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Tree Skiing Party Day at Mt. Jessop

February 09, 2014

Telemark skiing in SE MI is a special business. Trees hold the snow on hillsides but deadfall can clog your way. To make a hillside nice for skiing one has to go out in the autumn and toss aside said deadfall. You have to get the lay of the land and see which way the sun will fall. Optimal glades are secretly prepared and kept secret. But, really, all is takes is a hill and some trees to hold the snow. Why, there might even be a fine tree-skiing glade in your very backyard.

There is in Dave Jessop's! But, as he says, there are no friends in powder skiing. When a big dump falls you better just go find your slope and hope for the best. If you're lucky a pal will include you in on his.

Here's a big report about our big day. I mix a little how-to and why-fore in with the what-who. If you don't think every pic is worth a jillion words, just whip past this report and scroll down to the dozen sweet pics at the bottom! (And if you have any tips on where I should cut this back, feel free to pass them along. I need an editor, I know.)

As a quick break from the narrative, here's a video! Thanks, Mark P -- what a nice vid!

Things get more complicated in SE MI because our snowfall tends to be sketchy. A few times each winter, though, a 10-inch snowfall will fall in the night and every truly savvy powderhound will be quivering under their quilt all night waiting for dawn's early light or even earlier.

This is how the worldview value system can be expressed by those who've fallen under the spell of powder skiing. Sometimes you have to Head West for the mountains to get good powder. But midwestern powderhounds know that powder is powder and SOMETIMES it's good even locally.

The true tree-skier also knows that the best results are delivered via earning your turns. A ski lift isn't where it's at. It's where everyone else is at. Usually, a short while after the lifts open the powder at a ski resort is all skied-up.

If you know where glades are, though, then you can just ski yourself into them, ski them, then make an uptrack back up the hill and ski them again, without anyone being the wiser. Indeed, the uptrack doesn't make skiing a chore. It's its own thing of beauty. You set it at the right angle and in the right part of the terrain to make it easy to ski uphill and before you know it you're back at the top. A little kickwax might be all you need, or nowax fishscales, or in big country a set of jiffy skins.

Anyway, we usually only get a few chances for good powder each season in downstate Michigan. Most people don't even realize that sublime tree skiing is available down here AT ALL.

This year, however, has been a different story. We've had steady snow and steady cold. It's been the best winter yet!

It's been so good that last week Dave did the unthinkable and announced to a group of pals that he'd host a Ski Party with Lunch in His Yard. And he announced this a whole 5 days in advance. And he did it with some confidence that such an event would actually happen. ...A miracle! The snow was nice when he announced the plan. Then another 6 inches fell as if to bless the idea.

Dave said he never suffered so much as when not skiing the snow in his yard. But he held off and waited.

So ten of us showed up at his house and planted coolers at the top of the hill in his back yard.

Now Dave lives on a wooded ridge near Stockbridge. His neighbors lots back up to this ridge as well. He's on good terms with them and they let him ski along the ridge. It's out of sight of everyone's house anyway. He has a mile-long ski and mtbike loop through these woods. And there are a series of pitches facing different points of the sun along the way.

Here's a vid of one of the Back Bowls located at the end of the ridge a ways from Dave's house...

The Concept

To be sure, this is a lovely setting. But, really, how rare is it? Jillions of people live in the snowy countryside far from the "real ski areas" yet amid or close to hills of their own, public or private. All it takes is eyes to see terrain like this. ...And some sweat equity during the autumn before. Why, I've finally done enough of it that I'm starting to see the potential tree-glades near my house. I've opened up and helped to maintain miles of horizontal trail, but we normally just ski along and neglect to appreciate the slopes that drop away from our trails. We could easily open up a few choice drops among our own hills.

Public slopes present an amusing wrinkle in that once you see the terrain and then lay some lovely figure 8 tracks down it, anyone else within 50 miles will gradually get wind of the same and the next time you head out in the morning gloaming after a heavy snowfall you'll find your special slopes skied-up already by someone who has come out earlier wearing a headlamp. Yeah, it's like that. Just ask the surfers.

