On Drifting

By: Jackson Hogen

Published: December 10, 2019

[On Drifting is Chapter 14 of Snowbird Secrets, A Guide to Big Mountain Skiing, which I co-wrote with “Guru” Dave Powers during the summer of 2012. Each chapter is a stand-alone meditation on some aspect of skiing that illuminates and informs the rest of our lives. It makes a lovely holiday gift that reflects well on your keen discernment and quality upbringing.]

On Drifting

While the concept of carving has been around for as long as skiers have been sliding across snow, it has achieved the status of a religion since shaped (aka “carving”) skis achieved market dominance in the new millennium. Carving is goodness, truth and beauty. The alternative is skidding, a pejorative term connoting a loss of control, a trajectory determined more by chance than by the force of will and sinew. But carving is not an Absolute Good. It is a rule meant to be broken, a vow given with a wink.

One reason carving gets all the good press is that it needs to be taught, while any other form of sliding around comes more or less naturally. Little wonder carving has a superiority complex. But the dirty little secret inside carving cant is that most carved turns begin with a bit of drift, an off-the-edge moment when anything is possible. This isn’t a flaw as much as a natural interval that lives in the transition between turns.   The drift can be as ephemeral as a hummingbird’s heartbeat or a long, lingering note hung out to dry in the mountain air. Drifting is skidding with intention, a choice to slither instead of slice.

By breaking up carving’s monopoly on well-respected turns, drifting opens the door to an alternative sensation, the sideward slide. When applied to a swath of corn snow, it builds up its own wave, shedding snow off the base in soft curls the consistency of ice cream.   By the next day, yesterday’s corn will have frozen to a titanium rigidity you couldn’t indent with a pile driver. Again, the drift comes to the rescue: instead of trying to cut into the crystalline crust, you tilt your bases until the ski is almost on edge, but not quite. Applying pressure to the base where the edge isn’t – the un-edge, if you’ll pardon the expression – you grind across the slick, implacable surface, draining the velocity that would otherwise accelerate you to light speed on a clean, carved edge.

Executed with the appropriate aplomb, the drift is also a tactic to conserve precious energy. Drifting raises just standing around to an art form: you try, as elegantly as possible, to do next to nothing. This talent is essential if you’re going to consume this giant mountain in one gulp. The non-stop express run is woven into the fabric of this place, if for no other reason than the only way to catch the same tram again is to race it to the bottom. But there is another reason: the non-stop is the ultimate expression of visualizing the bottom of the hill. This ability to intuit, not merely the next turn, but all succeeding turns, is the essence of following the flow, of blending doing and being into one indivisible form of energy. This will perforce require the application of every turn in your arsenal, including the tactical drift. Carving requires the pilot to resist forces that strive to scrub him or her laterally; drifting surrenders to them. As long as you remain the calm center in the heart of the drift, the energy cycle running through you will align with your stacked bones. All your muscles have to do is keep you casually upright.

Yet the drift is more than a tactic to conserve energy; it’s a natural expression of being in the flow, a syncopation of the beat that allows you to match the cadence of the hill. Drift and drive. Slink, then tilt and push where the mountain asks you to. It’s a breath of relaxation, an opportunity to contemplate exactly when to shift from drift to drive. The slide supplies a momentary suspension in the downhill attack, the cleansing inhalation, a pause at the top of the cycle of effort.

Even when you’re schwagging – contemporary parlance for the uncarved turn – you don’t have to abandon the idea of roundness. Au contraire, you may find more roundness in a sweet, buttery drift than an abruptly edged, laid-over arc. Drifting is the optimal way to steer into your desired alignment with the hill, as in when diving into a run like Mark Malu or Regulator Johnson that enters off a traverse, then igniting the arrow. You drift then stick to grab the force of linearity again, the locked-on laser that bends with the terrain.

The advent of the fully rockered, twin-tipped fat ski ensures that drifting, smearing, buttering, schwagging, grinding and schmearing will be with us for the foreseeable future. These skis can be carved, believe it or not, even on crispy corduroy, but that is not their bliss. They are meant to be swiveled, shmooshed and skittered. The twin-tip alone is an open invitation to linger in the smear zone between forward and backward. Jacking the tips and tails out of the snow with formidable front and rear rocker makes the platform underfoot barely longer than your boot, the better to smudge in any direction. Now plump up the ski waist over 120mm and you have a stick that threatens to blow out both knees if you attempt to tilt it all the way up on edge. Little wonder when you see America’s youth rocketing backwards downhill they never seem to be on edge; they’re not. They’re butter boys and girls, so accustomed to the schmear and the grind they only resort to an edged turn when they can’t afford to shed speed. Ah, sweet mystery of youth!

If the terrain park is where the drift dawdles, in the moguls it lasts no longer than a spark. But it’s there, not as a lateral smudge, but a weightless microsecond when both skis are flat and can be pivoted effortlessly to fine-tune the top of the next turn. The more liquid skiers can ineffably insinuate their skis into any line because they can blend the swivel of the schmear and the stick of the carve at will. The moment can be so quick, it’s invisible even to the skier, yet in its perfect, invisible execution lies greatness.

Perhaps nowhere is the drift at the top of nearly every turn so evident as it is in deep powder. Anyone who has mastered this condition knows there can be a pause, a taffy-pulled beat when you must be patient before the plunge and let flat skis float back under you before you bet the moon on your next move. Wait for it, wait for it – and while you wait, your skis are slipping through the transition, as flat as Kansas – then the command to tilt takes charge as both skis roll to edges that might as well be pushing against silence.

Jeremy Bernard demonstrates how to drift down a drift. Photo courtesy of Salomon.

 If drifting in powder elicits the susurrating sounds of silk slapping skin, drifting on early-AM boilerplate is as loud as the front row at a Metallica concert. In late spring, the dreamy corn of yesterday is the ice-slick brick of the next morning. If one ventures down Chips – the normally benign cruiser that is the least adventurous descent on the front face – before the sun has had a chance to soften it, you are well advised to shelve all notions of carving it up. Now is the time to discover the phantom crown on your base, a point somewhere between the middle and the nearest edge to the snow, which you can set at a fixed angle and stand on. Try not to let your movements betray the fact that you have only a tenuous grip on trajectory. Shift your weight and direction when the mountain tells you to and suppress the notion that a better person would have carved their way down. In due course the surface consistency will change from metallic to more mushy and edges can again be engaged in the business of tucking into each arc.

As you wend your way towards the lower mountain, keep your eyes out skier’s right for the nearly 90o turnoff to Who Dunnit. This oft-overlooked, low-angle cruiser is comfort for tired legs and solace for the troubled soul. It lies at a slight angle to the fall line so every right turn curls uphill and every left falls away. If you can’t hear the rhythm of this run talk to you, you should get your hearing checked. Where the top of Chips was a glass lake, this is a stream of love butter, each turn a caress stroked in cadence with the hill.

Far from being a sin, drifting is part of the sensory delight of skiing. It’s a reminder, as we feel the soft snow slide across our bases, that we are here to make bliss. Heaven knows we’re not making anything else. At the end of the day, we’ve made no product, conquered no disease, saved no one from hunger. All we did was make bliss, and it was enough. We found a way to experience joy in harmony both with nature and ourselves. For a few minutes we disappeared, part of an energy field in which we were more conduit than controller. Somewhere in that thread lay a perfect moment when identity folded into doing, when all there was in the world was the call of the mountain and your reply, an echo that sounded like joy. The suggestion the mountain planted in you, in us all, is to tuck these moments into your soul where they will reverberate forever with its message: those with the capacity for such joy have the obligation to share it.

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