Five Essential Ice Coast Skills
Updated: Oct 18, 2018
On this side of the country, we adapt. We know that we will encounter less-than-favorable conditions, and we learn how to work with what Ullr gifts us. It’s not always easy, but there are a set of skills we can hone in order to be better positioned to play the hands we’re dealt.
Those of us in the east know that if we want to get serious about winter sports, we have to get comfortable with variable conditions. Yes, we get our blizzards and Nor’easters dumping copious amounts of powder, but we’re just as likely to deal with January and February thaws, bulletproof ice, and trail conditions that would send a western skier or rider running for the lodge, cowering behind the bar and cursing the ice floating in their drinks.
On this side of the country, we adapt. We know that we will encounter less-than-favorable trail surfaces, and we learn how to work with what Ullr gifts us. It’s not always easy, but there are a set of skills we can hone in order to be better positioned to play the hands we’re dealt.
So we pulled together a list of those skills that every east coast skier and rider should have in their toolbox. These are the key experiential elements that separate us from our western compatriots and help us navigate mountains and conditions in ways that help us earn our reputations as hardened Ice Coast snow fiends.
1) Tune Your Own Planks At some point in the evolution of every winter junkie there comes a time at which it becomes too time consuming and expensive to keep bringing your gear back into the shop for an edge tune or a fresh coat of wax every time it’s necessary. Powder skiers get away with an early December tune and ride their planks on that one touch-up all season long, which makes sense when the hardest terrain they’re likely to encounter is chopped up resort chunder. Here in the East we know that a sharp edge comes in handy no matter what time of season, and that changing weather can dictate which wax is best suited to the day’s needs. Every serious East Coast skier should know how to tune their own skis. We learn how to recognize the differences even small tuning changes can make to a ski’s performance. We learn how temperature affects wax, how to better care for and rely on our own equipment, and the true cost of that rocky alpine terrain ahead or of that low-tide sketchy tree line below. We feel our base-wrecking mistakes more viscerally, knowing what’s involved in repairing the damage – which makes us better skiers in the long run. There are a wide range of tuning kit options available on Amazon, and you can wind up spending anywhere between $50 and $500, depending on your preferences. I opted for a $75 Demon travel tune kit, a $50 table vice clamp setup from Wintersteiger, and I’ve added various small tools and necessities over the years (better brushes, a metal scraper for base prep, foil for P-Tex drippings, etc.). The kit you choose will reflect your own priorities and the conditions prevalent at the mountains you’ll be skiing at most, but the basic setup should include: a waxing iron, plastic and metal scrapers, copper wire and horsehair brushes, a small variety of waxes for various temps, P-Tex, files, a file guide for the side edge and base edge, a diamond stone, and a gummi stone. It’s work, yes, but it’s cheaper than paying the shop to constantly take care of your gear for you. I always get a pre-season tune and binding test, and I’m not above taking them into the shop once or twice more during a 60-day season, but I try to care for my own tools because it gives me both a sense of accomplishment as well as an added level of reassurance, knowing that I’m aware of exactly how reliably sharp my edges are – or aren’t. It’s actually become something of a cherished wintertime chore – a job I know I need to tackle before I can take my turns, a time to put on a favorite playlist, sip a beer, and plan for the next ski day. It’s a half-hour well-spent solo or with a small group of like-minded friends. If only all chores were so much fun. Don’t be hesitant to get started. There are a bunch of helpful YouTube tutorials (this one, by WHO, is one of the better ones LINK) but you’ll only get better at it by putting the time in and learning how your skis react to your tuning efforts. You’ll save time and money, you’ll know your skis are ready for whatever the mountain can throw at them.
