Monday, March 10, 2014

Near disaster on Stein's Run

Stein's Run is a classic run at Sugarbush.  It's a long, steep double-black diamond run that is the mountain's primary run for late season bump skiing.  The run was named for Stein Eriksen, who won the Olympic gold medal in the giant slalom for Norway in 1952.  He also won silver in the slalom in those same Olympics.  Stein served as Sugarbush's ski school director for a period of time, in the 1960's I believe, but I can't seem to find the exact dates.

He designed Stein's Run after complaining to Sugarbush's general manager Jack Murphy that many of the early runs at Sugarbush were not aligned with the natural fall lines of the mountain.  He was challenged to design something that met that criterion, and Stein's Run was the result.

As double-black runs go, I tend to think of Stein's as fairly benign.  There are 8 double-black diamond runs at Sugarbush, and it's frequently the case that Stein's is the easiest of the group to ski, although it is one of the longer double-blacks.  A straight shot about half a mile long or so, although I've been unable to find an exact length or vertical for the run.

In preparation for spring skiing, when big moguls will form on Stein's and some other steep runs, the mountain has been aggressively grooming some of the steeper runs, including Stein's.  I skied it Saturday with my group and it was about as easy as it gets to ski on Stein's - no bumps, still steep, but not icy at all.  Lots of fun and you could really ski it at high speed.

On Sunday morning, my group wanted to ski Stein's to warm up.  They are good enough skiers that this made sense; Stein's had been groomed again on Saturday night.  I watched all five of my students dive in, and as I looked at the freshly groomed snow, I felt very confident.  I had no idea how terrifying the next minute or so of my life was going to be.

I dove in confidently, deliberately launching off the top to build some speed.  And somehow, on my very first turn, I crossed my ski tips and fell.  Both ski bindings released.  And, I started to slide.  At first, my only thought was that it was going to be a long hike back up to my skis.  That was really the least of my worries though.  I began to pick up speed, sliding down the run.  I immediately realized that my slide was too fast and I needed to stop.  I let one of my poles go, knowing I wanted to self arrest with both hands on a single pole.

The goal in a slide like this is to get your feet downhill, try to kick them into the snow to stop, and hold your ski pole in a way that you can dig into the snow to use the pole tip as a brake.  At first, this seemed to work, and I was slowing down.  And then, I got turned around a bit, and I was heading downhill face first and I couldn't even get my pole tip in the snow.  I knew that if I tried to plant the pole tip at the wrong place, the pole might get ripped from my hands, leaving me with no protection at all.

I rapidly gained speed and I gradually slid right towards the trees.  I knew that if I slid into the trees at my current speed, the best result would be multiple serious fractures.  If I hit the trees at the wrong angle, I could easily be killed.  This was a sobering thought as I flew down the mountain, and I honestly had no idea how this was all going to end.  It seemed like this slide was going to go forever.

I managed to get myself re-oriented, so I could dig the pole tip in.  For a while, it was working.  And then, I started to speed up again.  I was now even closer to the trees on skier's right.  Despite how scared I was, I managed to stay calm and focused on self arrest.  I sped up for a bit, and the pole lost contact with the snow again.  But, I maintained my orientation, and I got the pole tip dug in again.  Suddenly, I noticed that the groomed snow on top of the firm base was a bit deeper.  I managed to kick into the snow and dig the pole into the snow and I started to slow down.

Suddenly, there was another skier beside me.  He had witnessed my slide and skied fast to catch up to me to try to help.  He was willing to put his body in front of mine to try to protect me.  And suddenly, I was stopped.  I had traveled 2/3 of the length of the run with no skis at all.  The chair that I'd ridden gained over 1500 vertical feet.  I'd skied a traverse to the top of Stein's, and I still had 1/3 of Stein's below me, although that is the mellower part of the run, plus a run-out back to the chair.  I am guessing that I slid about 700-800 vertical feet of double-black terrain.  I have no idea what my top speed was, but I'm guessing it was 30 mph or higher.

The skier who had caught up to me asked me if I was OK.  Remarkably, I had no injuries at all.  My heart rate was really high and my legs were shaky as I stood up.  I think it was just sinking in how badly things could have ended, but I was lucky.  Yes, I maintained my cool and did what I needed to do, but there was still a lot of luck involved.  And, one very poor ski turn.  That was all it took to set off this event.

Another skier brought my skis to me.  One of my students (I had slid past 2 of the 5) brought me my abandoned ski pole.  As I stood up and put on my skis, I was suddenly embarrassed to have had that event happen while I was wearing a ski school uniform.  But, my relief at being alive and uninjured outweighed that embarrassment quite easily.  I thanked everyone repeatedly for their help.  I think everyone knew that it could have been much worse, and everyone was relieved at the happy ending.  I'm sure a few people now have a great story about how they saved a ski school instructor.  I'm just grateful for their help.

I skied the rest of the run and we took a short break.  I needed to get the snow out of my helmet, my beard, my ski pants, my jacket, etc.  We then skied a couple runs on a single black diamond, so my students would work on jumping.

And then, just before lunch, we returned to Stein's.  This time, I made sure my ski tips never got close to each other.  And, it was a beautiful run, with Stein's skiing as easily as it ever does.

1 comment:

Jeff Farbaniec said...

Yikes. Just about everyone who skis goes on a slide-for-life at one point. Yours sounds like one of the worst, thankfully with an OK outcome.