Hero at Zero

We were kind of lulled to sleep this fall with the unusually warm weather. The ski areas struggled to get some slopes open in early December and then all of a sudden, the arctic fronts started to move south over an unusually warm Lake Erie. Record setting snowfalls(7 feet and counting) up in Erie, Pa. buried the city right before Christmas.The Laurel Highlands, east of us, have felt the cold weather and natural lake effect snow fall, contributing to really good ski conditions here in Western Pa. People are excited again for a real winter with cross country skiing, alpine skiing, skating and snowshoeing. In fact as the pictures testify above, this is the first time I have seen pond hockey in our area in a long time. Kids loving it, parents and coaches loving it. Winter has returned despite all the doom and gloom of global warming. But it has come with a price- record setting cold temperatures.

Now I try to look at the bright side, not just a skier and lover of the winter, but as a positive person making the best of what some would consider really cold weather. My friend the Shark always says, ” no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing choices.” It is true that if you bundle up, you can enjoy the winter. Take my pal Jaime here. Jaime just moved back here from Switzerland with his sweetheart of a wife Melissa, and has found a new resolve to start skiing again. He has not missed much since the cold started and has a smile on his face despite the frigid conditions. We both marvel at the “hero” snow where you can lay an edge down in a pressurized arc and feel the ski carve. The turns feel good, we smile on the way down, we both yelled ” Hero at Zero”. Hero snow at zero degrees F. You have to like winter in those temperatures, but Jaime Thompson and I have the place to ourselves up at Laurel Mountain. It is like our own private club and our name is not even Scaife or Mellon. And we are skiing the longest and steepest run in the State.

I am no stranger to cold weather. Teaching skiing in Maine like I did back in the day, I was used to waking to -40 degree temps. If you did not have the electric heated dip stick in your oil reservoir, your car had no chance of starting. I first skied with my best pal Eric Durfee up at Mad River Glen in Vermont one similar day when they were selling single lift rides because of the arctic weather. When we got to the window, Eric said, ” two day passes please.” The crusty old Vermonter in the ticket booth looked at us with his steely eyes and said, ” did you hear what I said, bub?” Eric said, ” I heard you. Two day passes please” I knew it was going to be a long cold day with this determined Vermonter, Eric Durfee, seen here second from left.

I experienced -40 in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan one winter when I accompanied two of our visually impaired skiers at the National Blind Skiing Championships. Due to the cold and the attrition of guides, I was eventually in charge of 13 skiers, helping to set the race course, and basically anything else that the promoters needed help with due to the weather. A hard week with hard temperatures. – 40 without the wind chill.

Nothing is colder than the Adirondacks in New York State, or Vermont in the middle of winter. Many days at Killington were spent with Eric and also our friend Mark Hutchinson who is a native of the Green Mountain State. The cold is one thing, but accompanied by howling winds on those peaks takes fortitude to withstand and ski. But again, we like winter and we like to ski, so you do what you have to do.

So, it is all in perspective. The single digit temperatures around here are not as bad as -40. It probably will mellow out a little here in a few weeks, but we all hope that this winter stays/continues like the winters we all knew and loved as a kid. If you have not skied, skated, tobogganed, ridden a sled, gone snowshoeing, ridden a snowmobile, maybe this is the winter to try it out or be like Jaime and become born again. Embrace the winter. The snow, the crackling fires, the smell of wood smoke from the wood stoves, the gorgeous views in the mountains are are beckoning you to come. Make the effort to start a new sport or rekindle an old passion like Jaime. Be a hero at zero. Thanks for reading.

Watching and Learning

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In the ski industry, our region is known as the “Banana Belt”. Any winter weather expectations are tempered below the New England, New York State line and those of us who long for winter weather experiences so that we can enjoy our winter sports here in Pennsylvania, have it tough sometimes. The only salve for these wounds of expectation is the hope that the weather will turn locally,focusing on our planned ski trips up north and out west, and………watching ski racing on television. I have always been a fan of ski racing because coming from an instructor background, racing shows the ultimate technique required to make a ski turn efficiently. I make an effort to watch NBC Sports, NBC Sports Network, Universal Sports and use the DVR function to watch turns in slow motion to see if there is anything I can glean from watching the world’s best racers.