2) Plot Your Runs This one requires a deep familiarity with the mountain, with the path the sun takes over the peaks, and with the typical behavior of crowds on busier days such as weekends or holidays. It’s a complex feat of puzzlecraft that is easier to solve by regulars and locals, but its secrets can be divined by those willing to put in the time to learn a ski area’s quirks. These are skills that western skiers need hone only in the spring, when a regular thaw-freeze cycle sets in, but for those of us on the East Coast, those cycles can hit a snowpack at any point during the season. Some trails are better first thing in the morning when the corduroy is fresh and grippy. Popular regularly-groomed steeps such as The Rumor at Gore, White Heat at Sunday River, or Upper Skyward at Whiteface can get skied off quickly, especially on frigid days where the bulletproof substrate never softens. Hit these spots early while there’s still a semblance of edgeable snow, and rip down in relative confidence. Others soften as the day progresses, especially south- and east-facing slopes on warm sunny days. Ski a place enough and you’ll get to know which portions of which trails tend to soften up first. It took a few “oh shit!” moments on the lower portion of Killington’s Skyeburst before I learned that the home stretch of that popular connector trail tended to get softer and stickier just below a rise near the bottom portion, which often gets sun before the lifts start spinning. There might be bumps, bare patches, or worse, and the rise is abrupt enough that it’s easy to fly over the lip without knowing quite what’s waiting for you below.
The point is to know a ski area well enough to predict how the sun and the crowds will interact with the snow and to maximize your chances of encountering reliable conditions. If you want to avoid losing a filling on chattery chop, or you’re determined to steer clear of big, slow pockets of ski-swallowing mashed potatoes, you’ll need to know where and when the getting’s good. If you’re new to a place, a good rule of thumb is to follow the crowd. It may result in longer lift lines, but you won’t find yourself alone and stranded at the top of a long run of steep ice moguls, doing the math on your chances of survival. Or even better – chat up a local. One of the best ways to get to know a place is to learn about it from those who know. I almost always mute my music when I get back on a lift, not only because I don’t want to be rude, but also because I like to view every shared lift as an opportunity to chat up another skier or meet someone interesting. Thanks to chair conversations with regulars, I’ve learned when popular areas of the mountain are scheduled for late openings, I’ve been warned away from unforgiving terrain, and I’ve gotten tips on local secrets. I’ve met Olympians, coaches, other writers, instructors, crusty locals, badass retirees, and amazing, unique characters of all types because of my chatty lift habits. Especially if you’re skiing a place where you have little or no experience, it can be invaluable to seek out some of that real-time beta from someone who knows what they’re talking about. It’s not hard. Just smile and ask, “So what’s good today?” The right tip from the right local could change the course of an entire day.
3) Follow the Snow Any serious attempt to make the most out of an East Coast winter requires some calendar flexibility. If we want to ski the good shit on this side of the Rockies, we will have to go where conditions dictate. Multi-mountain passes are nothing new, but the proliferation of these passes in recent years has made a follow-the-snow strategy affordable for more skiers (click here for our guide to this year's options). When you’ve already paid for admission to a dozen different ski areas within driving distance, it becomes possible to plan ski trips according to which spots are getting more snow than others. I rely on a wide variety of weather forecasting sites and apps, as well as the social media accounts of dozens of fellow eastern snow fiends. I’ve learned how to tell when a storm will just glance the Green Mountains but pound the Catskills with two feet of powder, as was the case during Superstorm Stella, which hit Hunter with two feet of the best powder I’d ever skied. I’ve ditched plans to visit one spot because winter was more generous to another place. It’s easy to subscribe to a handful of weather sources and determine which ski area is most worth our all-too-limited snow time. The hard part is planning family or group trips at the last minute. Few chase pow with a crew that rolls eight deep, but a tight unit, bound by shared goals can prove indispensable in the hunt for tasty gnar’easters. That’s difficult to do when there are two or three families planning a much-anticipated group getaway, when the time together is the reason for the trip and accommodations need to be secured well in advance, but small groups can more easily adapt if the point is to get the most powder bang out of your ski buck. Sometimes that will mean dealing with fully-booked downtown areas, requiring longer morning commutes to the goods. Other times it will mean paying for a lift ticket where you might otherwise have used your multi-mountain pass. There will be those days when you need to hit up Mad River Glen or Plattekill or Magic despite the fact that none are on your pass, just because they are the places you need to be on that particular day. Know where Ullr will most likely spread his lovin’ and make it your business to be there – and damn the hotel reservations. Invest in good tires and follow the snow.
