Notes and Lessons from Skiing Sling Style

Injury is a part of the game for any athlete, no matter the sport. Personally, as a skier, I have a laundry list of injuries that is far longer than I am proud to admit. But I don’t regret them, because they have taught me invaluable lessons about skiing, about myself, and about life.

Last month, during one of the last great powder storms of the year, I fractured my elbow when I backslapped the landing of a cliff. Fortunately, it was a small fracture that didn’t require a cast or surgery.

Rather than sitting back and thinking about the opportunities I was missing out on, I decided to go ski with my arm in a sling instead. Normally I’m pretty conservative with skiing through injuries, but this one is very insignificant, so I justified it in my head to keep skiing. After all, it was good for my soul and skiing in the sling taught me some valuable lessons. Below are a handful of those lessons, along with some thoughts and reflective notes that I made while skiing in the sling for the past month.

This is nothing. I have been reminded of that fact every time I go skiing. A small fracture in my elbow is nothing more than a blip on the radar, and for that I am super grateful.

Slow down. Skiing with the sling on has helped me realize that I get caught up in skiing fast all the time. By slowing down a bit, I have been able to focus on more things with my skiing. And I have been able to ski in a couple places I typically never would.

It has helped me ski smoother. When I first started skiing with the sling on, there was still some uncertainty in my mind about how bad the injury was. Subconsciously, or maybe even consciously, I ended up trying to protect the arm. Regardless though, it didn’t take me long to realize that I didn’t have to feel like I needed to protect it if I just skied smoother.

It was refreshing to look at the mountain differently. When I ski with the sling on, I’m not always looking for a place to catch air or straight-line out. I’m not looking for anything specific to be honest; I just ski what is in front of me. It was at those times that I felt like I was skiing my best and that I was being the most creative with the terrain at hand too. Hopefully those results carry over.

Keep it fun and light-hearted. Last week I skied with a crew of guys that I typically wouldn’t find myself with. We weren’t charging or skiing anything crazy. We just skied whatever we wanted and laughed at each other while hitting side booters. Because at the end of the day, no matter what you’re doing, if you’re on skis, it’s probably pretty damn fun.

The sling forced me to re-focus on the foundations of technique. The greatest challenge in skiing with my right arm tucked up close has been driving pressure through the front half of my right ski, especially when it is my downhill ski. To fix this, I focused on widening my stance, and squaring up with my hips and shoulders with the fall line. Finally, I was able to drive through the turn better with my hips and shoulders, rather than my arm.

Skiing makes me smile. If you know me, you know that skiing makes me a very happy human. But this experience has been reassuring that it is just skiing that makes me happy. It’s not that I always need the adrenaline rush of going fast and hitting airs to be happy and smile when I’m skiing. (Of course I smile real big about those too.) This is something that was also reassuring and gave me a lot of confidence when I was getting back on snow after my last major injury, so it’s good to have it validated again.

 

I just had a visit with my doctor yesterday and it sounds like things are healing up well, so hopefully I can stop skiing with the sling soon. But this experience has been fun. I’ve learned a lot and I’m still so grateful and stoked that it is such an insignificant injury. Also, my doctor didn’t mention anything about my goggle tan yesterday, so I’m hoping that means he didn’t realize that I’ve been skiing.

Keep it fun out there, friends. Thanks for reading.

Book Review: The God of Skiing

In my defense, there was PBR in that cup, not Bud Light. Whatever beverage you choose though, it will pair well with The God of Skiing.

In my defense, there was PBR in that cup, not Bud Light. Whatever beverage you choose though, it will pair well with The God of Skiing.

When I finished reading Peter Kray’s The God of Skiing, I sat back and took a deep breath. The breath went down like a swig of beer after a good day of skiing powder with close friends. My soul felt a little fuller. It was satisfying, but I didn’t want the day to end. Or the story.

