Steep Skiing: Uphill Ski Strategies Part II
The downhill ski works. You do the move, and it's practically universal: hard snow, soft snow, low angle, high angle, damn the consequences, it works. It's simple, it's reliable, and best of all, it's elegant. But the uphill ski remains—and the uphill ski resists a simple solution.
You think, well, I've got this fantastic move for the downhill ski, why can't I just do the same thing for the uphill ski? And the answer is, you can and you can't. Which is probably worth talking about.
The Stance of Death
Traverse into a (safe!) high-angle pitch, at least 45 degrees. 50 or 55 is better. Now, you don't even have to position yourself, just look at your body: your downhill leg is likely going to be mostly extended. Your uphill leg is likely going to be mostly flexed. Why this is so is simple: the angle of the slope places your feet a substantial height apart.
With a mostly or deeply flexed uphill leg, we can’t execute the same magic move we use on the downhill leg, because our uphill leg is too far bent to accommodate the motion. So, no problem: let's just straighten the uphill leg.
Go ahead and do it. Remember, we are currently standing on a 55-degree slope, with hopefully no exposure, but which is still going to feel pretty damn exposed because that's just the reality of a 55° pitch no matter how you slice it. So stand up on that uphill ski. The geometry forces you to weight it, completely, and perch upon it, with your downhill ski now hanging uselessly beside it, dangling out into space.
This is not, for the record, a secure position.
Quite the reverse. This is the antitheses of security. It's so insecure, in fact, you may not even be willing to fully extend that uphill leg. But if you can embrace the "Stance of Death," as I like to call it, your uphill leg is now straight, which means you can execute the very same heel-lift maneuver we like to use on the downhill ski. Provided you can unweight and clear the uphill ski, which unfortunately isn't going to be easy because your entire body weight plus the weight of your downhill leg and downhill ski and boot is now forcing your uphill ski deep into the snow.
Plus, just to pile on the woes here, by straightening your uphill leg you've also dramatically raised your center of gravity (bad) and positioned your body closer to the slope (even worse).
Now, I'm not going to rule out this tactic and say you should never do it and there’s nothing you can learn from it. Because what I have learned is that the uphill ski resists easy solutions. It resists one-size-fits-all. The technique that works best seems to vary depending on what you're facing, and when. So, maybe there is something to be learned (are you still standing in that crazy position? Stop it already!) perched precariously on that uphill leg, fully extended, on a super-steep pitch. Maybe.
But I will say: contra DesLauriers brothers, this is not the starting position you’re going to want to use for the overwhelming majority of your steep skiing.
The French have a distinctive steep turn that seems to involve stomping your uphill foot. Here's how it goes: stand again on a steep pitch in traverse position. Temporarily lift your uphill ski off the snow, thus fully weighting the downhill ski. Now 'stomp' the uphill foot down forcefully on the snow and simultaneously (?) pop off the lower or uphill or both legs.
Anselm's turn unfortunately resists easy analysis.
It is maddeningly ambiguous, and fundamentally illogical, because it seemingly asks you to push and pull with your uphill leg at the same time. That said, Anselm himself obviously uses this turn, and makes it work. You can even find him demonstrating this technique in the film "Edge of Never". Weighting the ski poles may be a key component of this turn. I myself have simply been unable to replicate it in a way that lets me conclusively say I understand it.
Let's go back to what I call "Outrigger Position": uphill leg deeply bent, lower leg mostly extended. Ah, that feels so much safer! Our center of gravity is in a much better place both for us to stand still, as needed, and also (I believe) for us to initiate a turn.
We just have to figure out what to do with the uphill ski. Can the uphill ski get into trouble in this position? You bet! There’s a chance we can catch the inside (medial) edge of the ski on the snow when we initiate the turn. There's a chance we can catch the heel of the ski. We can even catch the outside (lateral) edge. Try all three for the trifecta.
The reality is, just as with the downhill ski, we have to release the uphill ski from the snow and then execute a complex 3-dimensional 3-axis rotation in the span of about one second, in a high-pressure high-consequence environment, ending up perfectly balanced on a now-weighted formerly-uphill but now-the-new-downhill ski.
When you visualize the motions of what that uphill ski actually has to do, it's kind of sobering. We elide all that complexity with the downhill ski via the magic of the heel-lift (or perhaps as a better mnemonic, the "tips-down") maneuver. But with the uphill ski, unless you embrace the Stance of Death, or Anselm's Turn, we've got to address it.
The Matrix: 3D Zero-G Ballet
Is it possible to learn those sequences of moves, and get so good at them you can execute a steep turn via what I'll call a Matrix-like three dimensional, zero-g ballet? I’m reminded of the DesLauriers' PDF, in which they argue you can create a step-unweight of the uphill ski by decisively shifting it from outside to inside edge. You know what? They're on to something there.
