Introduction: Welcome to the jungle
My quads were burning from too much snowplowing. My coach’s words were echoing in my head: “You are most stable when tucking.” I willed, begged, and pleaded with my legs to assume the position, but being in this aerodynamic position also meant I would go fast, too fast, because at the moment I had one small problem – I couldn’t see where I was going.
This small problem could likely be overcome but combined with the fact that I was careening down a trail on Alaska’s Eagle Glacier in a July snowstorm, I had to keep the trail markers to my right or risk going off the trail. Not a big deal except that going off the trail meant I could in theory fall through a previously unknown crevasse, the big one that would lead me all the way to China in a horrific tumble, if I were ever to be seen again.
My mind began to wander. I pushed out of my mind my imagined eulogy that included the requisite nod to global warming and my major contributions to society at large, such as eating large quantities of breakfast tacos. I imagined a bronze cowboy hat statue with a ski hat on top that would commemorate the first loss of life by stupidity on the glacier. Also, of course, celebrities I never met like Eddie the Eagle would attend and say it was a shame. Kikkan Randall would be there, her hair colored extra bright pink.
Was this a death-defying 70-percent gradient that I was attempting? No, it wasn’t, but I was most certainly a nerd. A nerd well over his head. I am also a stubborn nerd so this meant I came equipped with nerd glasses, which were now so badly fogged after having gone through rain, sleet, and snow that they were more of a blindfold. I could barely make out the trail markers, I was flying blind, the skis began to pick up more speed, I knew the trail turned but when, and would I have enough time to turn with it?
Oh, and there was one more thing that made it especially intimidating: They don’t have these conditions or trails, or even snow, where I am from in Southern Texas. Yes, I, am a rollerskier who had not seen snow in four years, and this is my story.
Day one of camp: Welcome to Alaska
As my Egyptian Lyft driver courteously bid me farewell, I walked with my bags toward the small group gathered in the parking lot of Alaska Pacific University (APU) in midtown Anchorage, Alaska. The evening before I had flown into Anchorage and traveled from the airport with my mouth agape with awe at the large peaks towering above. My Airbnb host had been a Russian grandmother who insisted on playing me videos of Russian folk songs, as she sang along with tears in her eyes. This was turning out to be a memorable trip already.
As introductions were made in the parking lot I considered it a rousing success that no one burst out in uncontrollable laughter when I told everyone that I was from San Antonio, Texas. The acceptance continued as we drove 45 minutes down Turnagain Arm to Girdwood in the APU van. Fragile ego still relatively intact, it was now time for the first of many firsts to come, a helicopter ride to Eagle Glacier.
As any rollerskier in a southern climate will tell you, there are a few questions you get asked by strangers repeatedly. Unlike bicycling in Texas, in which you may be the recipient of a special howdy in the form of a beer can thrown from a pickup truck, most folks are genuinely curious about your rollerskis.
When you are a rollerskier from Texas, at a premier skiing camp held at a world-renowned training center at almost 6,000 feet in the Chugach Mountains, you get asked questions, too. Number one goes something like, “How the hell did you hear about this place?” Answer: FasterSkier and athlete blogs (Noah Hoffman’s posts from 2013 and 2014 being a standout), and an APU promo video. An email to the world’s best nordic ski coach, Erik Flora, and the next thing you know you are flying in a red helicopter so small it looks like a good gust of arctic air could smack it into the side of a mountain.
Thanks to FasterSkier’s own Gavin Kentch, who insisted that I sit up front; I experienced my first ride to the clouds in the front of our Alpine Air helicopter and felt like I was going to fall through the glass bubble around me. I snapped pictures like a Japanese tourist in Washington, D.C., during the cherry blossom bloom. My adventure was just starting, but as I would find out soon enough, getting there was the easy part.
Secrets: we all have them. But how many of us have real, dark, dirty skiing secrets? Well, I do, and they were going to be revealed in an utterly uncomfortable guilt-wrapped blanket of embarrassment followed by an epic explosion. Assumptions are dangerous also, especially if they help to keep your secret a secret. I had those, too, and I was leaning on them heavily already. Day 1 of skiing would reveal all the cracks in my rollerski kingdom, but the real meltdown would come the next day.
But first came room assignments. I would have three roommates in a dorm room with two bunkbeds.
My first roommate would be Jeremy Littell, a USGS brainiac who studied climate change, something I might have wound up doing minus a few missteps and stutter steps in another direction. Jeremy would join myself and several others for a mountain run the day after camp; he struck me as someone who was very fit, and unsurprisingly he turned out to be a speedy skier.
