Learning to ski Japow

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I’ve come a long way from the avalanche on skis who took two hours to crash my way down the Austrian Alps, taking out other skiers and striking fear in the hearts of small children with my out-of-control squealing and speed. In fact, after two long weeks of intensive coaching in New Zealand, I think I go alright. I no longer break into a cold sweat at the thought of negotiating the lifts. I can get on and off without breaking other peoples gear, and I can get down the mountain without having to stop and consult my ski map every two minutes for fear of ending up, beyond the point of no return, on a double black diamond.

So last year I decided to step it up a notch and learn to ski the famous Japow. I bought a pair of ski boots, sold a stack of old stuff to fund my adventure (and make room for the boots) and engaged the guide who had taught me everything I knew about skiing on-piste, to teach me everything he knew about the kind of powder that can only be found in Japan.

By the time I was ready to book flights I’m sure Colby was sick of hearing about skiing, but he plastered on some enthusiasm and finally agreed to join me. Even my personal trainer seemed to latch on to my excitement, developing a series of ski-specific exercises for our sessions, aimed at improving my balance and reactions.

And as we touched down in the snow covered wonderland of Sapporo I was more than a little pumped. But I was soon to learn that skiing the awesome powder was a world away from the groomers . . . and it was going to take longer than a single one-week tour to master.

Lesson 1 – The Best Powder is Out-of-Bounds

From the minute my skis hit the snow, our guide’s infectious passion reignited my love of skiing. But my German inflexibility, and strict values of abiding by the rules, were compromised immediately. Because the best powder is of course, out-of bounds.

IMG_0167 (1)Our guide led us in and out of the deep, undisturbed snow alongside the groomers, and I was eased into the arm flailing where’s-my-balance-in-this-stuff act, before he held the No Entry Out of Bounds sign high in the air for us to duck under. I hesitated, before being hustled under the rope. My heart beat faster and I spent more time looking over my shoulder, bracing for a barrage of angry Snow Patrol, than I did enjoying the snow. Oblivious to my angst, the guide forged ahead, and much to my relief, we soon popped out near the main slope.

But as I attempted to make an inconspicuous re-entrance to the ‘in bounds’ area, my skills at negotiating the para-web rivalled my angst at breaking the rules. If I was ever at the mercy of Ski Patrol it was with one ski over, one ski under, tangled in the bunting and cocooned in snow.

Lesson 2 – Feet Together

When someone mentioned ‘skiing trees’, I had always envisaged a great pine forest with openings between ‘the trees’ big enough to facilitate my not-so precise form. I was quick to learn however, that ‘trees’ can mean anything from my big open pine forest, to dense patches of spindly twigs peppered with snow. Our first lesson of course, began with spindly scrub.

Once I’d taken a deep breath at the thought of breaching the out-of-bounds ropes once again, dropping in between the twigs and punching a new track through the virgin snow wasn’t too challenging. The soft, cloudy, knee deep powder was luxurious and almost impossible to pick up too much speed in. Something us beginners appreciate.

Following in someone else’s tracks however, with little room to deviate, was not. “Feet together! Feet together!” the guide shouted over his shoulder as I gathered speed in the already compressed snow.

But ‘feet together’ went against my natural instinct to provide myself with the widest most stable base I could, and my body disobeyed the instruction. As the shouting faded to a mumble behind my own mental babble, my skis were involuntarily prised further apart by a clump of trees and I came to an abrupt halt, spread eagle around them . . . Colby, following closely behind, found himself in a similar predicament around me. Needless to say, reversing with two meter planks strapped to your feet is not the simplest maneuver.

Lesson 3 – No amount of gym work will prepare you for deep powder

Thankfully, Colby and I were given our first lesson in deep powder before the remainder of our tour group joined us. Our guide led us out under a redundant lift, told a story about someone who got buried and almost suffocated, clapped his hands and called out “Off you go!”

As I began cutting effortless lines in the knee deep clouds I contemplated the guide’s story. I’d never thought of the delicate powder that adorns Christmas cards and turns ordinary places into magical wonderlands as a hazard. Surely avalanches only occurred on extreme mountains. . . didn’t they? I cast a hesitant glance over my shoulder and reality slapped me as I watched Colby plunge head first into a sea of snow, the guide digging with urgency to expose his head. But as his head reappeared, I was flushed by the faintest sense of superiority. My style may have been less than glamourous, but at least I was still on my feet. Pride of course, came before a fall.

With pants full of melting snow and sweat trickling down the inside of my thermals, I spent the next ten minutes flailing and punching and rolling, using every ounce of core strength I had built up over the last two years only to see substandard results. Only with the help of the guide was I able to get back onto my feet where I thought of my personal trainer. Nothing could have prepared me for digging myself out of neck deep snow. Not even lying on the weights room floor, piled high with free weights, and working my way out from under them. And certainly nothing could have helped me find my missing skis!!