I would describe it a little differently: in essence I'd call it a flattening of the uphill ski. You need to flatten the ski with respect to the slope, which leads to a really fascinating observation: in normal skiing, a flat ski is the default position, and we have to teach ourselves how to edge. In steep skiing, the opposite is true: the default position is an edged ski, relative to the snow, and we have to teach ourselves how to flatten it.
For the record, (looking at the photo of me above), my uphill ski has to flatten, then pivot/rotate about the axis perpendicular to the slope while then also rotating back again onto an edge (apologies for the lack of clarity: this is easier to demonstrate than describe; as I say: it's a 3D ballet). If the ski catches at any point in the midst of these various rotations, the turn fails. If your body gets behind the axis of motion of the uphill ski, the turn will fail as well.
This isn't easy, but we can try to achieve mastery of the uphill ski rotations, being more and more aggressive with body position and angulation to flatten that uphill edge earlier and earlier, in effect daring the snow to try and grab it.
Where is your body weight in all of this? Well, it would sure help if we could do this turn in a zero-g environment. Because at some point, we have to hand off our body weight from one ski to the other. Ideally, I argue, this is from old downhill ski to new downhill ski. Unfortunately, somewhere in the middle of that process is an in-transition uphill ski, and if you add weight to that ski before it becomes the "official" downhill ski, it tends to catch, and the turn fails.
The sticky point is always going to be that body weight transition from downhill to uphill leg. So what are some tactics we can try to deal with it?
Stand Up Tall (and Narrow)
On lesser angles, why not just stand up tall? Ie, if you can keep your feet relatively close together because the slope angle is modest, straighten both your legs! You can even weight them equally if you want, which can be very efficient in soft snow. With our legs relatively extended, the DesLauriers brothers' hop-edge transition is a snap, and we can simultaneously execute a heel-lift for not one but both skis, eliminating the need for 3d ballet virtuosity.
"Stand Up Tall" fails, as you've probably already guessed, when the slope angle gets in the vicinity of 40 degrees and higher. It also fails when the snow crosses a mushiness threshold, because snow starts to accumulate on the tops of your skis, acting like glue that holds you to the slope.
Where "Stand Up Tall" breaks down, we can turn to what I'll call sequentialization: breaking the turn into separate pieces, which can then be executed in varying, and varyingly-staggered order. Who says we have to initiate off the downhill ski? Try initiating off the uphill ski.
Try initiating off the downhill, then sequentially repeat the move with the uphill ski. Try flattening the uphill ski at differing phases. Or begin with the uphill ski, tuck it (see below), then shift to the downhill ski, lift it, then lift the uphill. And so on...
Might As Well Jump
Sometimes you need a hammer, right? It's crude and it's inefficient (and possibly dangerous too), but you can always bang out an emergency hop turn by jumping up with as much force as you can muster, which admittedly doesn't tend to be much as the slope get steeper, due to pesky geometry issues, unless of course you're willing to jump from a "Stance of Death" position, in which case, really?
Hey, sure, the French are going to mock you, but let's not forget that jumping up is the very simplest way known to man to create zero gravity, which as we've already seen, comes in handy when you're trying to do the three dimensional matrix ballet of steep skiing. In other words, a dash of upward impulse, applied judiciously at the right moment and in the right way, is a powerful tool indeed, so make sure it stays in your tool box.
In particularly nasty conditions the uphill ski is going to grab at the slightest contact with the snow. For example, on sastrugi or shark fins or frozen textured spring snow at the ski area. If you find yourself on a steep chute in these conditions, first of all, what the hell are you doing? Get out of there, man! Some conditions were not meant to be skied.
Assuming you are in fact intent on skiing uber-grabby snow in the steeps (maybe your wax has gone disastrously bad), we can turn to "Stork Position" to try to cope. The logic of Stork Position is that the uphill ski can't grab if it never touches the snow. So, start in your basic weighted downhill extended leg position, and then "stork" it—lift your uphill ski tail completely off the snow.
Basic stork allows us to keep the tip on the snow, but in advanced Stork, even the tip comes off, and the uphill ski floats completely above the snow. Right away, you'll notice Stork Position hurts! The weight of your uphill leg and ski and ski boot turns out to be not so trivial when we add all of it to your poor straining downhill leg.
So Stork Position is clearly not an efficient turn mechanism, and is best reserved for survival skiing situations—basically, when all else fails.
Anyhow, from here you know the drill: initiate off the downhill ski using a modest or slightly oomphy bounce and keep that uphill ski high until you've crossed the fall line. Ugly, to be sure, but if it gets you out of a bad situation, who cares how it looks?
Roll the Knees
When "Roll the Knees" is working, it can feel so potent and fluid you'll wonder why you ever bothered using any other technique. And then, abruptly Roll the Knees will stop working, and you'll suddenly have one of those stop-the-wedding! moments.
Here’s the motion: from a balanced, relatively narrow stance across the hill, roll both knees downslope, such that you flatten your skis (recall: decrease the edge angle). Use any of your preferred initiation methods and make your turn. Don't forget to "drive" that uphill knee down and in to finish the turn.
