By Jessi Loerch
I spent Saturday skiing at Paradise.
And by skiing, what I really mean is I spent a lot of time wondering “Why is my face in the snow? Again?”
This weekend, as part of the course, six of us took a trip to Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park. The trip leader promised the trip would be challenging. He was right. It was also excellent practice. I learned a ton on the trip. I reinforced what I already knew — and got a much clearer picture of what I need to work on.
We started at Paradise, and then climbed up toward Panorama Point. We settled in there for lunch before heading back down the hill.
Cross-country skis are challenging on steep terrain. None of us had skins (a type of fabric that goes on the bottom of skis to help you climb hills) so we switch-backed our way uphill.
When we began, it wasn’t long until the falls, and the jokes, started.
“Oh! Guess who’s buying the first round!” one of the skiers joked after the first fall. Pretty soon, we all owed everyone a round. If we’d actually cashed in on those rounds at the end of the day, we’d still be drinking beer this time next year.
Even given the joking and falling, it was good practice. By the end we had a good feel for how steep a slope we could manage. We also had our kick-turns — a method of changing direction on a steep slope — totally dialed in.
For the final push up to the base of Panorama Point, a few of us, me included, took off our skis. The snow was pretty well tramped down by snowshoers, and I was able to stomp my way up in my boots. It was probably a bit easier for me than using the herringbone method all the way up. The trip leader, Henry, also taught me a handy trick to secure my skis to my pack. We strapped one ski to each side, then secured them at the top in an “A” shape.
When we reached our lunch spot, we ate heartily and admired the skiers and snowboarders up above us. We talked about avalanche safety, something the trip leader made a point of discussing all through the day. Everyone listened closely.
The day had started out sunny, with stunning views of Mount Rainier and the Tatoosh Range just to the south. The clouds rolled in later though, and by lunch we couldn’t see very far.
We started down the hill — and then the falling really began. The snow was lovely and soft — on the top. Down below, the snow was frozen into interesting waves and chunks. Hitting one of those chunks was almost guaranteed to send you down. Cross-country skis don’t have a lot of control, and managing them in deep snow takes skill. Skill I do not yet have — but I’m working on it.
We skied, we fell, we struggled up. Over and over. As we slowly made our way down the hill, I started to feel more comfortable. I fell in every possible direction. I ended up on my face, on my butt, on both sides. Pretty soon, I wasn’t even mildly scared of falling. The snow was soft, after all, and we weren’t going very fast. Once I wasn’t worried about falling, I was able to push it a bit more, and I actually skied a bit better. Of course, then I just fell in more impressive ways.
In soft snow, it’s extremely difficult to get up after a fall. As you push your hands into the snow, they just push through, giving you no support. I had to repeatedly use a tip I’d learned in class. By taking your poles and crossing them, and then putting your hand in the center of the cross, you can get some support. The poles act kind of like a giant snowshoe. It’s a handy trick.
The falling was exhausting, and a bit frustrating. Still, I loved stretching my skills. And throughout the entire day, I felt safe. I never felt I was going beyond my limits. And it was heartening when even our instructor fell. The conditions were hard for everyone.
By the time we reached the parking lot, I was tired and wet and very happy to take off my skis. I think my fellow skiers all felt the same.
Two of them remained at Rainier to stay the night and practice crevasse rescue the next day. The rest of us headed downhill to enjoy dinner and blackberry pie at Copper Creek Inn.
We talked about our trip, discussed technique and equipment and sipped our coffee. It all just made me excited to get back out on skis again. I’ve still got a lot to learn.