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Free to Ski

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The other day I hit on the idea of using a kayak skirt. For skiing. The forecast called for rain, which is not uncommon for Vermont, in February.Free-to-ski_9.jpg#asset:4102:medium

The author’s multi-purpose kayak skirt, Mad River Glen. All images: Justin Chapman

“Liquid snow” we sometimes call it. For me rain usually means two things: no tourists and soft snow. February rain also means that temps the following day will invariably plummet into single digits, and that soft snow will set up like my mother-in-law’s gluten free bread. So carpe skiem I say.

Running through the usual mental checklist, I started to round up my gear.

Skipping the Gore-Tex, I went for the PVC raincoat, and then slipped into my kayak skirt. The ride on Mad River Glen’s fabled Single Chair is 16 minutes, and those were 960 seconds of drenching rain.

But the turns were granular and good, and my lap – wallet and phone included – stayed dry for the whole afternoon. Which was pretty much the only thing that did. Sure the skirt looked goofy on the ski down, but hey, there was no one else there to judge but the lifties. And they know me by now. 

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Mt. Mansfield remains, last day selfie, 2014, record ski days/yr: #166.

I’ve skied about a hundred and ten days at this point in the 2016-17 season, and I don’t recall regretting a single one.

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Dirty corn harvest in shorts, Mt. Mansfield, 2014Dirty corn harvest in shorts, Mt. Mansfield, 2014

Most of those days involve hiking. If I had to guess, of the hundred-some days I’ve slid on snow, fewer than half would be “regular people” ski days. Or – since headlamps have gotten so good and cheap – ski nights.

In October with the fall foliage ablaze in the trees, we ski the first accumulating snowfall – or snow’liage – on modified snowmobile runners turned-skis.

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October "snow'liage" at Mad River, 2015, photo by me, skiing by Dave Bouchard on Marquette Backcountry Skis

In November we’ll schuss on a couple of frozen inches of hoar frost and woodpecker chips, on skis we’ve made by cutting snowboards in half (we swap metal rails to the inside edge and mount them with T-nuts and three-pin bindings).

And by June, long after the lifts have closed, we’ll dig out the old beater-skis to slide the shaded remains, skimming over running snow-melt and moss to skip from patch to path of leftover snow.

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Corn remnants on Mt. Mansfield, 2014


It’s not that I’m a glass half-full kind of guy; I’d say it’s more of a contrarian kind of thing. 

You’re not supposed to be skiing in October, so I relish that. You’re not supposed to ski in the rain or when it’s 20 below. Getting out and doing it is its own reward. Plus, it’s Vermont – Yankees make do, especially in a state where we get exactly six perfect weather days per year (unlike Colorado’s 360).

I’d much rather go out in the shit than sit inside and watch it streak down the windowpanes.

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Snow'liage shot of Adam Sherman, 2015 Mad River

If you really dig down, it’s all about chemistry.

Why ski anything? Because endorphins! Those awesome little peptide chains open up the opiate receptors in the brain, restoring chemical balance to the body. Because getting outside is a deep-seeded human need we’re hardwired to experience. Because it’s a good escape. Because trucking uphill is one of the best modes of meditation I know. And because after endorphins get you get to the top of the hill, there’s that adrenalin.

I mean, who would even strap boards on to hike uphill if there wasn’t a payoff? I say, if you can’t snarf powder on a given day, then I recommend straight-lining frozen cat tracks to get to a “safe” patch of dust-on-crust to get the old adrenal gland cranked up.  

Justin Chapman hikes, rides, and skis from his home in Huntington, Vermont.  He lives at the end of a dirt road with his family and various other animals.   

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