Saturday, June 12, 2010

Fleeting “vertical” values

I've recently focused my attention on “vertical skiing” records and have come to ponder the value of these performances. Their meaning isn't solely reflected into numbers when descents are conducted on easy, groomed runs. Most of the time, there's very little athletic prowess in them, if at all; one just need to stand up on the skis, go through the motions and that does it. For instance, when we broke the Utah record for the most vertical skied in one day at Deer Valley this past January, I didn't feel much strain and fatigue, but when, eight weeks later, I happened to ski 25 laps non-stop on “Ninety-Nine-90” at The Canyons, I was almost on my knees. This is just to say that all “vertical” records aren't created equal. The difference in difficulty between what's relatively easy and what's challenging can easily range by factors of one-to-two or one-to-three!

The variables that account for this enormous difference are many. If we begin with snow quality, it can be groomed or not (huge variable!) It can be deep or shallow, powdery, heavy, slushy or icy, not to mention further nuances in quality. To a lesser degree than snow quality, the terrain also plays a significant role. If it's very steep, it definitely adds to the difficulty; same story if it's uneven or if there are obstacles such as trees, rocks, or cliffs close together. Then there are outside factors like visibility which can turn some great conditions into hellish ones when the light is flat, when it snows hard or there's fog.

Extreme temperature variations that can also contribute to making a performance miserable if they're too low or even too warm. Finally, slope traffic ought to be nil or as light as possible to minimize the risk of collision and allow for top cruising speeds. As you can see, setting a record is only possible when difficulties are down to a minimum. When the going gets tough, an “easy”112,750 feet vertical record can turn into half or a third of that, and still amount to be much more work than what was required to chalk up an impressive number!

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