Up in the Chugach Mountains of Alaska, at the edge of the skiing frontier, a revolution in powder skiing is taking place. In those huge, steep, lawless peaks, guys like Shane McConkey, Brant Moles, and others are laying down steep lines that are straighter, faster, more dynamic, and more graceful than any powder lines we’ve seen before. Using high-performance fat skis that float rather than dive, they’re riding skis like a snowboard, surfing on the snow, and more naturally following the rolls and contours and hollows of the terrain.
It’s a beautiful style of skiing. As much as I love watching powder skiing—and I really love it, whether looking back up at a skiing partner or just chilling with a video—I’ve always thought that powder snowboarding was more graceful and elegant than powder skiing. Don’t get bent. I’m not saying that powder boarding is better, nor am I saying that powder skiing is any way ungainly or inelegant. It’s just that I’ve always felt that the long, drawn-out turns you can make on a snowboard have a certain natural flow that’s not quite there with skis. On conventional width skis in steep powder, you have almost no choice but to go back and forth across the fall line, checking your speed to stay somewhat in control. While it’s beautiful and while it is the best sensation on earth, that type of descending doesn’t mirror the terrain the way a snowboard does.
It’s a new generation of fat skis that’s making these Alaska turns possible. Once vilified as an intermediate crutch, the fat ski has become an indispensable tool in big terrain. Every rock star in the Chugach had them last year, and if they didn’t they scammed a pair mighty quick. I even heard a funny story about one of the bigger names in ski films, who showed up in Valdez with only conventional-width skis. Tired of being dropped by skiers who were hauling ass on fatties, he refused to ski for the cameras until he could round up a pair. Fortunately for him (or his sponsors), he scored a pair within half a day.
New skis and new skiing styles are just two indicators of how the landscape of skiing is changing dramatically. I never for a second believed that skiing was uncool, but there’s no question the sport went through a dark period. I call it “the ’80s.” It was a time of massive grooming, liability nightmares, lack of personal responsibility, rear-entry boots, headbands, and Members Only jackets. Everyone I skied with carried the faith, but, looking back, you have to admit that as much as you felt good about the sensation of skiing and the timeless connection with the mountains, it was hard to feel warm and fuzzy about the sport and industry.
Things couldn’t be more different today. Two and a half years ago, we said that skiing was on the cusp of a renaissance, that the new wave of free skiers, mountaineers, and snow bohemians would pull the sport into a whole new world, a world with looser attitudes, looser skiing, and revolutionary ways of thinking. We didn’t know exactly what it would look like, but we knew the changes would be huge. Well, that world is here, and it’s a world of free-skiing contests, halfpipes, skier-cross, and Alaska turns. It’s a world of fat skis, carving skis, and ski boards. It’s a world where the tools and attitudes free you from the constraints of the past and give you entirely new ways of looking at the snow.
The collective soul is brighter, bigger, and more powerful than it’s been in a long, long time. Everywhere I go in ski country, I can feel the energy, and I couldn’t be more stoked. Not only is it cool to be a part of something that’s going off, it’s cool to take all these ideas and adapt them to my own skiing. I’ll always be a spaz in the pipe, and I won’t in a million years win a free-skiing contest. But I do know that the next time I’m skiing a big powder face, I can make two turns where I used to make 10, and I can’t wait.
First published in Powder Magazine, issue 26.4, December 1997. Copyright Steve Casimiro 2001. All rights reserved.