I made efforts in past years to watch ski racing up close and personal, climbing up the sides of courses to see exactly how world class racers maneuver their way through combinations in slalom, as well as see their lines in GS and the Downhill. I remember watching Perrine Pelen race slalom at Waterville Valley back in 1982. Perrine was an Olympic silver and bronze medalist in slalom, and giant slalom, and won a gold in slalom at the World Championships. I looked at that combination where I was standing and imagined myself going through that particular section of the course.. When Perrine came rocketing through, it was almost too fast to see exactly what she was doing. Any expectation that I had was completely blown away by her world class technique and speed. It was hard to relate. I needed that slow motion function.

French skier Perrine Pelen smiles as she shows her two Olympic medals, 18 February 1984 in Sarajevo, at the Winter Olympic Games. Pelen won the silver medal in the slalom, 17 February, and the bronze medal in the giant slalom, 13 February.   AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STAFF/AFP/Getty Images)

French skier Perrine Pelen smiles as she shows her two Olympic medals, 18 February 1984 in Sarajevo, at the Winter Olympic Games. Pelen won the silver medal in the slalom, 17 February, and the bronze medal in the giant slalom, 13 February. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read STAFF/AFP/Getty Images)

I had a great opportunity to meet our US Ski Team member Cindy Nelson at that race with my buddy Billy Boucherimg_1221 and we had a nice discussion with her on the finer points of racing and what her experiences were at the World Cup level. A number of years ago, I had the great experience of being with a group of instructors at an event called “Ski Happyning” in Austria and witnessed the Super Bowl of ski races- the Hahnenkamm. The speed and the treachery of that course was impressive and I learned quickly the value of sharpened edges when I skied the Streif the next day. img_1223

Fast forward, I saw our current slalom star, Mikaela Shiffrin, race in the U.S. Nationals at Squaw Valley two years ago and have watched her career with interest. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4RyIpHiHBVA&list=PLiDVMRUU2yRQzbDx3HfH1eHpF86W2tmOG&sns=em

Last weekend, I watched her impressive win in slalom at Killington on NBC. It was the first time in 25 years that the World Cup was on the East Coast and the crowds were huge.It was not only interesting watching her win in front of thousands of fans, but more importantly in front of her 95 year old grandmother who had never seen her race live. 28pennington1-master768 Mikaela is not only extremely confident, but her turns are executed flawlessly. Her timing is perfect as she pressures the skis through a turn and quickly sets up for the next turn high above the next gate. She is never late and as it stands now, she is in a league of her own beating the other ladies by seconds which is light years in ski racing. Her balance is unmatched as she stands perfectly on the skis all the way through the turn. It is really fun to watch.

All in all, you can learn a lot from watching any sport executed by the world’s best. Golfers are always watching the swings of the Tour players and trying to emulate what they do correctly. It is the same with skiing. We watch and learn from skiers like Shiffrin, and see what they do especially when you can see it in slow motion. So, as I wait for the snow and placate myself with muddy mountain bike rides at night or on above frigid weekend days, I hope for the best. The equipment is sitting there waiting, the trips are planned, all we need are the HKD guns to start blasting locally and with a little luck from mother nature, maybe just maybe, we can apply what we learn from watching before Christmas. Think snow, even if you don’t ski or like winter…..it is beautiful to see. A landscape that is blanketed in snow is a visual wonder. Thanks for reading.

Photo of Perrine Pelen – Getty Images
Photo of Mikaela Shiffrin and family- Erich Schlegel- USA Today Sports, via Reuters.
Video – US Ski Team videos.

