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Alpine Education: Welcome to Steep Skiing Class

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Cliff walls lined the chute below my skis. Clouds whirled overhead, snow bulleting in big flakes and filling in ski tracks almost as fast as we could make them. It was day two of a clinic at Whistler Blackcomb resort in British Columbia, where for more than a decade a guide outfit called Extremely Canadian has run classes to teach the art of skiing the steep and the deep.

Wendy Brookbank, in red jacket, coaches skier Frederick Reimers atop a chute; photo © Mark Going

“It’s just snow, go for it!” My group’s instructor, Wendy Brookbank, was shouting from below. Her encouragement was meant to boost confidence on a run that dropped away as steep as most mountain climbs.

With caution, I approached the edge. I leaned into a turn, my skis slicing, and I rocketed downhill with snow exploding all around.

Scott Trepanier rips through a rocky chute; photo © Mark Going

For years I have been a steep-skiing freak. Chutes, high faces, double-diamond couloirs — these are the features I seek, and I am a confident skier. But a couple of seasons off from serious skiing had made me rusty and introduced slop into my style.

To remedy this, this past weekend I followed Brookbank and other coaches with Extremely Canadian in an attempt to tighten my technique and learn a few new tricks along the way.

Extremely Canadian instructor leads the way high on Whistler Mountain; photo © Mark Going

The steep skiing clinic, which costs $399 (Canadian dollars), offers two full days of serious instruction and serious fun. Like similar programs at ski resorts around North America, it’s made for skiers who are intermediate to expert level and willing to push themselves beyond the groomed trail.

In search of sidecountry adventure via Blackcomb Mountain’s Spanky’s Ladder traverse; photo © Mark Going

Our day at Whistler Blackcomb began with clouds and high winds. It was hard to see the snow in the flat light, and as such Brookbank’s first job was to teach us to ski when the visibility is bad. “I feel like I’m skiing by Braille,” said Scott Trepanier, a skier from Oregon in my group.

Brookbank showed us to stay loose and absorb the ruts and bumps that in a whiteout we might miss. She demonstrated how to drag a ski pole on the uphill side during each turn to “stay in touch with the snow.” (It worked.)

Face-shots and fog; photo © Mark Going

Later, when the clouds cleared, the instruction became more focused on the “extreme” steeps. We were taught tricks for balance (don’t over-rotate through a turn); for fighting fatigue (initiate all turns “with your ankles,” not your legs); and how to attack slopes with a purposeful pose (“point your thumb downhill” to lead the way, Brookbank explained).

Thread the needle on a thin chute; photo © Mark Going

A day in, I felt solid on almost anything Whistler Blackcomb could offer. We hit exposed faces, steeps on a glacier, and tight powder runs in the trees.

We shouldered our skis once and hiked uphill to gain access to a backcountry chute. Later, we leaped into a near-vertical bowl, my ski edges airborne for an instant before slicing into a run so steep I could reach out and touch the snow.

Brookbank makes the leap; photo © Mark Going

By the end, Brookbank’s tips were adding up. Despite some nerves atop a chute that she warned was “really, really steep,” I sucked in and just “went for it,” as Brookbank had encouraged the day before.

I pointed my thumb. I initiated a turn with my ankles, not my legs. I was skiing fast, edging smooth, and beginning to get back into a steep-skiing groove I’d too long ago left behind.

—Stephen Regenold is editor of GearJunkie.com. Connect with Regenold at Facebook.com/TheGearJunkie or on Twitter via @TheGearJunkie.

Happy face! The author psyched before another steep run at Whistler Blackcomb; photo © Mark Going

Next page: More photos from the Steep Skiing action. . .

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