Podcast #86: Realskiers.com Editor and 'Snowbird Secrets' Co-Author Jackson Hogen
“We are living in a consequence-free environment for total bullshit."
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Jackson Hogen, Editor of Realskiers.com, author of Snowbird Secrets, and long-time industry jack of all trades: ski designer, binding and boot product manager, freestyle competitor, retail salesman, risk management lecturer, ski instructor, marketing director, resort feature writer, OLN and RSN television host, extreme camp ski coach, Desperate Measures co-creator, four-time Warren Miller screenwriter, and research and development chief.
May 9, 2022
Why I interviewed him
A long time ago, ski writers used to write about ski instruction. They were quite good at it. A couple years back, I recounted the value of these dispatches to me as a novice skier in the 1990s:
I met skiing like a lawnchair meets a tornado, flung and cartwheeled and disoriented and smashed to pieces. I was 14 with the coordination and dexterity of a lamppost. The mountain was merciless in its certainty of what to do with me. It hurt.
I tried again and was met like an invader at the Temple of Doom, each run a stone-rope-and-pulley puzzle I could not solve – a puzzle that invariably ended with me smashed beneath a rock.
When two years later I tried a third time I had grown into my body and could without turning or otherwise controlling myself descend the modest hill on most runs intact. The following Christmas I asked for skis and got them and the fabulous snowy north unrolled with purpose and mission before me.
Now I just had to learn how to ski.
This was a bigger problem than it sounds like. No one in my family skied. None of my friends knew how to ski either – at least not well enough to show me how to do it. Lessons were not happening. If you think a 17-year-old who makes $4.50 an hour bagging groceries is going to spend the equivalent of a week’s pay on what is essentially school on snow when school is not in session, then you have either never met a 17-year-old or have never been one. As it was, I could barely afford the lift tickets and gas to get me to the hill.
What I could afford was ski magazines. And ski magazines in the nineties were glorious things, hundreds of pages long and stacked with movie reviews and resort news and adrenaline-laced 14-page feature stories.
And there was ski instruction. Pages and pages of it in nearly every issue.
This seems arcane now. Why not just watch a video? But this was the mid-nineties. There was no YouTube. Hell, there was barely an internet, and only the computer-savviest among us had the remotest idea how to access it.
My first ski magazine was the December 1994 issue of Skiing. It cost $2.50 and it looked like this:
The volume of ski instruction in just this one issue is staggering. A nearly-5,000 word piece by venerable ski writer Lito Tejada-Flores anchored a 19-page (!) spread on the art and importance of balance, which was in turn prefaced by a separate front-of-the-mag editorial outlining the whole package. An additional eight pages of ski instruction tiered from solid-green beginner to expert complemented this. And all this in an issue that also included a 13-page high-energy feature on roaming interior BC and 10-page write-ups of Squaw Valley and Whiteface.
Each month I bought Skiing, and most months I also bought Ski and Snow Country. I also bought Powder but even then Powder could not be bothered with ski instruction. The instruction wasn’t the first thing I read but I always read it and I usually read it many times.
This was a process. Ski instruction articles are often dense and deliberate and usually anchored to numbered photographs or drawings demonstrating movements and technique. Think of it as drill instruction in extreme slow motion. It wasn’t all useful but what was useful became essential.
I doubt anyone knows how to write about ski instruction with this kind of clarity and detail anymore, just like no one knows how to build a covered wagon anymore – it is a lost art because it is now an unnecessary one.
But this is how I learned how to ski. And because this is how I learned and because I re-read each of the pieces that resonated with me so many times, this written instruction formed the indelible framework around which I still think about skiing.
Read the rest:
I would like to retract one part of the above essay: “it is a lost art because it is now an unnecessary one.” Re-reading the articles referenced in the piece above, I admire the clarity with which each of these writers dissected the process of skiing trees or bumps or steeps. There is no equivalent, that I am aware of, in the realm of instructional ski videos. And there is a simple reason why: videos can show you what you should be doing, but the visual hegemony makes their creators overlook something even more important: what you should be feeling, and how you should be reacting as you feel those things.
There is at least one remaining master of this craft: Jackson Hogen. He understands how to talk about aspects of skiing other than the fact that it’s rad. Snowbird Secrets is a written masterclass for the wannabee expert, the one who’s maybe dropped into the double blacks laced off the Cirque Traverse and survived to the bottom, but knows it wasn’t their best work. Examples:
From Chapter 4 – On Anticipation:
Your upper body stays ahead of the activities going on underfoot, as though your head and shoulders were in a time machine that is forever stuck on transporting you a few milliseconds into the future. As mental anticipation morphs into the events that both end it and redeem it, physical anticipation allows for the happy confluence between the two states. Anticipation feels like a form of time travel for if you do it well, it shifts you into the future. You take care of business before it happens.
