Home Turns

evski1The first ski turns of the season trigger nervous tension. Regardless of how long I’ve skied, there is always a predictable self-doubt, “can I still even do this?”

The reason I bring this up, is because it’s been snowing a lot here lately. There has been a constant white cloud bank hanging over the Continental Divide. While it’s been dry and cool in Boulder and barely a flurry in Nederland, it’s been regularly snowing in Eldora village. Further west and higher up, it’s been storming even more.

After a long but fun work week helping eager customers pick out ski gear – the new snow and less-than-great 2017 winter has everybody excited for this season – it was time for Elaine and I to check out the local conditions. I went for a solo backyard skin yesterday morning before work, was surprised at how good the snow was, and made notes for today.

We decided to head up to the local backcountry haunt for today’s go around. We’ve skied many, many days at this locale, and when we were first married and lived in the caboose, it was our daily morning stop. We now live in a place where getting in a car to ski is unnecessary, so we go to the old haunt less. But we still love it as much as ever. There are so many amazing memories up there with Elaine and Stella, and it’s hard to go there for us and not miss the latter.

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Nice boot-top powder. For some reason Elaine is using a 210 cm pole!

After a lazy morning, we loaded up the truck and headed up the hill. I’m a lucky guy for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is having a father-in-law who is professional car mechanic. In addition to being an all around amazing human being, Steve is a darned good mechanic who comes across some amazing gems when it comes to all things car related. Let’s just say the “new for me, ever-so-slightly-used” set of studded snow tires we just got were a major step up from the bald beads we used last winter. Getting to the local ski hill just got a whole lot easier thanks to Elaine’s dad.

The bumpy dirt road climbed ever steeper and snowier. Wind was ripping over the hillside, the sky angry shards of snow pelting the land. This was no picture-perfect Vermont Robert Frost snow storm – this was more like Metallica belting out “Enter Sandman.” Those Christmas movies that always show snow falling straight down, everybody perfectly attired with scarves and such, looking radiant? Those images are lies. Snow almost never falls straight down here, scarves will more often than not act as a wind sock and the only look that is consistent is snot from a runny nose frozen to the cheek as the tempest blares.

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Injury put in the past, fit, motivated and beautiful.

We’ve been following a nordic training “program” this fall, complete with heart rate monitor charting and actual daily plans. It’s a definite change for us and honestly the only reason we did it was so Elaine wouldn’t go insane with boring roller ski workouts that her broken foot relegated her to this summer. Having a daily goal made the time pass more productively. And, coincidently, it has us feeling pretty good.

Despite the dork factor, the plan has taught us a lot. For optimal human performance in skiing, it’s important to train really hard, really easy, and not a lot in between. This is pretty much the opposite of what Elaine and I have done the past eight years…we’re always moving just fast enough to wear ourselves out, but probably not fast enough to get any better. And with that, we almost never rest, which in turn means the body can’t repair itself properly. After the extreme fatigue we both felt after the Expedition Amundsen-CDT-Greenland very extended adventure, this was an important lesson to learn, because we were in danger of burying ourselves for a long time to come had we not re-set and re-built.

Anyway, today called for two sets of 12.5 minute level 3 intervals, followed by three sets of 3 minute level 4 intervals. In layman terms, that’s hard followed by really fucking hard. We got through it, but let it be known that level 4 intervals while breaking trail thru a foot of snow at 11,000 feet are simply brutal. It worked out how it never works out…the last set somehow timed exactly, heroically, at the very top of the hill, like a Rocky film. That wouldn’t happen again if we tried.

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Looks like Sun Valley from a circa-1967 resort promo brochure. The double skin track is a result of the training plan and working to stay in the “zone.” Don’t worry, it’s a phase.

Work done on the up, it was time for unabashed fun back down. The shocker of the day – the skiing was good. It was deep, it was soft, and we almost didn’t hit anything. No doubt, we kept our weight back and our tips up to avoid hidden obstacles, but it was still splendid. The float, the freedom, the happiness of a powder turn rushed back after the long hiatus.

evski2It’s good to be home again.

