Winter Park: Riding the Rails |

Winter Park: Riding the Rails

Stephanie Miller
Sky-Hi Daily News
Byron Hetzler/Sky-Hi Daily News
ALL | Sky-Hi Daily News

Why would anyone want to ski a rail?

They’re not soft, like snow. They are rock hard. My bones ache just looking at those elevated metal bars and metal edges.

But the growing popularity of terrain parks at ski resorts is hard to ignore. They’re popping up everywhere ” even downtown Denver. And in the past three years, Winter Park Resort received a top 10 ranking for its parks by the readers of Transworld Snowboarding. Thousands of baggy pants can’t be wrong, so I decided to find out for myself what all the hype is about.

Seeking professional help

Knowing when it’s time to ask for outside resources, I set up a private free-ride lesson with 20-year Ski and Ride instructor Don Nieters. Nieters is a fully certified PSIA instructor, a certified free-style instructor, and is 40 years old going on 12. His enthusiasm and energy are contagious, and he has that ski instructor ability to squeeze a lesson into every conversation.

When Nieters first took hold of my ancient, haven’t-been-tuned-in-four-seasons Rossignol 160s, he nodded approvingly.

“Dull edges are good for rails. With sharp edges, the ski grabs the rail and then ….” Nieters grimaced.

Lesson No. 1: Don’t tune skis. Got it.

Nieters asked me what my goals were for that morning, and we agreed on a lesson plan that would touch a little on everything: Jumps, half-pipe and rails.

As Nieters and I skated to the Zephyr chairlift, I started to get excited despite my anxieties. I could already picture myself in the half-pipe, going big ” or sliding down my first rail in Jack Kendrick. Despite having been a ski instructor myself for a couple seasons, I immediately believed what many students assume on their first lesson: I was going to be a natural.

This wouldn’t be the first time I was wrong.

Starting (extremely) slow

As we made our way to Kendrick, we decided to take a warm-up run on March Hare to get my Alpine-feet back under me (I’ve been telemarking for the past two seasons).

After four turns, Nieters explained all the things I was doing wrong, and the dream of

becoming a terrain-park bunny slowly started to fade.

“You are dragging your pole behind you. On a rail, that’s going to make you fall on your face because your weight is back. And you need to widen your stance ” that’ll give you more balance. Wow, look at that lead change. You want even weight on both skis.”

Apparently, I needed an Alpine lesson before a free ride one, but Nieters was not discouraged. He gave me tips that would help me in the terrain park, like how to use my poles without really using them, and how to widen my stance and distribute even weight on my skis through each turn.

When we arrived at Kendrick, a park with early-progression rails, features and jumps, I was ready. Or, so I thought. As we stood at the entrance to the park, overlooking the first series of jumps, Nieters led me next to a group of trendy teenagers and pointed to a great, big sign.

“Let’s read the sign here on terrain park etiquette. Etiquette is very important. Then we’ll ski alongside the jumps so you can get a feel for what they look like. It is very important that before you go into a park you raise your hand and say, ‘dropping in.’ OK, ready? Dropping in.”

I watched Nieters as he forewent the jumps and skied alongside them. I sheepishly looked over at one of the super-hip teenagers, who was about to drop into the real jumps without fear.

“Dropping in,” I said quietly, and followed Nieters to the end of the jumps, where he stood and faced the last jump.

“Now watch these guys coming up. Listen to when they land. Hear that? That was way too loud. When you land, it should sound soft ” you should have even weight along your skis.”

To my surprise, we left the park and practiced this maneuver down Easy Way, a beginner’s run I always found boring until that morning. Nieters had given me a challenge: In one fluid movement, jump evenly and land evenly on flat skis without a sound, keeping a wider stance (shoulder-width apart). It was harder then it looked, but when I did it correctly, it felt right. Nieters smiled.

“You got it. OK let’s go back to Kendrick and try it again.”

Using small features for bigger things

We didn’t do the big jumps on this run either ” and looking back, that was probably a good thing. Instead, Nieters had me practice my jumps over the rollers, critiquing my landing and giving tips on what I needed to do next time. We then stopped at the mini-half pipe, which stands between the jumps and the rails at Kendrick.

“This is good practice for the real half-pipe. When you go in, ski up the wall until you feel yourself almost stopping, then flatten your skis. Don’t try to turn or do anything ” the wall does it for you.”

It wasn’t helping my ego that a group of 20-somethings were standing on top of the mini-wall I was about to ski up. They were completely ignoring the insignificant feature as they checked out what lied ahead: The rail park. No matter. I did what Nieters said and was pleasantly surprised at how easily the wall turned my skis for me.

“See? That’s all you need to do. You’ll often see these guys try to turn in the half-pipe, but there’s no need to. Just flatten your skis and it’ll do the rest.”

We skied to the rail park and stopped in front of a skinny, metal rail about two feet off the snow. Was this it? My first rail? My eyes bulged. Rails look a lot more intimidating when they’re right in front of you. Nieters, as if reading my mind, shook his head.

