Browsing posts in: Ski

How do I become a better skier? Stance and Turn Shape

I’ve been seeing a common question recently – how do I become a better skier? – and I’m immodest enough to think that I have something useful to say on that topic. This is a summary of how I approach skier improvement for adults when I’m teaching.

I guess I should start by defining exactly what I mean by better. It’s one or more of the following:

  • Able to ski a wider variety of terrain
  • Able to ski a wider variety of conditions
  • Able to ski more efficiently – with less effort and/or for a longer period.

Prerequisites

There are a couple of prerequisites that are required for you to learn efficiently, which I call “happy and casual”…

Your happy place

Skiing is inherently a physical skill, and I can’t physically make your body parts move the way that I want to see them move. The best that I can do is try to provide you with opportunities through which you can discover better ways of moving.

To improve the chances of that happening, you need to be able to pay attention to what is going on, process what is going on rationally, and be able to explore modifications to your current technique.

For that to work well, you need to be calm and focused, which I just label as “happy”.

For us to reach that state, we need to feel safe, and it helps a lot of we are also having fun. If you feel scared or distracted, it is very hard to make progress.

Spending a lot of time skiing slopes that are too hard for you is a great way to be in a mental state where it’s hard to improve, and it’s also a great way to develop bad habits.

However, having said all that, you don’t learn to ski bumps on the bunny hill. Part of learning to ski off piste is getting used to skiing off piste so that you can be in that situation and stay in your happy place, or at least not in your very sad place. A little challenge is good as long as you track your mental state and are functioning well in it.

Your casual place

Compare two scenarios. In the first, you are doing a turn every 5 seconds. In the second, you are doing a turn every second.

Which one is easier to analyze and pay attention to?

The first one is obviously much much easier to analyze.

Part of this is terrain choice – choosing a terrain where, at our current ability, we can make turns that are what I would label as “casual”. They’re easy, I don’t have to work very hard, and most importantly, I’m not scared that I’m going to fall.

The second part is about technique; finding ways to modify your technique so that a given terrain becomes more casual for you.

Note that “casual” is about how you feel in a specific situation. Some people are casual on easy intermediates. Some are casual on black diamond bump runs.

Foundations

There are two topics that come up all the time, often enough that I consider them to be foundational. And by foundational, I mean that not addressing issues will limit your ability to improve. Those two things are stance, and turn shape.

Stance

If you ask 10 ski instructors what the most common technique issue for skiers is, 9 out of 10 will say “leaning too far back/not leaning forward enough” (the tenth is daydreaming about skiing). And from that comes the common advice:

  • Lean more forward
  • Keep your hands up in front of you
  • Don’t look down.

Does that work? Well, it can work, but it often doesn’t work great.

It helps to go back to what instructors call “ski/snow interaction”. What are we trying to achieve with ski/snow interaction? WRT stance, it’s two things:

  • We want to be able to load (put pressure on) the skis so they will bend and we can therefore use the sidecut to do the turning for us.
  • We want to have our weight centered over the skis so that we are going down the slope at the same rate the skis are, so they are not trying to speed up and get away from us.

That boils down to “have enough weight/pressure on the front of the ski so that I can get it to bend and keep up with it”. And the way we exert pressure on the front of the ski is only though the shin pressing on the front of the boot.

Which means there is one bit of anatomy that matters more than the rest: the ankle. If the ankle is flexed and there is pressure on the front of the boot, there is pressure on the front of the ski. If it is not flexed, it doesn’t matter how you are leaning or where your hands are, there isn’t pressure on the front of the boot, there won’t be pressure on the ski.

Here’s an example of  the kind of stance that I commonly see:

image

Note how the ankle is loose, but also note that the skier is a) leaning forward and b) has hands in front. Those “lean forward, hands up” cue is not working for this skier.

I want that ankle joint to be tighter, something that looks like this:

image

The ankle joint is tighter – the shin leans forward – but note that the skier is leaning forward less and has hands that are closer to the body.