First Day of the 2018-19 Ski Season

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Clouds from the storm linger over Eldora ski area.

Opening day. There are few things quite as magical as the first ski day of the season. The initial click of the boots and bindings, the first turn and glide, cold air blasting into the face and lungs. It’s a harsh, yet spectacular reminder that the lazy days of summer are over. The reign of winter begins.

Sliding devices on cold snow are likely the greatest human invention ever. Instead of snow being an obstacle to movement, getting from point A to point B becomes easier, more graceful and much more fun. The early Norseman and tribesman of central Asia used skis for practical reason: hunting, communication, migrations and such. For us, skiing is a recreational activity, because even difficult point-to-point endeavors like skiing across Greenland are done by choice, not for survival. Yet despite our difference in skiing objectives, I have to wonder if those early skiers from a distant, simpler time felt that similar pure joy the first time they strapped skis to feet each season? I find it hard to believe, even for the most pragmatic human, that there wouldn’t be some sense of elation felt from those first few strides in snow.

Before I got into backcountry skiing, opening day would be dictated by the ski resorts. The annual battle between Arapaho Basin and Loveland to open first is a well publicized and exciting kick-off to the Colorado alpine ski season. But more often than not, this opening is dictated by snowmaking capacities, not by winter weather. It feels less about mother nature and more about marketing departments and the skiing hype machine. It feels artificial, like the snow these early openings provide (by contrast the Colorado nordic season opens in a much more subdued fashion, volunteers grooming trails on the top of Rabbit Ears Pass. It’s a more natural and enjoyable occasion.)

Opening day should be dictated by snow and cold. When snow falls, go ski on it. For the past few years, however, that snow and cold seems to be less predictable and later in the year. During last year’s disaster we didn’t start skiing in earnest until after Christmas. It was the ski season that almost never started.

After a balmy September this year, it felt like we were scheduled for a repeat. It started snowing early this year in Canada, but Canada and the northern jet stream is a long way from Colorado. Storm systems brushed Glacier National Park and the Wind Rivers, but for the most part avoided Colorado. We’d wake up a few morning and see a dusting of snow on the highest of peaks, but it was oddly warm.

I subscribe to a website called Open Snow that forecasts snowfall for the winter season. After weeks of nothing, I was surprised to read a forecast calling for a sustained period of cold and snow in the Colorado high country in early October. It’s not that uncommon to get a blast of snow in late October, but this forecast was calling for a week to ten days of cold, snowy weather.  I can’t remember the last time that happened here in early October.

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Post snowy roller ski time trial stoke…

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…gave way to a cold, wet hike home.

At the end of last week a cool, grey settled over Boulder. Every morning we would go for a roller ski or hike in sunny conditions here in Eldora and then drive down into the cold fog for work. Finally though, the storm moved uphill. On Sunday night it began to snow at our cabin, and when we woke on Monday morning we found a couple inches covering the trees and ground. We roller skied a cold and wet time trial up Shelf Road and froze on the hike back down to the valley. Yesterday it flurried sporadically, so we put on more layers, took to the trails west of home and enjoyed a splendid, solitary hike, our only company being tracks of a bobcat.

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Better prepared and warmer for a long walk in the woods the 2nd day of the storm.

Last night it snowed more. There was a forcefulness to the 4-5 inches left on the ground that was lacking the previous two days, and it was colder too, in the low 20’s. The training plan called for some easy roller ski intervals, but the snow looked too good to pass up. And besides, the road would be a slushy mess to roller ski on. Skiing on October 10 seemed almost novel, possibly the earliest I’ve ever been on snow in a season. We decided to make today opening day of the 2018-19 ski season.

Elaine and I have a lot of skis. We have nordic racing skis, nordic training skis, backcountry nordic skis, spring couloir skis, powder skis, daily backcountry skis, resort skis and telemark skis. It’s a bit ridiculous. But without doubt, the most important skis are something we call “rock skis.” Our rock skis are designed for just that, heading out when the snow coverage is shallow and we don’t want to damage our good skis on rocks. Four to five inches in early October is impressive, but it’s nowhere near deep enough to avoid hitting objects in the appropriately named Rocky Mountains.