Next was Tom Corbin, with a skiing and ski coaching pedigree that looked like a Who’s Who of the history of American skiing, including decades of coaching and many years spent chasing an Olympic berth. Tom was such an animal that despite hip replacements and blown knees, he was out there everyday ripping it. He also complimented me at the end of the camp on my progress. I told him that coming from someone of his stature it meant a lot to me, and I really meant it.
My other roommate was someone FasterSkier readers would recognize immediately, but I did not see the moniker through the bling at first. Whispers that there was another FasterSkier contributor at the camp led me to suspect and then realize that the author of the very article that led me to buy my last pair of rollerskis was bunking next to me… the man, the legend, the myth – Fast Big Dog, or FBD.
“It’s all about how you look.” — FBD
“It’s all about how you look,” he shouted to Gavin, part of the lively back and forth between the two. With that it was settled.
In case anyone wondered, and I had, FBD is not just an irreverent authorial persona. He is exactly the same in real life as in his writing. There are few skiers who have their own monogrammed “Team FBD” tights and can pull it off. FBD really will throw down at any time, and if you thought it was all bravado, you would be mistaken – he was out skiing longer than anyone else for nearly every session on the glacier. The day after camp, he came away victorious in the T-Bar Row showdown in the APU weight room, though he was then crushed by all of the locals in his ill-advised rollerboard challenge.
FBD was also generous in his encouragement of my progress, and spoke kindly about me at the end-of-camp sharing circle when Erik Flora asked us to share our reactions to camp. But before we could get to the kumbaya and the warm cuddly feeling of all surviving a sufferfest together, I had some dark secrets that were about to be revealed, some assumptions to be utterly disproven, and a near breakdown to weather. Nordic skiing has a way of exposing the rawness that lies beneath, and I was about to be exposed and the curtain was going to be pulled back – way back.
Onto the snow. For the first time in four years.
Time to get on skis. The first ski was classic skiing on the first afternoon.
Some background: I am primarily a rollerskier now, but the memory of snow after four years of asphalt still lingers. I went shuffling around years ago on a whim in Vermont when I used to live there, and after that I borrowed my neighbor’s ancient three-pin skis and used them in a field across the street from my converted farmhouse. Some years later, I took up classic skiing in Ukraine after I decided to stay around six more years after serving in the Peace Corps. Skiing in Ukraine consisted of making a track yourself and skiing back in it if you wanted to get home through the woods a little sooner before you froze to death.
I got into rollerskiing in Texas after I moved back when, by some kind of water-into-wine miracle, I came across Roller Ski Texas, a group founded and organized by a Russian expat named Phillipp Dimitriev, who felt he could bring rollerskiing to Texas’s churro-loving masses by buying pneumatic wheeled skate skis and giving away free lessons. After a while when one day everyone looked at me and asked what are we going to do today and I completely made something up, I became the coach.
The takeaway from this is that although I had some experience with classic skiing on snow, it was always in cold snow conditions and was never in groomed tracks. This was one of my secrets, but I could rollerski in my sleep, I trained everyday… “What could possibly go wrong?” I thought, as I laced up my boots to hit the trail, preparing to plummet 200 vertical feet from the edge of the glacier down to the “stadium” area and start of the main loop.
Little did I know I was doomed from the start.
I realized I was in trouble just seconds into the descent. I was not used to the speed. There were no hills in Texas that could simulate this; I managed to get to the bottom but this is where the fun really began.
My assumption surrounding my secret had been that classic rollerskiing was just like skiing, or at least almost like skiing. Stories of developing a late kick from too much rollerskiing I passed off as unicorn stories spread by misanthropic ski snob haters. Time to go up.
The minute I started to climb out of the stadium, going up a steady uphill in klister conditions at 65 degrees and sunny, I slipped, and then I slipped again, and then I slipped so hard I nearly faceplanted. Where was the kick? Was my coach just messing around when he applied the klister, did he secretly apply butter or motor oil after I left the wax Conex?
I now encountered an additional problem – my poles were sinking almost to the handle. This was made worse when I slipped especially badly. I quickly developed a strategy of trying to excavate my poles by widening the crater so that my basket would be released. About halfway through the first lap my pole came back up out of the snow without a basket on the end; already frustrated beyond belief and in not in one of my prouder moments, I just kept going.