When it works, rolling your knees is a highly effective way to flatten your skis, allowing them to be easily pivoted. It looks right and it feels right, but...this is another of those soft-snow, lower-angle techniques. On the higher angles, rolling the knees becomes a little too exciting, and if the snow is grabby, flattening the ski via this technique can leave your upper body in a VERY vulnerable position.
Notice there is some intriguing overlap between "Roll the Knees" and "Tuck The Pocket," which I promise we will get to soon...
Here's a thought I had: how about, when we initiate off the downhill ski, simultaneously letting your uphill leg go completely limp, aka soft or rubbery, so that it just collapses underneath you? The theory is if you suddenly removed all the bones in your uphill leg, there's no way it could bear any weight, so it would remain "unweighted" in the jargon of the obsessively technical steep skier.
You can actually do this! (minus the no-bones part) Just relax your uphill leg muscles as you initiate the turn. Sequence and time your moves properly and you may even be able to pull this move off with no jumping. That said, perhaps this is best thought of as an exercise rather than an actual viable technique.
Tucking the Uphill Ski
At last, let's do some tucking! Alternate title: putting it in the pocket. We can pre-position or prepare or dress or "tuck" the uphill ski into what I call the "pocket"—a nifty little place where the uphill ski tends not to catch. And we can even grease this strategy further by cheating the uphill leg downhill a tiny bit—allowing it to rotate toward the fall line a few degrees in a sort of bizarre Stem Christy homage.
Tucking has the incomparable advantage of also reducing edge angle pre-turn. In other words, you are flattening your uphill ski slightly, before you do anything else, when you "tuck" your uphill leg in the "pocket". So what exactly am I talking about? In the photo of me above, I want you to grab my uphill ski, and give it a little push backward, along the ski's long axis, so that it "tucks" underneath my body.
That's it—that's the pocket. You'll find, in practice, that it's easier to feel this spot than to actually describe it. You just sort of pull that leg in, and twist your pelvis just so, until the uphill ski seems to vanish a bit beneath your body. Do this while your lower leg is in outrigger position, and your upper leg is deeply flexed, and from here, you can practially just spiral out into space and that uphill ski will magically do its 3d multi-axis rotation dance as if on autopilot.
If I had to say, right now, circa May 2015, what is the best technique you've yet found to make an elegant, efficient turn on the super steeps, this is it: Outrigger Position with the uphill ski tucked in the pocket prior to a downhill-ski initiated, heel-lift launch. But the beauty of all this, I think, is that there may well be no single answer, just process and experimentation. Every turn, perhaps, is indeed meant to be unique, just like all those snowflakes that make it all possible.
Experiment yourself...and let me know what you discover.
— May 5, 2015
Andy Lewicky is the author and creator of SierraDescents
brad brown May 8, 2015 at 12:31 pm
Dr. Lewicky this will take weeks to absorb. I'm still struck with the edge comment, brilliant. Steep automatically puts you on edge which must be unedged to spin the boards to the new direction, the cause of "blocking", wow. I keep watching Plake and Lecluse, American Dave, and a few others that make this look so simple. Could it be that your 3D turn is accomplished by the angulation/down hill (almost behind boot) pole plant that shifts your position to perpendicular to slope where skis are temporarily "flat" (edges released)? Effectively the position temporarily "flattens" the terrain. Add a slight hop/heal lift and your free. Imagine the change to the outrigger position if you could reach out with the downhill hand to an imaginary wall below you. In this position your legs could be more equally flexed like on a low angle slope. I was playing with that last weekend, reaching out and trying to get perpendicular to slope on turn initiation off of 23. From this position the skis helicopter around more less parallel to the slope with no hang up. This can't be accomplished with a vertical hop because the helicopter blades (skis) would hit the slope, aka "blocked". By reaching down hill that outrigger position is temporarily mitigated as you more or less are are briefly skiing flat relative to the slope. Nirvana is getting an early transfer to the a new edge set to control speed. It's a total trust fall, a muted high dive out into space then trust your downhill ski to engage. Like you said this all takes place in less than a second, takes hours to talk about. Thoughts?
Andy May 8, 2015 at 11:18 pm
I think an aggressive upper body position is one of those things that works great provided the consequences are low. In the dire steeps, what you're really trying to do is move from leg to leg with as little slippage as possible--like a rocker climber trying to always maintain a point of contact.
So yes, anticipate that upper body, but also try to make that turn in as small an imaginary box as possible. And remember all bets are off when things get seriously exposed...
brad brown May 9, 2015 at 1:58 am
Hmmm, months to absorb? I like the rock climber analogy, 3 points of contact is the standard admonition. Ski in a tight box feels right too. I notice these guys often seem to lean on the pole or poles (I know you don't recommend that) which gets the weight out over the hill which looks like it flattens the skis a bit (less block) then a quick hop and around they go, easy-peasy. That's what got me to thinking about the imaginary wall concept. Will keep studying professor. Thanks.