“You won’t be doing this one on your own. Just stand with your skis across the rail and I’ll help you.” He took off his skis and knelt beside the rail, placing his hands on my boots for balance. He helped shuffle my legs and skis across the big beam of metal, giving me pointers on flattening my skis and keeping my weight downhill.

I felt torn. Half of me wanted to kick Nieters aside and slide the rail myself, shouting triumphantly. A greater half of me silently prayed he would never let go of my boots or I would surely split my forehead. I shuffled to the end and jumped off.

“OK, now, let’s head to the half-pipe.”

I have been missing out

When we arrived at the start of the Superpipe, which is part of Rail Yard ” the resort’s advanced terrain park ” I was intimidated. The 18-foot high, U-shaped walls stretched 450 feet before me in front of a clear, blue sky; a massive, modern-day relic sculpted in snow. Music I didn’t recognize was thumping from the speakers, and every other skier and snowboarder ” most of them teenagers or in their early 20s ” seemed to know what they were doing.

I felt like a foreigner on a mountain I’ve been skiing for five years. I realized then that if I was going to take my skiing to another level, I needed to open my eyes to other things besides powder days and steeper terrain. Before me was a playground that had been available to me for all these years, and yet I never bothered to check it out.

Nieters nailed this point home for me.

“No matter how good you get (in a terrain park), there’s always something more challenging in front of you. Back in the day, to have fun and get adrenaline, you needed really good powder, or you’d do the chutes.

“Man, I get more adrenaline buzzes in the terrain park, and I’m a wimp in there. There’s so many different things you can try. And it looks cool, too.”

Nieters pointed out some rules of the Superpipe: Don’t overtake anyone, and keep a watchful eye ” people are dropping in, left and right, and not being aware can be very dangerous.

As I followed him into the Superpipe, I focused on the things he’d taught me in the Kendrick mini-pipe. I edged my skis as I skied up one wall, flattened them and skied across to the other side. It made the steep wall-face much less intimidating, and although I’m far from launching myself above the lip of the wall and doing anything fancy, I was happy to find my skis naturally turning themselves, and that feeling of adrenaline creeping up inside me. I was hooked.

After a few more tips, Nieters looked at his watch and nodded. “OK, let’s go try a rail.” We skied down Cranmer and made our way to the beginner’s terrain park next to the Zephyr chairlift.

Sliding my first rail

I admit that learning new things under a chairlift of gawkers waiting to see a good fall creates some pressure, but the mini rail park next to the Zephyr Express chairlift is a great place to learn a rail slide.

We started with our skis off, practicing the twisting body motion needed to jump on the rail and hit it directly with the center of your boot. We practiced on a pole first and then a fun box, which is similar to a rail but is wider and more kind. What’s great about trying it in boots first is that you can get the technique down before you’re distracted with extra equipment.

Nieters immediately saw that my weight was uphill, so he stood at the end of the rail and had me reach for his hand while I slid down it. If your weight is uphill, your skis will slip out from underneath you, he explained, and you’ll land directly on the rail. Ouch.

Weight downhill. Got it.

He also reminded me to widen my stance a bit, and land in an aggressive crouch when jumping onto the rail. Look down the rail with just your head, not your chest. If you turn your chest, you will straddle the rail. (Straddle is very bad, Nieters stressed.) This advice helped my balance tremendously.

When it was time to put on my skis, I admit I was a bit nervous. But everything Nieters had taught me that morning prepared me for my first rail. I clicked on my skis, tromped to the top of the small hill and stared down the fun box. I narrowed my eyes and descended, twisted and jumped. My landing was perfect, but as I flattened my skis my weight went back and I almost fell on my ‘arse’. My face contorted as I quickly regained my balance and jumped off.

“OK, not bad,” Nieters said. “Do it again.”

Not quite terrain park bunny, but on my way

Now I know how skiers and riders can spend hours in a terrain park and not get bored. There is so much to work on. Once I graduated from the short fun box, I moved on to the slightly longer one, even managing a switch once as I slid off backwards.

I knew a freestyle lesson would be a good time, but I didn’t expect to feel so satisfied. Even the two 12-year-olds doing 360s next to me gave me a few cheers.

Now I know what the hype is all about. Free-style skiing and snowboarding is a challenge. It forces you out of your comfort zone and helps you to sharpen your skills.

“The terrain park helps you with body awareness, and understanding different mechanics. It gives you a better understanding of your skis,” Nieters said.

It’s also a completely different technique at times, he added. Upper body rotation, for instance, which is frowned upon in skiing, is actually a good thing in the terrain park.

“All your bad habits are good habits in the terrain park,” he said.

I left the mountain that day with a new respect for terrain parks and free-riding. I plan to continue practicing those fun boxes, and, when I’m comfortable, I’ll make my way to the fun box in Kendrick (maybe buy some body armor beforehand). I have a new goal for the season, and I don’t have to wait for the perfect powder day to do it.

I have discovered a whole new part of the mountain, even though it was right in front of me all along.

Nieters understands the draw; after dislocating his shoulder in the park last season, he is still drawn to its jumps and features. More of his students are doing the same.

“A lot of people nowadays want to ski the whole mountain,” he said. “And the whole mountain includes the terrain park.”

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