We Sing the Slopes Fantastic

:: SKI EMOTIONALLY NAKED!

SKI TO LIVE 2005:

January 27-30 and March 10-13 at Snowbird, skiers only March 31-April 3 at Alta; one clinic will be for cancer survivors and their families; $1,895, including two meals daily, lodging, lift tickets, and instruction; 801-733-5003, www.kristenulmer.com.

STUCK IN INTERMEDIATEVILLE and dreaming of a transfer to the friendlier slopes of Advanced City? I sure was, so last winter I gambled on a four-day ski clinic in Utah's Wasatch Range. I was up for anything that would get me closer to black-diamond bliss.

Ski to Live—launched in 2003 by extreme queen Kristen Ulmer, at Alta and Snowbird resorts—takes a uniquely cerebral, holistic approach to improving performance on the slopes, promising nothing less than self-transformation via a cogent blend of hard carving, refreshing yoga, and an intriguing flavor of Zen known as Big Mind. No $200-an-hour therapist ever promised so much.

The 38-year-old Ulmer, veteran of countless ski flicks and former U.S. Freestyle Ski Team member, is a sensitive but sure coach, possessing an infectious buoyancy of spirit that makes every powder acolyte under her wing believe a camera's rolling just for them over the next mogul. She says conventional instruction is too heavy on mechanics, virtually ignoring mental outlook: "Understanding yourself translates into your skiing in a big way. It'll catapult you into a whole new level of learning." So she does it her way. During my Ski to Live weekend, my 13 fellow pupils and I spent about as much time contemplating life in intensely reflective Big Mind sessions as we did tackling Snowbird runs like the steep straitjacket of Wilbere Bowl.

The first night, we shared our hopes (huck big air!) and fears (hairy chutes, sharks). Next morning, we fell into a pleasant rhythm: wake-up yoga; a fat breakfast; lots and lots of skiing in small groups with Ulmer or another instructor; evening sessions with Genpo Roshi, 60, who heads up Salt Lake City's Kanzeon Zen Center and developed Big Mind; a to-die-for dinner; then profound slumber at the Lodge at Snowbird.

Under Ulmer's tutelage, skiers and snowboarders employ mantras, which can improve focus, and learn to execute proper form, like correctly positioning shoulders through turns. (Chanting Charge! in one's head at each turn actually does have a way of refining performance.) Throwing Roshi in the mix proves to be even more radical: He uses challenging discussions and role-playing exercises intended to help you harmoniously integrate the sometimes conflicting aspects of your personality, thus allowing you to dig out from the solipsistic center of your own little universe. It's pretty cool.

But my defining moment came not when I face-planted right in front of the video camera (hello, embarrassing playback!) nor when I carved some relatively pretty turns in Mineral Basin; it came in a whiteout, during a three-below-zero cruise along the Cirque Traverse, at nearly 11,000 feet. Suddenly I felt fearless joy-not joyless fear-in anticipation of the double black on deck.

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