Chapter 5 – On Being Early:
The single biggest differentiator between the advanced skier and the true expert is the latter’s ability to get to the next turn early. There are several components to being early, each of which moves in concert with the others. The upper body must continue its constant projection down the hill and into the turn, the existential lean of faith that is a prerequisite for performance skiing. The uphill hand cues a shift in weight to the ski below it by reaching for the fall line. And the uphill ski begins to tilt on edge early, at the top of the arc, supporting your hurtling mass as it navigates gravity’s stream.
Chapter 12 – On Hands and Feet:
Every element that makes up the entirety of the skier is linked to every other, but nowhere is the bond greater than between hands and feet. The primal importance of hand position is never more evident than when your feet fail you. …
Even when you’re not about to eat it, your hands tell the rest of your body what to do while your feet are busy making turns. Your torso is attuned to your hands’ bossy attitude; it will always try to follow their lead. So keep them forward, point them where you want to go and don’t get lazy with the uphill hand. Generations of skiers have been taught to plant the pole on the inside of the turn, so that hand often is extended, as if in greeting, to the fall line, while the uphill hand takes a nap somewhere alongside the thigh. Until you are a skier of world-class capabilities, you cannot afford sleep hands. The uphill hand that you’ve left in a mini-coma will be called upon in a trice to reach again downhill; it should be in an on-call position, not on sabbatical. It should be carried no lower than it would be if you were about to draw a sidearm from a holster. You’re engaged in an athletic endeavor, so try to look like it.
You can tell how good someone is at writing about skiing by how self-conscious you feel as you read it. I’ll admit I clicked over to photos of myself skiing more than a few times as I made my way through Snowbird Secrets (I’d also recommend having the Snowbird trailmap handy). Great ski books are as rare as a Mountain Creek powder day. But great books on ski instruction are less common still, and this one’s worth your time:
Instructional writing is not the point, however, of the Real Skiers website. It is, primarily, a gear-review and recommendation site. But there is no intelligent way to discuss ski gear without a foundational understanding of how to ski. It would be like trying to play hockey without understanding how to skate. The site, like Hogen’s knowledge, is voluminous, layered, cut with a direct and relentless wit. And it’s a tremendous resource in the online desert of ski media. As Hogen says in the interview, “I’d tell you that there are other places you could go to get the same information, but there isn’t.”
What we talked about
This year in skiing; Mt. Rose; replacing the Snowbird trams; learning to ski at Bromley in the ‘50s; the evolution of sanctioned in-bounds air at ski areas; air as a natural part of good skiing; opening year at Copper Mountain; the life of a product sales rep; the early days of Snow Country magazine with industry legend John Fry; making bindings interesting; the novelty and courage of honest ski reviews; today’s “consequence-free environment for total bullshit” in ski media; “there is no more complicated piece of footwear designed by man” than a ski boot; don’t ever ever ever buy ski boots online; the art of boot-fitting; the importance of custom footbeds to ski boots; how to keep warm in ski boots; how to pick skis; whether you should demo skis; the difference between skiing and ski testing; whether you should build a quiver; make friends at the ski shop; picking a binding; why you should avoid backcountry or hybrid bindings; thoughts on setting DIN; “nobody should take anything from the highest levels of the race world and applying it to alpine, regular skiing”; recounting every mistake that prefaced my spectacular leg break at Black Mountain of Maine in February; the problems created by grip-walk boot soles; how often we should be waxing and tuning our skis; the lifespan of skis and boots and how they break down over time; the importance of being present while skiing; ask for the mountain’s permission; Hogen’s incredible book, Snowbird Secrets; the writer’s trance; what makes Snowbird special and whether it has any equals; the mountain has already won; thoughts on Taos; the influence of population growth and the Ikon Pass on Little Cottonwood Canyon; the easiest path down the hill is a straight line; how to use your hands and feet while skiing; and the benefits of a Real Skiers subscription.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
Not to be too self-referential, but I’ll again quote myself here. Specifically, my February post recounting the gear failure at Black Mountain of Maine that led to my three-months-and-counting couch sentence:
On my final run of the season we swung skier’s right off the lift, seeking shade, tracked-out snow for easier turns. We found them in Crooked glade. Emerged on black-diamond Penobscot. Ungroomed. Snow heavy in the sunshine. A little sticky. As though someone had caulked the hillside. Try this or more glades? Let’s try this. It was my 13th run of the day. My 460th of the season. It was 1:22 p.m. I let my skis run. Gained speed. Initiated turns. I was leaning into a right turn at 18.9 miles per hour when I lost it.
