Face rats revel in winter | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Face rats revel in winter

They say it all started 30 years ago with Jean Claude Killy.

“Killy came to Heavenly in 1970 for a World Cup (competition),” South Shore resident Jerry Goodman said. “He had a certain style called down weighting, and that made it so you could ski bumps and actually enjoy it. Before that, there weren’t many people skiing the face.”

Goodman says from that day on, a faction of bumping-bashing enthusiasts have invaded Heavenly’s mogul-infested Gunbarrel run every afternoon of every ski season.

At the resort, they’re affectionately known as “face rats.” At work, they’re called face rats. In the privacy of their homes, they’re often referred to as face rats. That’s because, to these 20 or 30 dedicated bumpers, skiing on Heavenly’s 1,710-foot face isn’t for recreation – it’s their image, persona and existence. It is what they do.

“I don’t know why they started calling us face rats,” Dickie Bird said. “I guess it’s because we used to scurry out of our cabins and run through the maze of moguls.”

Typical face rats have night jobs, allowing them the time to ski the face during the power hour when the sun is high in the sky and the temperature warrants nothing more than a T-shirt. When the face has been groomed and is as flat as paper, they’re the only skiers on the sidelines seeking out bumps that have melted into slushy mounds the size of Volkswagen beetles. Early to a face rat is anytime before 2 p.m., except during a storm cycle when they’re first up the mountain. For most face rats, Heavenly’s intermediate slopes on the upper mountain barely exist.

“I’ll go up to the top if there’s powder, or early on in the season when the face is closed, or if I’m skiing with friends who don’t want to ski the face,” Goodman said. “Otherwise, I’m on Gunbarrel.”

Bird and Goodman, both in their 50s, have skied more than 60 days on the face this year and countless days since Killy showed them the technique 30 years ago.

But times have changed since the term face rat was first coined.

Killy’s technique has given way to Jonny Moseley’s heli-mute-grab. Some of the original rats have moved on or passed away, and young rats have carried on the name.

Glen Plake, with his walloping Mohawk that changes color with his mood, was a face rat in the cliques’ middle generations – the mid-1980s. He remembers it as his start to skiing.

“I have memories of being 6 or 7 years old and seeing the hot shots ski down under the chair lift. I remember somebody doing a twister and that was really impressive in those days,” Plake said. “The face became the reason why we skied at Heavenly. It was the coolest thing about skiing on the South Shore, and it still is to this day. That whole ridge is incredible.”

It was in the ’80s that snowmaking and regular grooming entered the scene. First generation face rat Tom Royce said the technology has enhanced the experience.

“I think plastic boots and fiberglass skis made a big difference,” Royce said. “Snowmaking gets the face open sooner and keeps it open longer.”

His 11-year-old daughter, Courtney, is the next generation to take over on the face. She said she became a face rat at the age of 6.

“I didn’t want to take the tram down so I started skiing down the face,” she said. “On my first time, my sister Kristin wanted me to go so I went and I fell about 10 times.”

Her father said it was with mixed emotions.

“She loved it and hated it all at the same time,” Royce said.

Like many face rats, Courtney’s experience has lead to competition in the Far West freestyle circuit. So far, she has 28 medals to her name.

But many face rats find merit outside the world of winner podiums and medals.

Mike Bellik, who’s skied the face for 20 years, set the latest record on the face – 65 runs in eight hours on a groomed, flat face.

Meanwhile Goodman, the previous record holder at 40 runs in a single day, continues to chase after his personal best.

At 56, he’s content not to best Bellik’s record, but to ski his age.

“I skied 56 runs in seven hours,” he said. “They wanted me to go for 57 but I said ‘I’m saving that for next year.’ “

You know you’re a face rat when:

– You can’t remember how to get to Heavenly’s Sky Express Chair

– You only ski after 2 p.m.

– You’re still skiing straight, short skis instead of the new shapers

– When you ride Gunbarrel Express you see 10 people on the run below you, and you know all their names

– You have Raccoon eyes

– You put red wax on your skis all year long

– The lifties quit checking your midweek pass

– The lifties will let you on the chair after 4 p.m.

– You’ve got a name for the all-white Red Tail Hawk that lives in Westbowl trees

– You know where all the rocks are

– You know where all the rocks aren’t

– You’re looking for a job that pays tips and starts after 5 p.m.

– You have to ask where Orion’s run is

– The site of a Bombardier snowcat makes you weak in the knees and sick to your stomach

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