Indeed, Dave asked us to his house, but he knows about a dozen other local places that he doesn't ask us to. You need to keep some cards to yourself. Or to a very small group. Such a small group that when I once asked a pal about how many would be a crowd in a little glade we were skiing he answered saying "You're a crowd." Ouch. But true.

Tricks of the Trade

On public terrain it's even wise to wear camouflage. OK, first you'll want to find slopes that are basically out of sight of trails. But if you can't do that, don't dress loudly, don't make noise, and if you see people skiing by, you wouldn't be foolish to take a little break in what you're doing and move to the far side of a favorable tree trunk. I've known small groups of steathy skiers to freeze up upon hearing chatter coming their way then scootch their way around trees, staying hidden like little sundials as trail-skiers obliviously skied past just a few feet away.

In fact, there are several nicknames, innocent sounding, that I can't repeat here. Just saying the codewords for these 3 particular places could rain grief down on me and might actually cause a flood of attention to special places almost nobody would know what I was talking about. All it would take is ONE. They'd say "Oh, that sounds familiar. So they're skiing that? Hmm, I better check it out." Or if it's meaningless to them they might just mention it in passing to someone who knows someone. Before ya know it, there ya go. Yeah, it's surfer-bad.

Normally there's enough tree skiing in Dave's yard territory for a few skiers to have some fun. But this past Saturday there was SO MUCH that the ten of us skied all day and only put first-tracks down throughout. We could've kept skiing any of it for hours longer.

Dave's backyard finally started to get bumped up a bit, but no scrapey-base was ever found, just more snow.

We'd ski down, taking 13 to 17 turns to drop down to the shore of the lake below. (Not that anyone was counting.) Then we'd ski up a perfectly zig-zagging uptrack to the top again, where we'd top off with snacks and refreshments then ski down again. What's not to love?

Here's a vid of a sideview of the action...

The full range of skill levels was represented on a wide range of gear, from light BC to antique to full-on modern AT-style whopper tele boards. It all worked great. People skied as much or as little as they liked. Nobody got hurt.

I'd say, though, that such skiing is both natural and also of a double-black diamond skill level. It's the true untouched skiing. It's what you'd find on any snowy hillside since time began. Early Nordic Man figured out how to surf his way down. But practice makes perfect for everyone.

Half of our group is experienced in out west tree-bopping. They are real pro's at the groove. They certainly make it look easy. But there were only a few comments on technique. We were all in our own zones. We saved the banter for the uptrack. And even there it was mostly "Oh yeah!"'s

It's been decades since I did skiing even remotely like this. So due to my rustiness it took me half a day of gradually regaining a feel for the rhythm. Yet even before that I could at least get down tolerably and have tasty moments along the way.

My ideal was to ski down immediately after arriving at the top, to keep my rhythm going. ...It was great.

Yet it took so much of my attention that I kinda messed up the photography. Actually, my camera kinda sucks, too. It's nice and weatherproof but it got all wet. And it has the world's slowest and thus somewhat random shutter. I press the button then later it takes -- doh! I don't mind tossing the "I Ching" but this is silly. But I've realized that you need room in the mind to take pictures and when I'm doing something new and hard I don't have any spare room. I'm fully occupied. I see from these pics that what I'm really missing are the combat shots. But our kind of skiing seems a bit chaotic. Combat ski photography for me means throwing myself into the snow halfway down a slope, twisting back uphill and catching the pow-blast of the next skiers dropping past me. But when trees are in the equation it's hard to tell where people are going to go. But I guess I coulda hid behind one. Oh well! It's an art.

We had styles ranging from big skiers who liked wide, sweeping power turns to those who'd toss in quick bopping jump turns, to those who opted for gentle lines, to those who wanted the steepest, most choked-up terrain.

And in with the descents we had plenty of kick and glide as we paraded along.

Gear and Skilz

A short wide ski with sidecut is a good thing. So is a beefy boot. A 100mm-wide Karhu Guide and BC boots would do the trick. Stiff plastic boots would make it even easier. But lightness builds in tolerance and if/when you tumble it seems that light gear flings around easier with less torque on body parts.