I don’t really know what happened. How I lost control. I know what didn’t happen: the binding on my left ski – 12-year-old Rossies I’d bought on spring clearance at Killington – did not release. Amazing pain in my leg. My body folded over backwards, bounced off the snow. A rattling through the shoulder where I’d had rotator cuff surgery last summer. I spun, self-arrested. Came to a stop on a steep section of trail, laying on my left side, my leg pinned into bent-knee position.
I screamed. The pain. I could not get the ski off. I screamed again. Removed my helmet. Let it drop. It spun down the hill. Adrenaline kicked in. A skier appeared. He helped me take my ski off. DIN only at 8.5 but the binding was frozen. Finally it released. I tried to straighten my leg. Couldn’t. I assumed it was my knee. Isn’t it always a knee? More skiers arrived. Are you OK? No, I’m in a lot of pain. They left to get help. Patrol arrived with snowmobiles and sleds and bags of supplies. Michael came walking back up the hill.
Everything after, rapid but in slow-motion. Does that make sense? Gingerly onto the sled, then the stretcher, then the Patrol-shack table. EMTs waiting. Amazing drugs incoming. Off, with scissors, my ski pants. Removing the boot, pain distilled. Not your knee – your leg. Broken bones. Did not penetrate the skin. Into the ambulance. Rumford Hospital: X-rays and more pain meds mainlined. A bed in the hallway. From the next room a woman, emphatic, that she don’t need no Covid vaccine in her body. All night there. The staff amazing. I would need surgery but there were no surgeons available until the next day. A room opened and they wheeled me in. In a druggy haze they splinted my leg. A train of drunks and incoherents as the bars emptied out. Sleep impossible.
Here’s what I didn’t include in that essay: the moment, last August or September, when I’d dropped my skis for a tune at Pedigree Ski Shop in White Plains. “We just need your boots for a binding check,” the clerk had told me. Said boots, stowed at that moment in my closet in Brooklyn, were unavailable, forgotten in my hastening to beat rush-hour traffic. “I’ll bring them when I come back to pick up my skis,” I said. I didn’t. I hadn’t planned on skiing on those Rossies. But at some point in the season, I blew an edge on my Blizzards, couldn’t find a replacement pair, reached in my roof box and there were those old skis.
So I’ve had a lot of time to think about that decision chain and how careless I’d been with my own safety, and how to reset my approach so I minimize the chances of a repeat. After nearly three decades of skiing without a major injury (and just two minor ones), I’d gotten arrogant and careless. I’d like this ski season to be the last one that ever ends early. But what else could I do besides remember my boots next time?
I’ve been reading Hogen’s site for a few years now. I hadn’t been in explicit need of gear prior to blowing that edge, but he’s an entertaining writer and I enjoyed the regular emails. I figured he was the best-positioned thinker to guide me (and hopefully all of us), into better gear choices and maintenance over the next several years.
There was one more thing, one that transcends the empirical realms in which I normally dwell: the notion of mountain as entity. From Snowbird Secrets Chapter 3, On Vibrations:
… Hidden Peak is riddled with quartz. Quartz is a crystalline structure, and no ordinary crystal at that. Like all crystals, it not only responds to vibrations, it emits them. Quartz has piezoelectric properties that allow it to store electromagnetic energy and to conduct it. This mountain pulls a pulse from your energy stream and sends it back with interest, but it also skims off a transaction that it stores in its gargantuan energy vault.
“So what does the mountain do with all this energy?” Jackson asks, before answering his own question:
As it turns out, everyone has a story for how they came to discover Snowbird, but no one knows the reason. Some have the vanity to think they picked the place, but the wisest know the place picked them. This is the secret that Snowbird has slipped into our subconscious; deep down, we know we were summoned here.
I’m skeptical but interested. Snowbird is special. No one who has skied there can doubt that. It is different. Incomparable. It is one of the few places where I ever feel genuinely scared on skis. But also reverential, awed, a little miffed and disbelieving the whole time I’m skiing. It’s something else. And I’ve never really been able to figure out why, other than the 600 inches of snow and relentless terrain and location within bowling lane distance of a major airport.
Whether or not you’re willing to consider this anthropomorphization of the ski area, Hogen’s call to humility in its presence is inarguable. From Chapter 19, On Gratitude and Asking Permission:
Everyone can learn humility before the mountain. Nowhere is this more important than at Snowbird, where if you don’t approach the mountain with the appropriate measure of humility, the mountain will be more than happy to supply some.