In Search of Winter

IMG00053dcnr_008372imagehandler I always liked the change of seasons here in Pennsylvania. The changing leaves of the fall were alwyays a sign that winter was on its way and for some strange reason, I have always loved the snow and the winter. I still do to this day in spite of the fact that most people my age are looking to go south to get out of the cold. From the time I was a boy, when the first snows came, I was the first kid out the door with the pan or the Flexible Flyer to the Stowell’s back yard for a sled ride until my dad rang the bell for me to come home for dinner. Oftentimes it was not enough snow and too much mud and the sledding was a little rough. But as the winter progressed, those early outings and the exuberance of the early season was rewarded with deeper snows and better sledding.

As I started to ski in earnest, I would listen to the ski reports and hope that the phone would ring and Bob Rose would tell me to get ready for the trip to the mountains for the first skiing at our local area, Seven Springs. When I could drive, my folks were pretty understanding of my passion for winter and when we had a snow day off for school, my mom’s car was packed and I was on my way to the mountains. They told me to be careful which I was as I had some harrowing rides on the PA Turnpike, but I always arrived in one piece and left the same. Weekends were the same way with Friday afternoon drives after school to the mountains and the return on Sunday after bunking at the Rich family house on County Line Road near Seven Springs. I loved the winter. I loved the snow. I loved the wool hats and clothes. I still love everything about winter.

One of the more interesting and humorous outings was a while back with my friend Mike Hudson. I had taken Mike to Tuckerman Ravine and showed him big time winter camping and skiing. We had done several road trips and Mike was relegated to hearing my enthusiasm about winter for hours at a time. One time we were at a party together in early winter and I told him that it was going to snow up north of Pittsburgh. For those of you who are not from this area, we have this bigtime snow machine called Lake Erie and when the clippers come across the lake from Canada, it can dump unusual amounts of snow in northern PA. and Western New York State. I went to college not far from the lake and it was winter for most of the year in that neck of the woods. I said,” Hud- we need to go cross country skiing tomorrow and I will pick you up at the crack of dawn.” He was game and we took my International Scout northward towards the snow belt. We started to see snow around Oil City and decided that we would start at Drake’s Well which is in Oil Creek State Park. It was the site of the first oil well in Pa. and as we observed the well while suiting up, the snow was coming down hard and we were excited for an early winter outing. What we didn’t realize was that the ground was still fairly warm and as we broke the fresh snow with our skis, it was sticking to the bottoms of the skis and we were leaving green tracks all over the place. We tried waxing and scraping the snow but the frustrations were mounting and I told Hud,” We are out of here.”

We drove up to the Allegheny National Forest and settled on some trails that were close to the roadway. Same situation occurred. The ground was too warm and the snow was too wet. We were getting soaked and Hud’s enthusiasm was waning. I liked being out in the weather but Hud was getting frustrated with the weather, the conditions, and me. Had I been by myself, I would have enjoyed the day, regardless of what had happened but I was intent on making sure Hud was having a good time. I convinced him that we needed to get closer to the lake because it would be colder with more snow. That was a huge shot in the dark. We ended up at a cross country area near Erie and the conditions were a little better but the snow was still sticking to the skis. I kept plodding onward and Hud was finished. He begged me to get in the car and drive home. I reluctantly said ok and off we went down I-79 in a snowstorm.

I dropped Hud off and told him thanks for the company. He laughed and said,” McCloskey- I have spent 12 hours with you and I need to recuperate. I am not going out now and probably will not leave my house for days after that outing.” Hud is a character and I didn’t take it too personally but it just goes to show you that some people are more enthused about the winter than others. I have been known to drive to Vermont to ski upper Cascade at Killington in October and return several weeks later in bullet proof conditions with the snow guns blowing full force. I like snow storms. I like the muffled sounds that occur when the snow piles up in the trees and on the roads. It is a soft experience and if you can enjoy it on skis, snowshoes, pan, Flexible Flyer, it is all the same. Fresh air in the depths of the winter. Why sit on your couch and wait for spring? Embrace the winter. I have a post from last winter entitled the same. Check it out. I even turned my beach loving wife into a winter participant. She still likes the warm weather and the beach, but she has embraced the winter and has been drawn into the ethusiasm of her husband who may not have all his oars in the water. It’s coming. Enjoy it. Thanks for reading.