Our rock skis are almost silly: a pair of 2006 Icelantic Nomads in a 156 cm length. At the time Icelantic subscribed to the belief that shorter skis were better, and this was the only length they made. They were revolutionary when I got them, and I spent a winter coaching the Nederland Alpine Ski Team and skinning up and down the race course on those fledgling Icelantics. I believe they even won a DoJoe race from some bygone era before ultralight rando gear became all the rage.

The diminutive Nomads now have more than 1,200 days of skiing on them. The bases are almost worn to the core, the edges terribly thin and the bindings – an early era Dynafit – are starting to work less than optimally. But still, twelve years later, they serve an important function. More often than not, they bat lead-off for the coming ski season. Today was no exception.

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Shallow snowpack but a mid-winter feel thanks to copious amounts of snow of the trees.

We decided to head from our home to a popular local backcountry skiing destination. The storm grew in intensity as we moved along, gradually climbing at first, and then more steeply gaining altitude. While the snowpack was shallow, the snow clinging to the trees had the feel of mid-winter. That amazing quiet that snow provides, the insulation to sound it gives, soothed us along as we strided uphill.

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How can you not have a huge smile on the first ski day of the year?

A pleasant surprise: we felt physically good. The first backcountry ski of the year is usually a painful affair. It appears the training plan we’ve been following since we got back from Greenland is working. We tossed in our interval sets, moving not quite effortlessly, but easily enough up the mountain. It’s nice to see hard work paying off.

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Looking forward to the best winter yet with this gal.

Near the top, the wind started to blow, the snow pelted us, and the sky and clouds above opened for a second to let the red hew of evening alpenglow pass thru. This was no fluke storm. This had the feel of winter. I zipped up my collar, dipped my eyes towards the ground, and headed ever upward into the tempest, into these mountain that I love, to begin the winter cycle once again. We are skiers, and our time, after the long, hot summer, has finally arrived.

Turning Around the Winter of Discontent

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In February the roads finally got snowy enough to pull pulks. 

It’s been a strange winter in Eldora, Colorado. It’s probably the closest I’ve ever felt to the “winter of discontent.” That’s certainly being a little bit dramatic, but there has been a lack of flow that has been disconcerting.

As fantastic as our Continental Divide Trail thru-hike was – and I would never trade it out – it did break up our traditional “rituals” for getting ready for ski season. Personally, late summer and autumn has been prep-for-ski-season time since I was 15 or 16 years old. The norms during these months are lots of roller skiing, running intervals in the mountains, biking up steep trails, lunges and the like. This year, we just walked. And while our fitness was fine the lack of going through the processes started things off weird and effected our mental readiness.  It’s kind of like showing up to work or class late…things are all out of whack.

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Back on the CDT for a Valentines Day ski at Tennessee Pass before dinner at the cookhouse. 

And then, winter just took a long, long time to come. We had some flirty snows in October and November, but then the faucet turned off. December was the warmest and driest twelfth month I’ve even seen here. The nordic center had their latest opening ever by nearly three weeks, and the two ski shops we work in, Larry’s Bootfitting and Boulder Nordic Sport, had customer flow more reminiscent of March than the supposed busiest time of the year.

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This was the first year we ever shoveled in a skin track to keep skiing. Lots of downhill skinning this early season.

We did our best to get out on snow, but it required different thinking and adaptability. Early season was a lot of uphill skinning and then skinning back DOWN on 2-3 inches of snow. The resort opened, so we spent more time than normal honing resort turns, gazing out at the brown hills as we made our way down the man-made strips of white. We bought uphill passes because the backcountry was non-existent. Around Christmas the nordic center finally opened, but it was just a fraction of its normal self in terms of available kilometers.

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More resort days than normal as a result of the low snow. 