Looking at the joints in the two images, where are there big changes? The knees have moved forward quite a bit, but the biggest change is in the hips; they have moved forward immensely in the second image. Which leads to my first cue to correct stance; stand up taller and move your hips forward. And also try to keep the angle of your back the same as the angle of your shins.

Not only is this a more functional stance, it’s also a more comfortable stance as it relies more on your skeleton to hold your weight and less on your muscles. Great stuff all around.

That is the stance that I’m searching for.

However, there is something problematic here. Let’s say you are skiing something that is challenging for you to ski and you find yourself in the first position. To get to the preferred, you need to stand up, get your hips forward, and do this while your skis are trying to run away from you. That is generally hard to do because it’s a lot of mass to move, so “stand up and move your hips forward” doesn’t work so great in a dynamic situation.

What is the minimal thing we could do from the first position to get pressure back on the front of the skis? What would be the quickest move? Focus on the ankle…

image

If we can pull our feet back 5 inches, we can regain the pressure on the front of our skis and get them working properly again, and we can make that move much faster than trying to move our whole body forward. It’s not a perfect stance; it’s still too hunched and is going to burn out your legs faster, but it goes us back to a place where they skis are actually working.

I think that move is foundational in off piste and bumps.

Finding the right stance

Remember the part earlier where I said that my job is to put you in situations where you can discover a better way of moving? The following is what I recommend to so you can discover what the right stance feels like and ingrain it into your neuromuscular connections. It has four steps.

Step 1: Sideslip

In a sideslip, we start with our skis across the hill and roughly equal pressure on both of the skis, and then roll our ankles and knees down the hill until our edges release and we start to slide downhill. Try it facing both directions, and roll your ankles and knees back into the hill to stop.

Here’s a video of what it looks like.

You don’t have to be perfect at sideslip for the purposes of this, but if you have trouble with steps 2 or 3 come back and practice this more.

Step 2: Falling leaf

Start in a sideslip where you are moving straight down the mountain, and slowly shift your weight forward and back on your skis. When you have the weight forward, your sideslip will move sideways down the hill and go forward at the same time. When you have your weight backwards, your skis will go sideways and backwards at the the same time.

Here’s a video of what it looks like. Start by doing it more slowly than the video shows. Pay attention to what your legs and ankles feel like as you are going forward.

Step 3: Diagonal forward sideslip

This is the forward part of the falling leaf held for much longer. Start by going across the hill, and then roll your ankles and knees down the hill slightly to sideslip at the same time. You will need to be in the “forward falling leaf” position for this to work, with ankles flexed and pressure on the front of your boot, and it will feel weird when you first do this. Play around with your stance. Try to stand tall.

It looks like this.

The feeling you get in the forward part of the falling leaf and in the diagonal forward sideslip is the foundation position you want in your stance.

Step 4: Diagonal forward sideslip with turn

Take the diagonal forward sideslip, and add a turn at the end of it. Make sure you are in the sideslip as you start the turn, and then as you exit the turn, get back into the diagonal sideslip. You should find your turns to be much easier.


Turn Shape

We talk about this foundation as “turn shape”, but I think that is probably the wrong way of looking at it. What we really care about is not the shape of the turn, but the direction that your skis are pointing during the turn compared to the direction that your body is moving. Perhaps a few diagrams will help. Let’s say you are skiing the following path:

image

That looks like a nice smooth turning shape. Let’s overlay the direction the skis are pointing in two different turning techniques:

image

In what we call “Z” turns, at the beginning of the turn, the skis are pivoted quickly across the path of travel and then held relatively straight until the next turn, where they are pivoted quickly across to the other direction. Z turns are problematic because:

  • They require big movements and therefore a lot of energy
  • Because the turning is quick, they ask more from the condition of the snow; if the snow is scraped off or a icy, they feel much more precarious.
  • The motion is so fast that you can’t actually feel what they skis are doing. Remember my part earlier about turns feeling casual so you can focus on what your skis are doing? Z turns make it hard to do that.

