turning practice into your dental hygiene routine and by the time snow starts to fall, you will be on your way to developing muscle memory that allows you to initiate the turn from the lower body rather than the upper. You’ll avoid looking like a robot, have more control, and most likely make someone very happy with your squeaky-clean teeth.

Thanksgiving and the Hunt for Snow


photo credit: NK Stevenson

In preparation for the October 17- 20, 2013 ski show, I took a little ride out to the hills this week-end.  Soggy (still in rain boots, not ski boots) and a buck hiding in the trees near the base. No snow.

Fingers crossed, things will look a little different come December. Maybe like this photo I shot at Mt. Tremblant in March. Yes, I could have posted the grey, rainy pic I took while standing in a mud puddle yesterday, but why not dream a little?

Thanksgiving is certainly the perfect time for it.  Time with family inevitably leads to reflection and long week-ends lend themselves to daydreams.

A little history: This ski thing all started when my father put a 4-year-old weebly-wobbly little me on skis and somehow got us both to the top of the bunny hill and back down. Ah, love.

Things progressed to my brother and I taking the lift together. Sigh, what memories!  Like the time he encouraged me to stick my tongue on the frozen steel safety bar as we approached the top of the hill.  (Don’t do this. Ever. But in case you have an older brother who talks you into foolishness: Cup your hands and breathe hard.  If you’re lucky, the warmth of your breath will melt the frozen water sticking your tongue to the metal.)

We then advanced to balancing our 18-inch height difference on the t-bar. After mastering that bit of survival training, a lifelong love of the outdoors was born. Which brings me to this season and the future. I’ve been blessed with years of sunny days, fluffy snow and the utter joy and freedom of flying down the hill. It’s time to step up my game and give back.

This season I am challenging myself to complete the instructor’s training program and put those skills to good use.  Now we just need some snow.

And you? Avid fan? Team captain? How do you give back to the sports you love?