Slowly but steadily, snow came. We have yet to have a big storm, but there have been a fair amount of 2-3 inch offerings. Mid-February was actually good. We could finally ski right out the door, usually a norm for most of the winter, but then a warm spell hit and basically set us back another two weeks. 48 hours ago it was 77° F in Boulder, but a cold front hit, and right now it’s 9° F.

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Sled pull up to 4OJ. That’s either a fox track or Gary Neptune’s work on the left there. 

The snow graphs say we are at 90 percent of normal snow pack, but I’m skeptical of this. It seems much less. Down south in the San Juans, they are fairing much worse, and even with some recent winter blasts are sitting around 50 percent of normal. Meanwhile, the east has had polar vortexes and bomb cyclones, Europe has had their best winter in a decade and even South Korea looked enviably cold during the Olympics. Most years you win, some years you lose. And it’s not over yet, but things will start getting warmer now here on the 40th parallel, where the March sun burns long and high.

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Classic powder days have been few and far between, but there have been a few. Let’s hope spring brings more. 

On top of the odd weather, my wife Elaine has had a bit of a rough go. The Continental Divide Trail left her dead tired and really what can only be described as over-trained. Six months of twelve hour days can do that. Most hikers take an entire winter off. We had planned to dive right back into training, but that proved unrealistic. She has battled fatigue and a fair bit of sickness. So while we have skied a lot, until very recently it has not been with the normal aplomb. There have been no nordic races, no intervals, just lots of days exploring the woods and waiting for the body to recover. We were actually a bit concerned about our health, so we got physicals recently, and it turns out we’re in perfect health, albeit overtrained. The only way to get out of that hole is to wait it out.

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Finally, real winter came in February, where we could ski out the door and take runs behind the house. 

Eventually, recovery came. Something clicked two to three weeks ago, the snap returned, and with it a deep endurance born from the long walk along the spine of the nation. She’s been crushing again, we’ve had some strong sled pulls and systems are go for the Greenland trip. That said, we’re taking a year off nordic racing just to let the body build properly without unnecessary stresses. Greenland will require long, plodding strength and mental toughness. The gain versus potential risk of diving into a late season racing program simply is not worth it, We’ll fry that cat in 2018-19.

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After a few months of extreme fatigue and sickness, Elaine has found her mojo again. It’s been fun to watch. 

A highlight of the winter has been the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Korea. Olympic years are always fun and I find myself feeling more motivated after watching the best athletes in the world at the top of their game. Of course, the shining moment as a nordic skier in the United States was Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall winning the team sprint race. While it has been dubbed as something of an upset, the truth is they were primed for this race. Diggins is 3rd overall in the World Cup and Randall is a multiple World Cup sprint champion. It would have been a disappointment if they had not finished in the top three, and once it comes down to the last few hundred meters, and the skis are fast, it’s open season.

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Cold nordic ski days have been rare, but we’ve had a few.

I’m hopeful this will provide a needed boost to nordic skiing in this country, because I really do think it’s the best sport around. Racing is just a small part of that. To me, buying a nordic pass is like buying health insurance – it’s really, really good for the body. The question now is how do we take that momentum and really make the sport grow in the United States? I have some ideas based on personal experience that I will write about in the next few days.

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Nordic skiing makes this girl happy. 

For now, it’s time to ski. Tomorrow is supposed to be in the single digits, so it’s time to take advantage and enjoy what will possible be the last Green wax ski of the winter. It will be our 90th day on skis of the winter, not bad considering it’s been anything but smooth. But in skiing, as in life, adaptability, creativity and persistence are essential.

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Green wax day tomorrow.

How to Ski 100 Days this Winter (and Work Full-time)

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Morning light and cold smoke.

Elaine and I have spent a lot of time in the past seven years since our wedding day sliding around snow on skis. It’s our passion, and has led us to mountains and northern locales around the world. We’ve had the fortune to ski chest deep powder in British Columbia,  beautiful mountains that drop to the ocean in northern Norway and endless plateaus of white in that same country that resemble Greenland or Antarctica. Skiing has brought us much good.