In progressive turns, things happen *slowly*, so you can easily tell what is going on.

So, if progressive turns are so much better, why do so many people do Z turns? It’s very simple; if you try to do progressive turns with a rearward stance, your skis take off downhill when they are pointed at the fall line, and you fall over.

My experience is that you can fix your stance, it’s generally fairly straightforward to move towards more progressive turns, but if you want an exercise, I think shuffle turns work pretty well. They are also good because you can’t do them if your stance is too far back.



Skiing BC: Silver Star, Big White, and Revelstoke

This last week my wife, daughter, and I took a trip to British Columbia to do some skiing.

We stayed in a condo at Silver Star as our central base, and then drove to Big White and Revelstoke for a day each. Here are my quick thoughts…

Silver Star

Silver star is 22 km from the town of Vernon. We stayed in a condo on the hill above the village (not on the ski hill side) above the Silver Queen lift. It was ski-in ski-out if you are willing to do a small bit of climbing on your skis.

The village is pretty tiny, though there are 3-4 places to eat. All are pretty much exclusively run by young adults from New Zealand, Australia, or other ex-British colonies. This is a pattern all over BC.

It was late season, so the snow wasn’t great on Monday. The snow off of the comet chair was okay, the snow off the lower Silver Woods Chair was not. We took one trip over to the backside, which involve some long green runs. The snow there was uniformly awful; it had the wet and refrozen surface that we all hate, and the grooming ridges had set up very hard.  We went back on the front side for the rest of the day. It was decent for spring skiing, and I spent a bit of time skiing Attridge face and Christmas bowl.

Friday was a different story; there was 6″ of new snow. We headed back to the very empty Alpine Meadows chair, and did laps. I mostly skied off of Ridgeback, and found anywhere from 4″ – 6″ of untracked, with a few deeper spots I the trees. It was obviously very nice. When that got skied out a bit, I headed more to the left and found some glorious turns on untouched snow on the Fastback run. And then I found out why; those runs only feed below the village on the entrance side, so it’s a cat track out, a trip up the Silver Queen lift (back by our condo), and then cat tracks to get back to the Comet six-pack, and then some skating to get back to the Alpine Meadows chair. That took a bit of time.

After lunch we headed to backside to ski Eldorado. This is marked as a blue, but it is really a very long cat track with a couple of blue pitches on it. It’s there so that more advanced terrain can be accessed. This is the same story for Aunt Gladys on the other side. On paper, there is a ton of terrain on the backside, but they really need two or three lifts to make it accessible without a lot of traversing.

Solo after the others headed back to the front, I skied Cantastic glades at the top, which still had some very nice snow on them, and then ducked into Doognog, a double-black with a thin entrance. And it lived up to the billing; it was tight, bumpy, and steep. Most of the new snow was scraped, so I sideslipped the tight sections and very carefully skied the rest.

With one more run in my legs, I decided to head down 25 north and sunny ridge. These are real blues and had some nice snow on them. Then I made the mistake of turning off into Sunny Glades, and they lived up to their billing, with about 9″ of the gloppiest snow you have ever seen.

Access back to the front side is via a very long run and sometimes flat run “last chance” or a tee bar. I took the t-bar.

I think it’s a pretty decent mountain to ski at, and would be a great family mountain. The backside has potential, but all of the traversing and cat-tracking got on my nerves. Village is a little small but was okay (though don’t think you can buy groceries at the grocery store).  The condo we got was nice and fairly cheap, and Vernon is close enough if you need civilization.

Silver Star is a member of the Powder Alliance, which means you get to ski free if you have a Stevens Pass Season’s Pass. This is a really nice benefit that saved us quite a bit of money.

Oh, and if you get the chance, do the sleigh ride to dinner. The sleigh ride was fun and relaxing, and the food was pretty good.