I was slipping so much in the tracks that I could only sometimes find a kick outside of the track. The pole without a basket made things more challenging because that pole would sink much deeper and consistently than the other. I found myself mostly sliding down most of the downhills on my face. My temper was flaring. I was lashing out at myself and cursing the snow gods.
APU Coach Galen Johnston was “part David Blaine and part Dr. Phil with a six pack”
By the end of the first lap I met up with my coach, APU Development and Masters Coach Galen Johnston. Proving himself to be part David Blaine and part Dr. Phil with a six pack, Galen went about assuaging my self-directed assault on myself while simultaneously running off the little devil perched prominently my shoulder whispering a long spew of the negative poison Kool-Aid that I had been drinking.
“I’m so frustrated with myself,” I remember telling him. Galen promptly proceeded to take a look at my scissor kick flailing that I was trying to pass off as skiing and got to work. He quickly began to work with me on proper positioning, finding and feeling the kick, and making smaller movements while increasing the cadence. Pure Genius.
The next lap I started feeling less slip, and the next after that I had begun to feel like a skier; I was still skiing without a basket, but I felt stronger with each lap. Galen skied with me, encouraged me, and even helped me nail a downhill that seemed to be my nemesis.
Somehow I survived the first day. Even though I had improved greatly, my confidence was badly shaken. I thought about the hours of intervals, distance, and hills I did on rollerskis; the strength training, swimming, and cycling that had led me to believe I would somehow be competitive with a group of lifelong racers. Call it ignorance, but I still had an inkling of hope that the next day, with our first skate ski session in the morning, would be different… instead, after today’s black eye and ensuing attitude adjustment I would nearly have a breakdown the next day that found me questioning my very reasons for coming to Eagle Glacier.
Because sometimes the first skate skiing of your entire life happens on glacial slush at 6,000 feet
The next morning I found myself at the bottom of the first climb, ready to open up the skate skiing. I was ready, or so I thought. Here, now, I would redeem myself.
My rollerskiing group in Texas was a skate skiing club, I coach skating technique, I’d done it in front of the cameras for local news stations, I was sure that my upper body strength from years of training would help me… but somewhere my biggest deep dark secret was gnawing at me.
I had never skated on snow of any kind in my entire life.
You see, even though I had never skied on soft slushy snow in a track on classic skis – I had never skated on snow of any kind in my entire life. Since classic had been a disaster, my assumption that rollerskiing could simulate skiing was hanging by a thread.
As I started up the first hill [the “first hill” at Eagle Glacier gains roughly 100 meters total over a series of rolling up and downs, though mostly ups – Ed.], the first problem I noticed was that I spend very little time doing V1 rollerskiing. In Texas, the “hilliest” terrain I can still full V2 on my medium-speed Marwes. I practiced V1 based on some video I had seen online, but mostly this was just jump skating the tops of hills.
At Eagle you are either going up or going down, and going up for me meant skiing V1 for a long time. I began to notice immediately that my glide was virtually nil, so I began poling harder to compensate, which just sunk my poles deeper into the soft snow and decreased whatever glide I was getting even further. As soon as I pointed my skis out in a V-stance, my right abductor began to ache. A war injury from my soccer years, it would get worse as I went on before finally turning into a stabbing pain near the end of the lap that reminded me repeatedly that I was 41 years old and going up a steep hill at nearly 6,000 feet.
It was about this time that I began to feel the altitude. Despite moving almost slow enough to fall over, I noticed that my heart rate was highly elevated. Even though I was constantly reminding myself to breathe, I found myself stopping repeatedly on every hill. I vowed to get through the first lap, and I did, but I called it quits after that. I was too demoralized to seek out a coach; I felt utterly broken.
Later that evening, I began to question why I had come to this camp. I had come to get some on-snow time, but also, being highly competitive, I came to measure myself against others. It was not just the four years of training in 100-degree, 80-percent humidity since I had last seen snow that had prepared me for this. I had also spent six years before that skiing by myself in Ukraine.
Skiing had always been a place where I could find solace, peace, satisfaction, and happiness when I couldn’t find it elsewhere. Now it suddenly seemed like my greatest demon. Everything I had done before seemed for naught. It felt like I was just learning how to ski, like the tables had been turned and suddenly I was one of the beginner athletes I coached in Texas. About this time I thought of my family, my 18-month-old. I wondered how they were doing. I began to miss them. To complicate my crisis of conscience, others in our group were regularly seen texting and talking on their phones… I checked my phone and found that I had no service. I was at an all-time low.