Yet those trips are a major outlier to what actually happens on a daily basis. They are the exclamation point on seasons where honestly a lot of the skiing is mundane and sometimes downright terrible. Take a couple days ago, for example. A ridiculously warm November melted out the one slope decent for some tentative turns. We ended up walking down the hill, skins on skis, picking our way through rocks and tundra and dreaming of a better winter to come.

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It’s ain’t always pretty out there. On that note, a good pair of rock skis is a solid investment for aspiring 100-day-a-year skiers. 

A point of pride among skiers is the magical 100 day a year mark. In the Vermont mountain town where I grew up, under the shadow of Mad River Glen, it was a badge of honor with the generation of ski bums I admired and looked up to. The John Egan’s and Jeremy Nobis’ didn’t miss days because they didn’t feel like skiing. The credo was, get out there as often as you can, don trash bags when it’s raining, don’t be afraid of black ice and -30° F temps, and ski every damned day.

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Dawn patrol solo mission. Keep your footprint tight so the next person can enjoy it too.

Since being married in 2010, Elaine and I have never skied less that 125 days in a winter, and one year, the magical winter of 2010-11, we almost hit 200 days. Elaine and I also work full time, 40 hours a week, and right now, when our value in the ski industry is high, quite a bit more.

Of course, the easiest way to ski 100 days a year is to work at the resort. But that’s not an option for everybody. Don’t worry…there are other ways. This article is written for skiers who do not live in those lucky areas where there is night skiing available. Of course, night skiing with tracks and runs lit till 9 or 10 pm makes it much easier to rack up the days.

Skiing 100 days a year and working 40 hours a week requires dedication that borders on obsession. But if it’s something you want, and you live within a reasonable drive of accessible snow, it’s possible. Here are ten tips to ski 100 days a year:

  1. The early bird catches the snow – This isn’t really about getting first tracks, although that can be an added benefit. Simply put, if skiing 100 days a year is something you want, early rising is imperative. After a long hard day of work, it might not happen. The couch can be too appealing. Get your kit – your clothes, pack, skis, boots, essentially all your gear – organized the night before. That way when the alarm goes off at 4:30 am, all you have to do is stagger out of bed, get dressed and go. Early nights to bed and dark and cold mornings will be your reality for the next five months. Embrace it.

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    Early mornings can hurt. The rewards are plentiful.

  2. Backcountry is your friend – Unless you work as a night chef, waitress or late night E.R. surgeon (or work at the ski resort), it’s near impossible to work 40 hours a week and ski 100 days a year just relying on lift-accessed skiing. Invest in a backcountry set-up. A robust BC kit can work fine at the resort. But you need to be able to access snow on those Monday thru Friday mornings too. To ski 100 days a winter and work full-time, you need to earn your turns and ski outside the 9 am to 4 pm window. Your lungs and legs will thank you.

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    Pre-dawn backcountry laps are rarely confused with morning trips to Starbucks.

  3. Find a go-to route – Skiing 100 days requires consistency and repetition. It’s kind of like going to the gym (wait, it’s WAY better than going to the gym) in that a regular place to go and a routine is needed. I find 1,000 vertical feet is a magical number. I still get a good ski in but can usually make it happen in an hour or less. Us working stiffs don’t have all day. Pick a few spots and get efficient at them.

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    The local haunt. Pick a few this winter and learn them well.

  4. Lighten up – Lighter gear is faster. It’s not necessary to go full randonee racer, but I promise a good AT boot, a light pair of skis and a tech-style binding will be way faster than a heavy alpine boot with an Aprés ski mode and a big bulky frame binding. Speed is your friend. The less time you spend going up, the more realistic it is to get sleep and still get in a good ski before work.

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    Lightweight backcountry skis, tech style bindings and good snow tires make morning sessions more efficient.