If you like Nordic skiing, there were a *ton* of trails around and a lot of extremely fit skiers. They claim to have the largest network of groomed trails in North America; they have 55 km of trails and you can dual-pass to get another 50 if you would like. There was also some fat biking.

Big White

Big White is the big daddy in the neighborhood. It is big, with 15 different lifts, and a whole lot of different terrain. If you want the resort experience, this is a good place to go.

There is a fair bit of terrain variety, but on the day we were there, we ran into fog at the top of Powder chair. This is a common enough experience that the resort is nicknamed “big whiteout”. Having never been there when the top was clear, I can’t tell you what it is like, but there isn’t a ton of high-level skiing here. It’s a great intermediate mountain, however, and there is a ton of on-slope housing.

Even with the amount of available slopes, it actually felt crowded, though we never had much of a wait for a lift. We skied the Snow ghost & ridge rocket blues, spent some time playing in the glades off of the black forest express. I also recommend a trip through the skiercross/boardercross course in the Telus park; it is a lot of fun.

Big White runs from about 5000′ to about 7600′ at the summit, if you could see anything when you got up there.

Revelstoke

Revelstoke is north and east of Silver star, conveniently located in the town of Revelstoke. Revy – as you have to call it if you have any aspirations of coolness – has the most unassuming base area I have ever seen:

There’s a small parking lot, a small base building and an attached hotel, all plunked down in the outskirts of a small town. The base area is only at 1,680′, and given that it was late March, there wasn’t really much of what you would call snow left there. There is a small magic carpet, and a single gondola. This Gondola takes you on a 4-minute ride up the hill, up to Revelation lodge at about 2300′. There is a small magic carpet there (both for skiing and getting back to the gondola). It was technically possible to ski down from there to the base, but we did not attempt it.

If you hop on the upper Revelation Gondola, it will take you on a 9 minute ride up to Mackenzie outpost at about 5000′. There are a number of blues and blacks below the Gondola but the snow didn’t look great on the way up, so we opted to skip it, and we skied down to “The Stoke”, which took us another 2000′ up the hill to 7,300′. And then we skied.

The lower slopes looked sparse because of a fair bit of rain the night before, but that gave us 8-10″ of fresh on the top. We came down Critical Path, which has the distinction of being the steepest blue that I have ever skied. The snow was soft, and once I got a bit warmed up, we had a nice time. We also skied snow rodeo a couple of times before lunch. These are *long* runs; Stevens Southern Cross is about 1700′, so the Stoke is about 20% longer than that, and if it was mid-season with good snow, you could ski the rest of the way down to revelation lodge, something like 4500′ of vertical.  Which, honestly, is a bit nuts.

It didn’t take long to tire ourselves out, and we gondola’d back down to Revelation Lodge for lunch. Here you have a lot of choices; you can go the cafeteria, or you can go to the cafeteria. Revy is not currently a place with a lot of dining options.

After getting our food from the British/Aus/Kiwi staff, we headed back up the gondola and back up “The Stoke”. We were headed to the North Bowl. There are two ways to get there; if you like really steep double blacks, you hike up the Lemming Route or traverse over to the edge. I am not good enough to do that, so we skied the top bit of The Stoke and took the Ripper Connector, a blue. And we skied, then we skied some more, and then we skied still some more. I can’t find any elevations, but my guess is that we dropped a bit over 3000′. Powder bowl only has three runs – all blue – with a lot of “glades”. I put quotes there because they aren’t really gladed enough for me to really be able to ski them. We skied a bit of the edge and then under the chair a few times, until or legs got tired of trying to turn into the now heavier-than-normal snow. The Ripper chair is only 1600′ in elevation, and at the top you can see the runs on North Bowl, which look ungodly steep to me, and at least 1500′ long.

Come ski here only if you like steeps. The blues are fairly steep, and the greens are only cat tracks.