4) Avoiding Death Cookies One of the nastier side-effects of the thaw-refreeze cycle, the death cookie can strike slopes anywhere during the spring, but they’re an ever-present danger here in the east with our bankable warm spells. Any time a groomer makes a pass over slushy snow that will later refreeze, or just when afternoon skiers leave Slurpee clumps of snow in their wakes, there’s a chance of encountering these icy chaos rocks. On certain days, they are ligament-hungry mini-boulders that can pop up anywhere and range in size from golf balls to lumpy basketballs. They’re a natural by-product of groomed terrain in the Northeast. Smart mountain ops teams can try to minimize the likelihood them by changing a grooming schedule to hit some trails a little later than they would have otherwise in order to work with firmer snow. They can also be managed by an engaged and thorough patrol sweep, but there’s only so much that patrollers can do to mitigate their subtle threat. Sometimes there’s no avoiding them. Anywhere a grooming cutter ends, some snow gets pushed off the side in clumps that refreeze when temps drop. On certain frigid mornings, when the cold front rolled in late and the groomers leave the mountain painted in ice rocks, they are seemingly everywhere. For skiers, hitting one at a significant rate of speed can result in the violent deceleration and course alteration of one leg, which will no doubt promptly take up the matter with the second leg, causing nasty high-speed wipeouts on refrozen terrain littered with other ice clumps. No. Bueno. Snowboarders have enough surface area to plow over smaller death cookies, but large chunks can easily catch a downhill edge and send a face flying forward. The only tried-and-true method of navigating around a mountain covered in them is to go slow – usually much slower than the fast and grippy terrain is begging you to go. Being in control enough to hit the brakes in the face of an encroaching line of death cookies is key. Some can be avoided with smart turns, and the confident can time jumps over them, but sooner or later we on the Ice Coast will encounter our share of death cookies. How we comport ourselves during the encounter says a lot about what type of skier you are. Just don’t be the type that says you didn’t see that Death Cookie coming.
5) Plan for Mixed Precip For most people, winter weather is small talk. It merits discussion only insofar as it will inconvenience a homeowner or hamper a commute. Local news forecasters treat every winter weather event as a tiny apocalypse, another chance for the social firmament to collapse in upon itself in some Mad Max-style petro-dystopian nightmare of barter and scarcity. The end of the bread and the milk. Real Ice Coast skiers have favorite meteorologists. Winter weather forecasts are the source of great joy, (or, all too often, disappointment). We keep a close eye on mountain weather not only on days we plan on skiing but also during the days leading up to our next visit or road trip, knowing that a heavy dump two days before we arrive means that there might still be pockets of powder in the trees, or that a recent thaw and refreeze might make some trails more dangerous than others. On warmer days, some glades that start out rutted and impenetrable can soften into pure joy once the temps climb above the freezing mark. Most regular skiers and riders have a favorite weather forecasting app or three. I use weather.com and mountain-forecast.com, along with weather.gov, and between the three I generally have a good idea of whether or when a mountain will soften up from a recent refreeze to open up trails that were unthinkably unskiable mere hours ago. A cold morning that starts out in the 20s but blossoms into a bluebird fairytale day in the upper 30s by noon can put a favorite ungroomed trail or choice Northeast glade back into play. On days when a wintry mix is expected, it pays to bring a backup outer layer. I always double up on gloves when there is rain or sleet in the forecast, keeping a dry pair in my backpack or in a day bag left in the lodge. I might even bring an extra pair of snow pants to change into during lunch, in case the weather is miserable enough but the snow is good enough. The secret to skiing in icy wet conditions is to stay dry. Extra layers help, but even the highest-end ski clothing can lose its water repelling properties after multiple uses. I like to use Nikwax products to help my pants and shells remain as waterproof as possible. No Gore-Tex waterproofing lasts forever, but with a little maintenance your foul weather ski clothing could help you stay out longer during weather that has long ago chased most others indoors. Remain prepared for whatever our fickle mountains throw at us. With some tuning skills, a little mountain knowledge, the ability to follow the snow, a proper fear of death cookies, and some overly-thorough preparation, we’re able to make the most out of the bad weather hands we’re often dealt. Our winters can be epic, but to make the most out of them requires a set of skills that are unique to our side of the Divide. We hope for the best and prepare for the East.