By R. Scott Rappold
PURGATORY RESORT - We're on a snowy mountainside practicing stepping from foot to foot while skiing, something instructor Terry Tavelli calls the "thousand-step turn."
Why? I have no idea.
"It teaches independent leg action. If I have someone who's got feet too close together, it helps to separate the feet," says Tavelli. "It helps, if we lose our balance on the bumps, so we can shift to the wrong ski and feel comfortable on it."
Tavelli has been a ski instructor for three decades and knows his stuff. And this is no beginner lesson, but an 8-week course to help skiers make the most difficult progression in skiing skills: Moving up from blue runs to black diamonds.
I was invited along for a morning to find out how instructors help skiers make this crucial transition. As I was to discover, there's no magic trick, no one thing to help skiers move from groomers into the steep and deep runs, but a million little lessons to make a better skier.
"We're building our bag of tricks. This is just another tool for us to use as we're getting into the bumps," says Tavelli. "Does that make sense?"
It does, says the class.
"Alright, enough talk. Let's go ski."
Conquer the fear
Durango skier Carolynn Rittermann remembers well the first time she tried a black diamond run.
"I was terrified," she says. "Even last year I would still get all that anxiety bubbling up."
Like most of those in the clinic, she learned to ski as an adult, not as a fearless youth. And, says Tavelli, there's something about that black sign that can send fear into the heart of the intermediate skier. Black diamond runs typically have a pitch of at least 40 percent and can have trees, rocks and other obstructions and are usually ungroomed.
"You'll see it in their skiing every time. They may be making nice round turns on the intermediate runs, and even on the bumps they can be fairly comfortable," he says. "But you get over to a black and the brain kicks in and says, 'It's a lot closer to fall uphill than it is downhill.' It shifts their weight to the wrong ski, the uphill ski."
By taking an expert-level lesson, skiers can gain confidence in the mental battle that is just as important as the skiing technique adjustments.
For Rittermann, the confidence boost from the clinic has helped conquer the fear.
"I still get butterflies but I feel more capable," she says. "Last week, during a powder day, I felt like I knew what I was doing and I was in control and I could make it down without a problem."
"This clinic has helped me feel so much more comfortable being in the black diamond terrain."
Conquer the bumps
Once Tavelli has observed each skier enough to address their bad habits, such as not being centered properly, not using poles correctly, keeping the shoulders aligned with skis instead of pointed downhill or having the arms in the wrong position, it's time to move on to the moguls.
"One of the things that's interesting to ask the class is, 'How do bumps form?' and I've had them ask, 'Well, doesn't the ski area make the bumps?'" he says.
For the record, bumps form because the terrain is steep and to control their speed skiers make shorter turns. As each successive skier follows a similar line, the bumps get larger. At most ski areas, when it hasn't snowed in a couple days, the black diamond runs tend to be composed mainly of such bumps, also known as moguls.
Learning to ski them well means not riding over the crest of each mogul but instead riding the space between the moguls. It's one of the toughest ski moves to master because of the small size of the space in which to turn and the fact that if a skier misses the turn it means riding over the crest of the next mogul.
They're challenging but you don't have to be an Olympic skier to do it. Just ask Durango skier Leslie Seehuus, another student at the Purgatory clinic.
"Bumps are my favorite thing on the planet and I want to be able to ski them well," she says. Before the clinic, she says, "I'd just do a couple of turns and blow right out of it, out of control. So I'm learning to control my speed and that's good, knowing that you don't have to do them fast. You can just do them in control."
Skiing moguls in control means keeping your hands in front of you and planting your pole ahead of your skis, which will mean a sharper turn and help you from the knee-clattering experience of riding up-and-down over the mogul field.
It sounds simple but can take a lifetime to master, another reason to take an expert-level lesson. Tavelli calls it "learning to quiet the upper body," letting the arms and torso work with gravity for a fluid motion instead of against it.
Conquer the powder
Not every day is a powder day, but when Mother Nature blesses you with fresh snow, you want to know how to ski it.
That's the other major part of Tavelli's clinic, learning to ski powder.
"If they're not on a groomed slope at all, they're going to have to learn how to deal with it," he says. "At that point in time we'll talk about powder, the fact that it's denser and things are not going to happen as fast on their skis. They'll feel more resistance to their skis."
Speaking of skis, you'll want to graduate from your beginner skis to ones that are wider, since the more ski surface you have on the snow will make it easier to turn in untracked powder. Once you're skiing on your fat powder skis, avoid the tendency to lean way back and try to keep a narrower stance.
Says Tavelli, "I tell them things aren't going to happen as fast but we're still going to ski, still have our hands in the same position, still have our weight centered and not the front or back of our skis."
After a couple of hours of skiing and what felt like more minor technique adjustments than I could keep track of, I ask Tavelli about the overall goal of the clinic.
It's having a great skiing experience, one bump run at a time.
"You know you have a really good run through the bumps when you finally let the upper body flow into each turn and go down the hill, so you're not resisting gravity. You're going with it," he says. "Once you accept that you're going to have that nice, fun feeling that you just skied bumps."
R. Scott Rappold is a journalist with more than 20 years of experience, including 10 at The Colorado Springs Gazette, where he wrote about skiing, hiking, camping and all the things that make Colorado great. He is now a full-time ski bum who writes when he needs money for beer or lift tickets. He lives in Colorado's beautiful San Luis Valley. Read more of Scott's stories .