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Fear and Laundry at Wildcat Mountain

Overcoming old mistakes and making new mistakes in the early season.

Sun's out, guns out at Wildcat last Sunday. Photo: John Giuffo

We had a choice to make, and I had a problem I needed to confront. For the first three weeks of this bountiful early season, there were four ski areas in the Northeast from which the white ribbon hound could choose.

There were the perennial first-open front runners, Killington and Sunday River, and there were two newcomers to the October opening day contest: Mount Snow and Wildcat. Both of the latter were beneficiaries both of Mother Nature’s early natural snowfall favors, and of the laser-like emphasis Peak Resorts has placed on supercharged snowmaking infrastructure in its growing collection of Northeast mountains.

Adam and I chose Wildcat because we wanted to rip hot laps at the only mountain that offered top-to-bottom skiing the second weekend of November.

Wildcat is perfectly positioned for Mount Washington’s orographic sloppy seconds, and gets an average of 200 inches of snowfall each year – over four feet more snow than its neighbors to the east. With a sustained steep frontside that drops 2,100 feet of vert in full view of Tuckerman Ravine, it’s an old-school New England ski area with one of the most efficient high-speed quads around. Catch your breath after the last run because the next run is coming right up.

Mountain ops was making the most out of the snowmaking window that the dropping temps provided – the guns were on full blast that Sunday morning in an attempt to recover ground lost to the early November rains. Standing in the parking lot, it looked like the entire length of Lynx was covered in a snaking cloud of machine snow.

Middle and Lower Lynx were blanketed in gun snow, which was fine, really. Photo: Adam Kaufman

It was an impressive display of snowmaking determination in the face of notoriously unreliable East Coast conditions, but it presented me with the problem I’d been avoiding: I don’t particularly enjoy skiing under the guns, especially since their sticky snow tore my skis out from me on Upper Tamarack at Stratton last December and sent me flying into a tree, breaking two ribs and straight-up murdering the lower third of my left kidney in the process. “It’s turned necrotic,” the doctor later said, which is never a great thing to hear from a doctor.

I described it as one of my skiing nightmares when I wrote about it last year, and it still is. Along with getting caught in an avalanche or a tree well or falling off a cliff, hitting a tree at 30 mph is right up there on the list of ski misfortunes I hoped I’d never experience, but that didn’t stop the thing from happening so quickly it’s hard to recall. One moment I was getting bucked back and forth by the bands of fast hardpack and sticky gun snow, the next I was bouncing off a tree trunk and screaming in pain as I spun back onto the trail. Not that anyone could hear me above the roar of compressed air.

However, what’s good for the base isn’t always the best for skiers, and many ski areas will issue warnings to skiers when they’re running the guns. Some will even place cautionary signs on particular trails that are being worked on – and with good reason. It’s difficult enough to allow one’s legs to absorb the lost momentum of suddenly-grippy snow in the springtime – it’s an altogether different proposition on the second day of the season, after six months of summer quad atrophy. I resolved to go much slower this time.

But it was a particularly beautiful fall day that felt more like mid-winter, with the clouds slowly clearing as morning wore on, and a reliable, rippable base beneath our skis. The Wildcat Express hauled us up, and we swung left off the chair toward Lynx. The snow was moving well, fast yet firm, and it wanted to hold an edge. After a few turns it was hard not to let loose, to find a rhythm and begin carving the first proper turns of the season, to build up speed – until I reached the lower sections of Lynx where the guns were blasting and I hit the brakes near the top of a roller.

The wind was blowing the cloud of manmade uphill, and I stood there as my goggles grew crusty with gun snow. I yanked my buff up over my face, inhaled deeply, and shrugged in surprise: it sure didn’t smell like I’d forgotten to pack a clean face mask and instead wore this one I found at the bottom of my boot bag, where it had been marinating since April. Gross, yet warm. Oh well, I had bigger problems in front of me.

“You’ve got this – you know how to ski this stuff,” I repeated, reminding myself of how much fun I used to have on growing snow whales before I hit that tree. I’d managed to avoid trails with active snowmaking after I recovered and began skiing again in January, and I haven’t skied under the guns since. “Just dial it back, take it easy, don’t get lulled into speed by a patch of faster snow.”

Mount Washington played peek-a-boo all day, making Wildcat's famous view all the more dramatic. Photo: John Giuffo

I scraped my thumb across my encrusted goggles, giving me the exact same field of view as a knight’s helmet, and made careful turns into the thick spray. As expected, the new, wetter snow grabbed at my skis, but I was in control enough to compensate for the change and adjust my stance in time for the next herky-jerky turn. It wasn’t pretty, but it was necessary.

I’m not embarrassed to admit that I was scared of that snow, afraid of making the same mistake, so easily made last time. I’d skied through wet cement beneath snow guns dozens of times before, but there was something about the combination of conditions and speed that one day last December that contributed to the accident.

So much of skiing revolves around fear: overcoming old obstacles, setting new goals, and progressing all involve confronting our fears. That first time we venture out onto a steep trail, that first time in the trees, the first time catching air – these are all terrifying things when we’re learning to negotiate them, even more so after injury has made their consequences real.

How we deal with that fear is personal, and we all have different timelines, but what matters is confronting those fears that get in the way of our goals. One of my goals is becoming a better, more confident skier in any conditions the Northeast’s mountains can throw at me, which meant I needed to ski beneath those guns last Sunday.

And that’s what I did, time and again, lapping the same run eagerly, learning which sides of the trail were better in which sections, where I could carve well, where I needed to rein things in, and which areas I needed to approach carefully. There’s something uniquely enjoyable about the focus of early-season skiing, when the lack of open terrain causes you to get granular on a trail’s terrain features and you learn to have fun in the corners, on small booters, and in proto-moguls.

There were sunny skies behind the clouds of fear. Photo: Adam Kaufman

There are few better ways of confronting fear than to find the fun behind it. Despite my worries, it had turned into the perfect day: top-to-bottom laughs, a familiar old thigh burn, and the sun poking out everywhere through clouds both natural and manmade.

I relearned a couple of important lessons that day at Wildcat: about the value of confronting fear, and about avoiding bacterial infections from dirty face masks. Yes, they’re things I already knew, but in order to remind myself I needed to get out there on that mountain, or to put on that dirty buff, wind up with a fever and something inflamed somewhere in the center of my head, then get prescribed antibiotics for the sinus infection I’m still half-deaf from a week later.

We all learn and progress differently, and that’s okay. As long as we face our fears and do our ski laundry.

© 2018 by ICE COAST MAGAZINE.

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