It really doesn't take much to miss a tree or even the one below it.

I'm impressed by that reality.

Before it sinks in it can be quite intimidating to stand at the top of a pitch and gaze down upon the tree-trunks.

Yet one does need enough feel for things that the amount of control you have is known. You need have a sense of the available control and so can monitor what's flowing toward you in that light. If you exceed your limit, sit down.

When I first started this midwest tree-skiing a few short years ago I had never done such a thing. But I had done steep outwest bumping years before that. Vestiges of that feeling must've remained, but not many of them! I knew enough that it paid off to trust the skis and to weight and unweight and to keep my chest down the fall-line. Otherwise, it was a leap of faith. And it paid off.

The only new trick that I tried was to keep pulling my uphill heel back up under my butt. Instead of stepping down the hill with my lead foot. That trick helped me to stay compact, to keep my limbs close to my core in the deep powder. Otherwise it was easy for my rear leg to get sucked away. Staying compact saved energy. When a leg starts getting sucked away you have to work hard to bring it back.

The gear I used yesterday was Dynastar Max-3 alpine skis from the 1990's, 190cm, sidecut, maybe 80mm wide. Blue kickwax for 2.5 feet underfoot. With simple minimalist cable bindings and Asolo Extreme leather boots, both from the 80's. (Extra points for original laces, as RadNord said.) Short alpine poles. It was a combination that loved to turn and never let me down. So it was perfect for me.

Dave and Garrick both used blue Salomon Pocket Rockets and just love them for local action. They gotta be 120mm wide, twin-tipped. They have beefy boots'n'bindings. Garrick wasn't using gloves and doesn't like to hold his poles by the grips. He holds them just a bit lower and flings them around like batons.

Gary also likes hold his poles halfway down. He uses adjusting XC poles set long enough to make the up-ski a joy. Then he just bops down holding the poles down a ways. He was using loaner Dynastars from the 80's that were even narrower than mine and featured neon coloring, plus Asolos with 2 buckles, making them slightly newer than mine.

One of the fellers sported a modern set of 70mm BC skis and Salomon-BC bindings. A real all-round ski rig, suitable for putting in the miles. He did have issues with flotation but I think he'd say that experience was the key.

RadNord was wearing his trophy shirt from winning the Midwest Nordic Man title at the Porkies.

I noticed that I didn't have to wear anything more than usual for XC, not even a wind-shell layer, even though it was only 15degF or so. I only fell a few times and just brushed off my wool when that happened. When you're near trees, even in the open, the wind isn't an issue. I could tell that I wanted loose apparel to keep my ability to bounce unimpeded. I did wear windpants and my legs overheated and the darn things bound me up a bit since they don't stretch. They bogarted some of my turns. Knickers woulda been fine. Gaiters couldn't hurt, either.

Lunch Time!

Apres' skiing Dave invited us in for lunch, which we put off until near dinnertime due to the wonders of the powder.

Phase two of the special day commenced since Dave likes to cook. He served up salmon that he smoked the day before. Sliced pink venison freshy roasted for sandwiches. Freshly baked crusty sourdough bread from starter that's 250 years old (!!!!). And smoked ribs. And small batch tequila. How's that for a host? I mean, C'mon!

After that most had to take off but I have a hunch that a couple stuck around for the music portion of the afternoon. Dave is multi-modal and likes to wind up playtime with some guitar playing. All other instruments are welcome and some of them have even formed an open-mic band for the local pub. I also often like to stick around for that musical frosting on the top of a perfect outing.

As I drove off I the road crossed a perfectly flowing marsh stream. I love that kind of mix as well: open water, ice, cattails, evergreens and billowy snow. It's how I spent my youth, rummaging along winter creek-banks for muskrats and mink. Flowing water becomes so crystal clear in winter. And it's even warm. Relatively. I stopped and took a photo and as I put the camera down I noticed that a great horned owl had flown away through the scene, caught in my image, against the pines, before I even knew he was there.

When I got home, I was tired. Fully laundered. Face burned. What a great feeling. I coulda used a Coke. Went to bed early.

What a day! Thanks, Dave!

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