And – if you want a little more experience – they offer cat skiing packages that take you outside the ski area. And – if you still want more – Selkirk Tangiers Heli Skiing leaves from the base area.

The whole experience is a little hard to wrap your mind around. They have big plans to add more lifts, on slope housing, the usual resort things.


Tricks you can play on yourself #23 – ski edition

The school that I teach for has a Freeride team – they ski all over the mountain (including cliffs for some of them). The last lesson day of the season they have an informal competition, and, for the second year, I volunteered to take pictures of them. This lets me keep my sports photography skills up, and lets me work with a great group of kids. Oh, and it excuses me from helping out from helping out with the other “last day” activities, though I still found time to reprise my role of “Mr. Catsup” in the hot dog line.

The chosen location for the competition was 7th heaven, a double-black diamond section at the top of Stevens pass.

I am a decent off-piste (“ungroomed” for the non-skiers and/or less pretentious among you) skier. By “decent”, I mean that I can get down most slopes that don’t involve the words “drop” or “cliff”, and that I ski them with occasional flashes of competence. It’s a little harder to ski with a 5lb camera (Canon 7D + 70-200mm F2.8L 2.8 IS II lens) on my chest, but it’s not too bad.

After a warm up with the team on Big Chief (where there was some surprisingly nice powder (and no, I just can’t call it “Kehr’s Chair”…)), we headed over to Skyline, and then up the 7th Heaven Lift (yes, it is as steep as it looks), which is 4 years older than I am but luckily, far less cranky. The original plan was to head over to the side of Rock Garden (a bumped but not super-steep run), but there was a fair amount of skier traffic, so we headed down Cloud 9 and hooked back towards Meadows above the Skyline run, to a steeper and less bumpy run.

There was some very nice snow; the kids skied down to get the feel of the run, and I skied down to set up above a small clump of trees.

Shooting on a steep slope – this one looked to be around 45 degrees – takes a bit of preparation. Actually, just taking off your skis takes a bit of preparation, lest you sink in and slide down the hill, and I spend 5 minutes carefully down the snow to try to get a 12” wide platform I can stand on. Then, I take my skis of – carefully – and stuff one at each end of the ledge so people can see me, and then enlarge my ledge with my boots. I get the camera out, get it set up, get my shooting gloves on…

And then I wait. and wait some more. The kids need to ski down to the bottom, and then cycle up two lifts, then work their way back around to this slope. The time that it takes is directly proportional to how cold it is, and since it’s pretty darn cold, foggy, and lightly snowing, it takes a long time. Eventually they come back, and the shoot goes well; I shoot for 20 seconds, wait for the kid to ski the bottom half and be scored, and then shoot the next kid. I think I’m doing pretty well but I can’t really tell; the eyepiece has some snow in it and there is a lot of frozen snow on the camera and lens. My hands are pretty frozen even with gloves on them.  (editors note – they came out quite nice. See gallery here).

I finish shooting, check signals with the two coaches, and get ready to leave. The camera goes back on the chest carrier, coat closed, and gloves on. I pull my goggles down and find that they are totally ice-covered, but a minute of scraping with my fingernails fixes them up. Skis on, and I’m almost ready to ski out – after I demolish the ledge that I built, so that nobody gets tripped up by it. I climb up until I’m on top of it, scrape snow down into the ledge, and then compact it a bit.

To ski out requires a small traverse, then a short tight-ish section until the slope open ups. I start to slide forward to get into position, sideslip a bit, and am surprised to find that I have fallen over backwards. Falling down is not a great idea on this sort of slope, and it’s especially bad to fall over backwards.  I get up, slide forward again, make one turn, and at the bottom of the turn I lose balance and fall over backwards again. This freaks me out a tiny bit, which always inspires me to ski better. Ha ha – of course it doesn’t – it actually makes me much more tentative.