The book centers on Tack Strau, a collegiate racer turned ski bum whose legend was built on his cowboy spirit and unmatched power and speed on skis. Strau’s characterizations are aided and intertwined with Kray’s own experiences as a skier and writer, travelling the world and living in the mountains. The tales of Strau often read like stories told by strangers at a bar or by friends at a campfire, filled with familiarity but also fantasy. Kray even admits in the introduction: “In order to tell what’s true, I made up a couple of things. But only to balance out what I’m still afraid of telling.” Fictional or not, it sure reads like a skier somewhere experienced the stories that Kray tells.

The God of Skiing has received praise ever since it was released by Kray, and was even called “the greatest ski novel of all time” by Porter Fox, the author of DEEP: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow (which you should also go read). Despite the high acclaim, I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading, which may have been best. I was surprised and delighted by the style of writing and storytelling within, and quickly realized it is a book that must be read to understand what the rave is about.

Just sit back and enjoy it. When I first picked up the book, I found myself overthinking and overanalyzing the plot. There was no use trying to predict where the storyline was taking me. When I found myself reading in the moment just as the characters were living in the moment, I was far more impressed and engaged with the story. 

The writing is a work of art. For example, when describing the Tetons, Kray writes: “It exults in the evidence of the speed of centuries, of billions of tons of earth pushing upward, gaining another single inch of sky every thousand years. Pharaoh building pyramids. The men we’ve sent to the moon. On the ongoing sense of sedimentary strife, of encrusted conflict and subterranean stress, as if every mountain were proof of the planet’s highest ideal.”

Read it when you’re in ski mode. Last summer I had the opportunity to chat on the phone with Kray, and he mentioned that when publishing The God of Skiing he made it a small, unique size so that it could fit in a pocket. His thinking in doing so was so that you could read it on the chairlift. Personally, I didn’t read it on the chairlift, but maybe I should have. My favorite reading spot was the bar of the GMD after skiing until last chair at Alta.

The book is an experience of skiing. I found myself thinking of the late Bryce Astle’s effortless arcs when Kray described Strau’s skiing. I thought back on my ski coach’s stories of moving west to Jackson Hole during the chapter from the Calico Pizza Parlor. I felt the sorrow and fear of an avalanche taking our own. I was reminded of the people I had met in my own ski travels and the sketchy situations I’ve skied my way through. For me, The God of Skiing encapsulated everything I love about the sport: the culture, the lifestyle, the people, the feeling of sliding on snow.

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Grab yourself a copy for the attractive price of $14 through Mira, Amazon, or at your local bookstore.

The Skier Connection

As I was boarding my flight in San Francisco’s international terminal, I already felt like a stranger in a foreign land. My long blonde hair and tall frame stood out in the sea of humans. I wasn’t the only unique one though. Around me were a variety of faces searching for their seats, all speaking different languages.

Then, over the cacophony, I heard an excited voice say, “Hey, sweet Surefoot boots!” I finished positioning my ski boots in the overhead bin and turned around to a smiling face. I double-checked my boarding pass and sure enough, 39E was right next to this woman—and she must be a skier.

The plane took off and we were two strangers on our way to Tokyo. My end destination was Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island. She was en route to Myanmar. All we had was time, and we already knew that we had skiing in common. We both grew up in Colorado and chatted about that; we talked about her husband’s obsessive weekend trips to Tahoe; we talked about their recent discussion of moving to the mountains; we talked about how skiing had shaped our lives.

The experience got me thinking about how incredible of a connection the sport of skiing offers its network of enthusiasts. Skiers share an unspoken bond, the result of a passion that we all enjoy. Travel to any corner of the world, and if you’re lucky enough to meet a fellow skier, it’s like running into an old friend. The conversation feels natural and relaxed. You can share beta and stories from your respective home mountains. Oh, and there you go, you have a mutual friend. You’ll remember a tale from your deepest day at Alta last winter, and that reminds them of the greatest lap they ever had through Four Pines in Jackson 15 years ago. The connection is complete, whole, and natural, no matter how long the conversation lasts.