My final run of the season was on an open trail, ungroomed buy modestly pitched. I was tired, my turns lazy. I wasn’t really paying attention. I wasn’t respecting the mountain. And while that mountain was quite a different thing from Snowbird, it had no issue reminding me that my carelessness was a mistake.
Questions I wish I’d asked
Despite the fact that this was one of the longest podcasts I’ve ever recorded, we didn’t get to half the questions I’d prepared. I wanted to discuss the devolution of ski shop culture in the maw of the internet, the decline of the industry trade show, the unconstructive nature of a competitive mindset to recreational skiing, the history of Real Skiers, the evolution of ski and boot technology over the past several decades, and how fortunate we are to be alive during this singular epoch in which we can reach the hazardous summits of our most forbidding mountains with a 10-minute lift ride. Hogen also made several interesting comments that would have been worthy of follow-up, from his nomination of Greg Stump to the National Ski & Snowboard Hall of Fame to what he sees as the decline of certain professional ski organization’s institutional integrity. I’ll save it all for next time.
What I got wrong
I referred to the boot-fitter I’d used in Hunter as “Keith from Sun and Snow Sports.” The boot-fitter’s name is Keith Holmquist, but the name of the shop is, in fact, The Pro Ski and Ride.
Sun and Snow Sports is the name of the ski shop I frequented when I lived in Ann Arbor. You can visit their site here.
Why you should follow Real Skiers
I will admit that I am very bad at winnowing the best gear from the multitudes. I get overwhelmed by choice. This is one reason I don’t buy gear too often: if what I have works, then why change? And it’s why I know enough to use a boot fitter when I do finally decide an upgrade is in order.
But maybe what I have – and what you have – doesn’t “work” so much as function. And that’s not the same thing as functioning optimally. Most of us could probably make better choices. And to do that, we need information. Good information. It may seem that the fecundity of the internet precludes the imperative to seek out the hyper-specialized knowledge of a professional. But the vast majority of ski and boot advice is garbage, as Hogen fearlessly reminds us. From a recent Real Skiers post:
My methods for capturing skier feedback may not be succeeding to the degree I would like, but at least I’m trying. Most arms of mainstream media that choose to pose as ski experts no longer possess even a patina of credibility. To name two particularly odious examples of advertising posing as editorial, Men’s Journal published a top-10 “Most Versatile Skis of 2022” that was wall-to-wall bullshit, assembled purely to incite a direct sale from the supplier. Whatever quality might be shared by their ten selections, “versatility” isn’t even a remote possibility. I could vilify each selection for its exceptional inappropriateness, but instead I’ll just mention that the “writer” admitted that their tenth selection hadn’t even been skied by whatever panel of nitwits they assembled to manufacture this fraud.
The second slice of inanity that deserves your contempt is a ruse by Popular Mechanics titled, The 8 Best Ski Boots for Shredding Any Slope. Despite a long prelude about boot selection and how they “tested,” intended to establish a tone of credibility, when they finally got around to picking boots, the editors responsible for this transparent hoax cobbled together an incoherent jumble with but one goal: based on their nothing-burger of a review, the reader is expected to buy his or her boots online, preferably on Amazon.
It’s hard to think of a worse disservice to the ski-boot buying public than this inane exercise.
At least that’s what I thought until I was invited to peruse The Ski Girl. I can’t say how desperately incompetent all the advice dispensed on this site is, but I can assure you the people assigned to write about skis are the opposite of experts. I’ll let this one example stand as indictment of the whole shebang: someone so well-known she goes simply by the moniker “Christine,” selected as the best ski for an intermediate (woman, one presumes) none other than the ultra-wide Blizzard Rustler 11.
It would be hard to make a completely random choice and do worse. There is NOTHING about this model that is right for an intermediate. Period. It’s not merely wrong, it’s dangerous, for reasons that I’m certain would elude “Christine.” On top of it all, she has the witless gall to add, “Every ski review here comes recommended, so you really can’t go wrong.”
This is emblematic of everything that’s wrong about what remains of ski journalism. A gross incompetent merrily goes about dispensing advice unblushingly, so the site can collect a commission on a direct sale THAT SHOULD NEVER HAPPEN.
Please note that The Ski Girl hasn’t taken down its moronic buying suggestions, suggesting a smug certainty that there will be no serious consequences for its gross negligence. Such is ski journalism today.
That sort of raw honesty, that anti-stoke, that unapologetic calling out of bullshit, is so rare in today’s ski media that I can’t even conjure another instance of it in the past 12 months. Skiing needs more of this, more blunt and informed voices. At least there’s one. Get in on it here by subscribing to the Real Skiers newsletter (as with The Storm, there are free and paid tiers):
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