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ON SNOW

Where do kings of hill ski?

East vs. West debated

It's a depressing thing, rain in winter. Rain on snow. Even worse is fog, that spectral essence that eats snow faster than spring sun. Moisture sets up the season-long ice pack that makes New Englanders appreciate edges. Rain also ignites the age-old argument as to where the better skiers come from -- the East, the West, or way up in the middle, in the Rockies, where the snow can be cold smoke, bottomless stuff to ride through rather than over.

I have never resolved this question, but was thinking about it the other day after the night chill had crusted over the Latigo trail, a nice lower cruiser at Beaver Creek, Colo., that always seems to be my first run of the day there.

Beaver Creek has since received more snow, but these were relatively bony conditions, and the edges of my rented Bandits screeched over the crust, trying to dig in. Casual hip angulation -- as in lazy cruising -- was not about to work on this stuff, and it was clear the knees had to be called out of their doze to drive the steel.

Better still, I was alone on this wide run, so why not minimalize the turns altogether and take advantage of the porcelain texture and empty fall line? And it struck me that, while I was not skiing particularly smoothly, the reason I was so comfortable on this surface was my background in the East. Oh, we are a hard-edged people, whether we are driving on the Southeast Expressway or carving down a 3 p.m. trail starting to show its subterranean glacier.

And as I was at Beaver Creek covering World Cup skiing, and pondering the advantges of typical Eastern conditions vs. West, and which created better skiers, I did a quick run-down of US ski racers' home areas.

* Bode Miller -- New Hampshire, of course, on one of the most hardscrabble mountains we have, Cannon, followed by Sugarloaf. This guy's all East.

* Daron Rahlves -- A California kid who looks like a surfer -- but really went to ski school at Vermont's Green Mountain Valley School.

* Kristina Koznick -- Buck Hill, Minn., an easterly altitude without ocean air.

* Kirsten Clark -- A Sugarloafer from Raymond, Maine.

* Chad Fleischer -- Did his skiing 2 miles high at Vail.

* Erik Schlopy -- Park City, Utah, home address of the US Ski Team.

* Caroline Lalive -- Steamboat Springs, Colo.

* Jonna Mendes -- Heavenly, Calif.

All of which doesn't prove much, given such an even split. And former US Ski Team racer Edith Thys and her husband, Dartmouth All-American Chan Morgan, who argued about this in print a few years ago, doing a James Carville-Mary Matalin imitation, hardly resolved it, either.

A few years ago, we reported on a few lines of the dispute that were published in Ski magazine, for which Thys is a superior scribe. And she can also be pretty insulting.

The reason we New Englanders like our hard surfaces?

"Eastern skier behavior can be traced to the Mayflower," she said. "Yankee sensibility and the Puritain work ethic defined everything from their demeanor to their clothing and the general resignation that anything worth having is worth suffering for."

Ouch!

Thys, who has said she probably would not have become a ski racer in the East because of the bitterly hostile climate, believes that Eastern skiers train joylessly rather than free ski with inspiration, as she says Westerners do. When not training, Easterners stay in the lodge rather than skiing when they don't have to. Westerners, on the other hand, ski at every opportunity.

Hmmm!

Thys tells about coming to race in the East a few years ago and shivering through a December morning because she had brought only a cotton turtleneck and sweatshirt. And that's our fault? See, Edy, here's the deal: Go to L.L. Bean and get a real coat, and that will begin your appreciation of the climate here.

But here is the real nub of the argument: "If you learn to ski on soft snow, you learn to go fast by working with the mountain. Conversely, learning to ski on ice teaches you how to constantly regulate rather than generate speed."

As I contemplated Thys's lesson the other day, back on some very soft New England snow, I was also remembering the counterargument from her hubby, who put it succinctly: "If you can make a pair of skis react on the ice the way they do on hero snow, you have attained true enlightenment and the ability treat all snow as good snow."

Something to keep in mind as we ponder the 4 feet of snow that fell on Wildcat early in the week, the enormous amount Jay and Sunday River got, and the 6 feet Killington has recorded during the month.

Yesterday's rain should do no damage, and by the weekend, which should be dry and cold, the mountain surfaces should be just about the way we like them. White.

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