  5. Go nordic skiing – Elaine and I embrace all types of skiing minus the 225 meter ski jump at Vikersund. We alpine, tele, backcountry, nordic tour and nordic track ski. When the backcountry gets crappy as it sometimes does here in the Front Range, nordic centers provide an outlet. Consistent grooming ensures good skiing during long dry spells. Also, there is no better way to build fitness quickly than nordic track skiing. The skin track will feel flat after a 6:30 am anaerobic threshold workout at 9,500 feet above sea level on nordic skis. Careful though, you might end up falling in love with the sport and make it your go-to.

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    Get your nordic on. Because really now, who doesn’t want abs like those?

  6. Embrace resort skinning – Resort skinning lacks the aplomb of the backcountry, but for many folks this is a necessity to daily skiing. Many resorts allow skinning before and after work. Gear choice is simple, you don’t need a partner and you can just pop on the headphones and jam out if you feel the need to escape. Summiting the top of Arapahoe Basin as the sun is setting at 13,000 feet on the Continental Divide listening to whatever music makes you feel good is one of the finest skiing experiences around in my book.

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    Sunset laps at A-Basin are a great way to end the work day.

  7. Give yourself a test – Self-motivation is awesome but sometimes we need a little extra push to get out the door. This is where a big race, goal or ski trip later in the season can provide powerful impetus to go ski. Every year we’ve signed up for something, or planned a much bigger trip that requires fitness and comfort in the backcountry. Go register for that Elk Mountain Grand Traverse or something similar. It will lead to a great winter because it will get you skiing regularly.

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    Our first ever BC race together was the Power of Four in Aspen. It was a test alright! We ended up spending the night in the guest bedroom of a Hedge Fund guy’s mansion because he was worried we’d crash our car driving home after a 15 hour ski race.

  8. Give yourself regular skiing rewards – Beyond an end of the year goal, dot your ski season with fun trips. Maybe this is the year to take that long backcountry skiing weekend to Teton Pass? Nelson, British Columbia is an easy, inexpensive trip and the skiing is out of this world. Or book a Colorado hut trip, ski powder all day and get tipsy with friends at 12,000 feet in the evening – easy to do at that elevation after exercising in the fresh mountain air all day. Plan some awesome (not expensive) trips to snazz up the season and keep it fun.

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    It’s hard to ski Rogers Pass, BC and not have a smile that gigantic afterwards.

  9. Go deep into the season – Resort-only skiers have a set season: Thanksgiving to mid-April, give or take a few weeks. That’s ridiculous, because some of the absolute best skiing is in May and June. If the goal is 100 days a year, it becomes much more achievable if you extend the season to 6-7 months instead of 4-5. Embrace the concept of the endless winter.

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    Short sleeves, corn snow and steep line. Three big reasons why the season should never end in April.

  10. Don’t be afraid to take a day off – Skiing 100 days a year and working full-time requires discipline and consistency, but it’s not a prison sentence. If you are exhausted, sick or just burnt out, take a day or two off. I find that usually cures whatever is causing the hang up, and after a few days off I’m psyched to get back out there. By averaging five days a week on snow, 100 days a year will happen. That leaves two days a week to sleep in, grab a greasy spoon breakfast and just chill.

Once you commit to skiing 100 days this winter, start strong. Bank days early in the year. Make it a habit. After 30-40 days, it will feel automatic and you’ll begin to question why anybody wouldn’t want to ski as much as possible. There is a satisfaction to heading into work well exercised, awoken by the cold, soul filled by a gorgeous sunrise and smiling huge because that’s what snow – whatever condition it might be in – does to human beings.

Have a great winter and think snow.

If you like this article and want more content like it, we ask for your vote!: So Elaine (featured in all these photos) has signed up for Fjallraven Polar Expedition, a dogsled trip with Fjallraven in northern Sweden this winter. She’s quite well qualified I think but it’s a social media, popularity contest based entirely on votes, and despite what our boss Larry says, we’re little pions in the social media world. So, if you are so inclined, cast your vote her way! We promise, there will be an amazing story on here when it’s all said and done. D&E

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Sub-zero sunrise skin rip.