For me, the skier connection is one of the greatest parts of this sport. The people I have met along the way, whether they be on the other side of the planet or on the chairlift at Alta, make this sport and lifestyle what it is.

The skier connection is unique. Really though, what other communities have a similar connection? Climbers, perhaps. Surfers, maybe. I’m not experienced enough in any other sport, activity, or passion to know if such a connection exists elsewhere. But I sure am thankful it exists in skiing.

When our flight landed in Tokyo, I said goodbye to my new friend Emily. We wished each other the best in our respective travels and disappeared into another world, full of strangers. A week later I was sat down on a barstool. To the right, one of the bartenders kept looking over to me and my friends. He smiled. He came over shortly thereafter and in broken English said, “Are you skiers?” I knew when we sat down that he had the smile of a skier. And that was all the connection we needed.

Healthy and Happy Two Years Later

Photo from the jump session at Alta on January 15, 2014. Photo: Drew Hartley

Photo from the jump session at Alta on January 15, 2014. Photo: Drew Hartley

There are certain dates which I will never forget the significance of. December 25: Christmas. July 4: Independence Day. February 14: Valentine's Day. June 22: my birthday. August 20: my brother’s birthday. And perhaps most of all: January 15, 2014.

Today marks the two-year anniversary of a day that changed my life. While hitting a jump at Alta, I over rotated a cork 7 and held the mute grab too long. The impact led to me dislocating my hip and shoulder, partially tearing my ACL, and breaking a few ribs and my sacrum. Despite the list of injuries, I still look back on the day and smile about the fun jump session and my good fortune to walk away (on one leg) without a broken back or neck.

A pre-existing condition in both of my hips was already creating issues before the crash. After the dislocation of my right hip on January 15 the labrum was all but destroyed, and the situation warranted surgery. Due to a long recovery timeframe it made sense for me to also undergo surgeries on my other hip and one shoulder.

Unable to take care of myself, I moved back to my parents' house for the three surgeries and ensuing recovery. Physical therapy consumed my life. I started walking again with two laps in a pool. Frankly, skiing seemed far off, but even still, it was at the forefront of my mind throughout, motivating me toward a better future.

The past two years were painful, trying, and at many times ugly and even depressing. But that said, I would not change a thing. The past two years were the two greatest, most valuable years of my life. I learned more than I ever would have if I had been healthy the whole time. I found myself. I found a new level of motivation. I learned that I was a skier to the core of my soul, but I also learned that I was capable of being more than a skier. I fell in love for the first time. I dedicated myself to school. I took the time to pursue writing. I surfed. I got healthier than I had ever been.

Through my accident, surgeries, and recoveries I became a better, more complete human. And for that I will be forever grateful.

So today I skied, rejoiced, and loved the day like it was my last, just as I have strived to do ever since January 15, 2014. I am currently skiing in Japan. I am living my dream and taking advantage of my good health.

Near the end of our day ski touring, I took the opportunity to stand atop the ridge alone and breathe in the moment. Warm light illuminated the treed slopes across the valley. There was a peaceful silence except for the trickle of the creek at the bottom of the valley. And in front of me laid a field of deep, enticing powder. I was at home once again.

So I pushed off, quickly floating on top of the snow and gathering speed. Every turn brought with it an exhilarating sense of freedom from my past. I popped off the rollers that found themselves in my line, turning like an airplane, hung in a timeless state, before landing back in the perfect snow. I giggled, laughed, and yelled the entire way down, other than the two turns when I was choking on snow. I was elated. This is why I underwent the necessary surgeries. This is why I put my head down through the endless hours of physical therapy. This is why I powered through my moments of doubt.

It is great to be healthy, alive, and skiing once again.

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I would also like to add that my recovery would not have been possible without the incredible support of so many people around me. Thank you to everyone that helped, supported, and encouraged me in the past two years. I would be nowhere without each and every one of you.