Some time before heading out for the classic afternoon session. Berit Flora offered me her phone so that I could call my family. Berit was affectionately referred to as the camp mom for her powers of making sure everyone was doing well and well fed, and her gesture in that moment seemed to give me new lifeblood. A dark cloud seemed to float away from above my head.
(I had the pleasure and honor of later having dinner with Berit and her husband Sam and others after the camp finished. Both Berit and Sam (who are Erik Flora’s septuagenarian parents) were out there skiing every day, and had plenty of history in the form of great stories to add to mealtime discussion. Sam also drove me to my Airbnb room after camp, to Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking to return my rented skis, and to the airport. Their hospitality and kindness will not soon be forgotten.)
About this time I began to reevaluate my goals. There were other reasons to come to this camp, such as receiving some of the best coaching from some of the best coaches in the world. Also I could personally gain from coaching because my first ski taught me I had more to learn than I realized. Also, if I could ski these conditions I could come away with some newfound confidence (maybe getting through it was the moral victory) as well as a desire to get on snow more often; more snow time was something that became apparent immediately that I needed.
I also reminded myself of how few people get an opportunity to ski here, the names of elite athletes written on on the walls serving as gentle reminders of the caliber of skiers who typically come to Eagle. I vowed to take in the beautiful scenery more, and to receive as much coaching as possible. Once I put the shattered pieces of my ego aside I began to enjoy myself again.
The next classic session I felt especially good and was able to catch Brandy Stewart (an elite skier from Montana) and Gavin, two skiers well above my level, on a climb. I was immediately dropped on the first descent, but it was something Galen would bring up on the last night. Credit to Galen, but also to Dylan Watts, the best cook/competitive skier/coach in the world, who jury-rigged a really sweet basket on my left classic pole. Feeling like I was skiing with two poles really made a difference.
After talking to Erik Flora the night before, he immediately found me the next morning. I got to ski with him for a while, which made my day, and made it apparent what I need to work on for the future.
It was not lost on my me how much it would cost me to have the best coach in any other sport work with me one on one; the experience was priceless. A shooting lesson from Gregg Popovich or a tackling lesson from Bill Belichick I could never afford, even if they were willing to take the time. And yet Erik seemed to enjoy coaching me; that dedication and love for coaching is something that I hope I can duplicate with my rollerskiers. I tried to listen to everything he was telling me technique-wise, but when he skied in front of me I couldn’t help but imagine how hard it was for him to ski that slow; he is an amazing skier and within seemingly a second or two after the lesson ended he was out of sight, moving on to find and coach the next athlete.
Morals and acknowledgments
There plenty of others who gave me the courage to continue on and improve each day. Both of the FasterSkier crew gave me encouragement throughout, and everyone seemed to lift each other up with a kind word or two on the trail. Special thanks to Jeffrey Lynn, my hilarious dishwashing buddy that made the time spent doing chores enjoyable. Jeffrey was there to become a better skier to be able to ski with his son. I watched him put on Moleskin and heaps of duct tape to cover his blisters every day – you were inspirational to me.
Special thanks to Galen, who even loaned me his skis, and to him and the APU Masters Group who let me join two of their workouts after camp. I truly felt like a part of the APU Masters skiing community, and I don’t recall ever feeling that much energy and excitement from working out with anyone else.
I’d come far during the camp, from skiing alone in the woods in Ukraine, to braving the heat in Texas, to V1’ing up a glacier. I had come great distances to see, taste, and feel the ultimate. The ultimate venue, ultimate beauty (yes, Alaska is probably the most beautiful place I have ever seen), ultimate coaching, and ultimate community.
It was only fitting that after coming from humble obscurity and a truly off-the-radar outpost like San Antonio, and overcoming some pretty personal lows, the helicopter I flew out of was bringing up two of our nation’s greatest skiing stars, Kikkan Randall and Sadie Bjornsen. They got out of the helicopter, with an NBC cameraman dressed more for L.A. weather than for Alaska filming every step they took.
Total stars in our sport, they both smiled and waved. Sadie offered a quick handshake and Kikkan smiled and said hello, looking exactly like the Fischer ski poster of her on the second floor of the Thomas Training Center had suddenly come to life. If I would have had the time without the helicopter ready to lift off, and it wouldn’t have been so loud, I might have introduced myself: “Hi, I’m Jason, a skier from San Antonio.”
— Gavin Kentch contributed
Masters Minds series: Are you a masters skier who loves your club? Submit camp or training recaps, announcements, or stories to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Masters Minds.” Articles can be first-person accounts or written from an observatory standpoint with comments from others.