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Early season has a method all its own

Equipment choices, timing can improve first few trips

Snow cover is always an issue early in the season when resorts are opening, so plan accordingly. Snow cover is always an issue early in the season when resorts are opening, so plan accordingly. (Photo courtesy of killington)
By Tony Chamberlain
Globe Correspondent / November 24, 2011
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Finally!

For seven months you’ve suffered those spring and summer days, all that swimming and sailing and golf going on. Those afternoons sunbathing in hammocks and beach sand. Those nights that just wouldn’t cool off.

Seven months of the world in its shorts-wearing, air-conditioned, sun-screen mode. And now you, the skier, the boarder, the snow-hound, your world is back.

You stand up there, boots on, clicked into fiberglass-composite boards of your choice, and look down the run toward mid-mountain. Everything looks and feels almost like winter.

Sort of.

Although some resorts managed to get people on the slopes around Halloween because of a freakishly early snowstorm, for most the Thanksgiving holiday period is - if not preseason skiing - certainly early season. And if every season has its own persona and set of conditions on the slopes, the early birds come with their own expectations.

But like any other sport, said former Olympic ski racer Doug Lewis, who lives near Vermont’s Sugarbush with his wife, Kelly, early season requires a different approach than skiers and riders take later in winter.

“For starters, you should use your rock skis until you know what’s up there - and that means your old skis,’’ said Lewis, who, with Kelly, has run Eliteam Training Camps for 20 years - a program aimed at maximizing health and fitness training for young athletes.

“And it’s important to get up there first when the skiing is limited and it’s getting warm. If it’s crowded on limited snow it pretty quickly becomes a fly for your life up there. So if you can get up there in the first couple of chairs, you’re going to enjoy the better snow and have better skiing.’’

Aside from the exhilaration of getting ones’ first feet of vertical terrain under skis or boards, when a crowd shows up and the very limited snow cover collects most of them, the experience can range from uncomfortable to dangerous.

“We sometimes have called Downspout - a favorite trail - Deathspout,’’ said Lewis, winner of the bronze medal in the World Cup Downhill in 1985 in Bormio. “There’ll be 500 people on the run at the same time and you got the racers going crazy, the college kids going straighter, the beginners doing turns. It’s definitely tough.

“I always like to slow it down in the early season.’’

This season’s traditional opening - perhaps today for many areas - will vary from region to region. Warm weather has interspersed with cool, snowmaking nights, so that terrain is limited.

Loon, New Hampshire’s popular resort in Lincoln, is typical of those opening early. With a boosted snowmaking system, Loon hopes to have 60 acres of skiing and riding open today and through the weekend. That includes 10 trails, with such favorites as Walking Boss, Bear Claw, and Upper Picked Rock open, with at least partial top-to-bottom cover.

Following the Halloween storm three weeks ago, 18-year-old Anthony Barbarti and a few friends made a dawn outing from their New England College campus in Henniker, N.H., to Killington for some early-season boarding.

Barbarti found seven or eight trails open with fresh snow that held up through the morning. “It didn’t get icy until around 2:30,’’ he said, “so we were lucky to be up there really early, just as they opened.’’

Barbarti’s group heeded another piece of Lewis’s first-run advice and stayed up waxing boards and getting the rest of their equipment prepared for action.

“It’s really important to get your equipment prepared for the first trip,’’ Lewis said. “You have to make sure your bindings are working property, and your skis are tuned, and make sure you don’t have a mouse in your boot. And little things like remembering your gloves. When the time comes, they can be huge.’’

Early-season skiing means much less snowcover, not only on the trails and runs, but in the woods, where uncovered stumps and rocks are particularly hazardous. Without deep bases, rocks can also pop up along the groomed trails, and there’s not enough cover for glades and other non-piste skiing to be open.

“Fall skiing is just a different animal,’’ said Kyle Bunder, a ski patrolman from Copper Mountain who has been helping prepare the race course for this weekend’s World Cup at Beaver Creek, Colo. A transplanted Easterner, Bunder says that even if the weather has been cool enough for several nights of snowmaking, the winter base changes everything.

“I see this time of season as a kind of training, breaking in for the regular season. Just getting the muscles and gear up and working. And, you know, it can be fun too, just don’t expect too much.’’

So when does this early or preseason skiing and riding become full season?

“For me it’s when the mountain is over 50 percent open,’’ Lewis said. “That’s when you can start to explore the mountain, explore different kinds of skiing. That’s what makes a full day for me – opportunities to ski a lot of different kinds of terrain.’’

By then, said Lewis, who will be World Cup ski racing analyst for Universal Sports, which will televise 84 races around the world this season, winter deepens at about the same rate the body gets tuned for the sport. He has routines and drills to do just that.

The early season on skis, he said, “It’s a chance to get my ski legs under me. I work on my technique and turns really slow, and I’ll even do dry-land on the slopes. I’ll do non-stop slalom turns, then hold a tuck - not moving but just get into a stationary tuck position, then 50 more slalom turns. This is just working my legs into shape and getting my ski balance.

“I always try to stay in shape, but being in ski shape is something else.’’

Whether or not skiers and riders will be in shape this weekend, thousands are expected to flock to the north country, though the snow generally is far from prime time. Here’s a list of ski areas open with limited terrain today or for the holiday weekend:

In Maine: Sugarloaf and Sunday River; Vermont: Mt. Snow, Okemo, Stowe, Sugarbush, Stratton, Bromley, Jay Peak, Smuggler’s Notch; New Hampshire: Bretton Woods, Cannon, Waterville Valley, Ragged (Saturday).

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