I think I know what is going on, but to fix it I will have to pull my skis off, and since I’m in the middle of a tight section without great visibility from above, it’s really not a great idea to stop. I muddle my way through one turn, do a huge (and unstable) traverse, and then stop and pull of my skis.

I find what I expected. The bases of my skis were facing uphill, and they got the same coat of ice on them that my goggles did – but the ice was only on the front of the skis because the back half was stuck in the snow. The meant that whenever I went to push them sideways, the front would stick and the back would slide downhill.  I scrape them off with a plastic piece on my gloves, and finish the slope.

So – Important Safety Tip – it’s not a great idea to leave your ski bases exposed when you stick them into the snow.


Ski Instructoring – Day 1

Last year my family decided to try the ski instructor thing, and spent the year as cadets for Olympic Ski School. We’d taken lessons from Oly for a long time, and after topping out in their classes got asked to try teaching.

This year, we all have classes on our own. I have a class of level 1.5 kids – 4 and 5 year olds.

PSIA (Professional ski instructors of america) uses a 9-level scale to classify skier ability. Level 1 skiers have never skied before (or, perhaps, have only been on skis a few times).

The kids in my class have been on skis a bit but aren’t quite up to a level 2 class. This isn’t surprising – 3 and 4 year olds don’t have a lot of coordination and may not be able to progress too much in their first year.

I have 5 kids scheduled in my class, and a cadet (who I’ll call Rosemary) to help me. Four of the kids show up, we put on our skis and shuffle out to the beginner area.

This will be the first test of the 4 days of clinics that I did in early December. I worked with a great instructor last year, and after a lot of experience teaching other things, I don’t tend to get very nervous.

My first task is to assess the class. I talked with all the parents before hand and from my discussion with them, all the kids should be at a roughly compatible level, but parents often don’t do a good job of matching their kids to the description in the ski school pamphlet. All the instructors will do this and determine whether we can shuffle students around to better equalize the skill level in classes.

I watch the four kids shuffle over to the beginner area. This is the first evaluation step – you can tell a lot about how comfortable the kids look with these weird heavy things attached to their feet.

We start with a straight parallel run down a slope that is just steep enough for them to go forward. They look fine doing this. Next we send them down and ask them to do a few turns. E, J, and A do these turns well, but K says that he doesn’t know how to turn. We talk with him a bit (hard because he’s not very talkative right now), so Rosemary says she will work with K while I take the rest up the magic carpet (aka “conveyer belt”). If they do well enough on this we’ll head up the chair lift. They do nice wedge turns coming down the steeper part of the magic carpet, and my evaluation is that they’re good enough to do daisy. As the last one comes down, one of our level III instructors comes over and says, “take them up Daisy”. We talk a bit about K and he goes over to give Rosemary a hand (it’s a bit hard to start that way as a cadet).

We end up taking two trips on daisy during the remainder of the lesson. We’re working on linking turns, and we start moving into the next part of the progression – doing straight runs (“french fries”) across the hill, and then wedge (“pizza”) for the turn.

Next week, we’ll spend some time working on vertical motion, and starting that vertical motion by standing tall on the uphill ski. This will help the uphill ski start carving around the turn *and* unweight the inside ski, so that the kids will start being able to match the inside ski to the outside ski as part of the turn.

It was a lot of fun and a nice challenge to do this – I stopped coaching soccer when my daughter entered high school, and I’ve been missing that sort of interactions. The kids are a kick and I enjoy being silly with them.

Late in the lesson we had to stop for a bathroom break (not uncommon in this age group), and then headed in for lunch. I was originally scheduled to have the afternoon off, but I ended up getting a second gig – I’m assisting with my wife in the afternoon of her 4-hour level 1 class. We spent a couple of hours working with kids on the magic carpet – a lot of running around in ski boots and picking kids up.

Then we spent an hour or so at a preparation clinic for our upcoming level 1 instructor test in February.

We skied a few hours Sunday morning, but didn’t last long. We are really tired.