Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore
December 5, 2009
We haven’t yet had a big storm to usher in the ski season, and we’re skiing on marginally good conditions, just because it would be foolish not to. Sparse early snow has generally been a part of winter around here, more natural than not, and there’s something comforting about starting the season with a bit of caution in my heart.
And the chairlift conversation crackles, “remember the winter of 1976-77,” or “when’s the last time we had a start like this? Geezus, we’ve gotten spoiled.” As we think about these things, a part of the past comes forward and the jaw-boning covers the decades.
My friend, Albie, says, “Remember when we used to remind people to fill their sitzmarks?”
“Yeah,” I laugh, “if you put a sitzmark in snow this hard, it’d probably kill you. But, damn, don’t you love this fast, hard snow?”
Back then, grooming happened sometimes, on some trails, and on a flat-light day, an uncovered sitzmark, particularly an old one, could slam a guy into the ground in a heartbeat if hit just right.
Albie worked on the ski patrol when they used the two-man Aspen rigs to haul injured skiers off the mountain. Such a toboggan was reminiscent of a dog sled, the man on the front solely responsible for steering (and a sometimes sideslip when needed), with the lives of everyone else in the hands of the patrolman, sans skis, running the brake on the rear. Empty, those rigs weighed upward of 150 pounds – put an injured adult in there and the responsibilities of the brake-man became exponentially magnified. He was tied to the sled with one arm.
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“Well,” says my buddy, Buck, “remember those old Arlberg straps that kept your skis fastened to your boots?” He laughs on, “Boy, when you crashed big time, it was like having a runaway helicopter blade attached to your body.” Injuries from swirling skis were common and many times severe, but the mental image of a runaway ski hitting a hapless skier seemed to underscore the importance of strapping your skis on.
As integral as they were, the safety straps sometimes only held for a few rotations of the ski before they came undone, and the frantic cry, “Ski, ski,” could be heard, coming from observers on the chair lift, alerting anyone in the vicinity to the occurrence of an incredibly dangerous, runaway ski. Yeah, we did/do know about long thongs, but this is a family column.
When you get reflective like that about skiing, other things come to mind, like the fact that finesse seems to be a lost art on the hill. We used to spend tons of time scoping out good lines through the trees or cliffs, taking turns hitting jumps from different angles, all the while launching one at a time, watching each other’s style and technique.
Today, it often seems like too much too soon and frequently a skier with straight legs, utilizing all four edges at once, can be seen blasting through the middle of the crowd on Tortilla Flats, or taking up three or four good lines in a cherished powder stash. Finesse. What? A guy like that couldn’t recognize a good skier from a rabies-laden crash dummy.
You’ve probably noticed that you hit fewer rocks on Aspen Mountain than you do on Snowmass. There is a reason for this, and it has nothing to do with your ability. Through the years when I was on the ski patrol, Robin Perry, the patrol chief, had us pick rocks, friggin’ rocks, everywhere, all season. We’d ski clear across a run like Dipsy if we spied a rock on the other side, and dump it in the trees. Additionally, Robin ran the trail crew in the summer, and dug out every big winter rock he remembered or heard about.
Don’t take this column too seriously and remember the good days. Just be safe. My buddy Bob, clotheshorse of the mountain, is out for the season already, and he didn’t even fall down.