April 16, 2013

Steep Technique: I Was Wrong!

Steep Technique: I Was Wrong!

In my never-ending quest to master steep skiing technique, there have certainly been highs and lows, but I have to confess I've been stuck for a long time battling what I think of as the problem of getting "pinched" against the hill: I find myself unable to gracefully create enough space between my body and the snow, preventing me from making a clean release of the skis and an efficient pivot across the slope.

Steep skiing as an art form began in the 1970's, when Patrick Vallencant and Anselm Baud (among others) turned their attention to skiing the classic snow and ice climbs of the Chamonix Valley. The turn they developed is now generally known as the pedal turn, or pedal hop turn, and it is absolutely a marvel of efficiency and elegance.

I've read numerous descriptions of the turn, including Baud's own explanation, and yet, for all my efforts, I haven't quite been able to replicate it. At lower angles, I seem to have no trouble executing the fundamental motions smoothly. But in the super-steeps, where it counts, my motions become hurried and awkward. I've been completely stumped.

That was again the story at Mammoth last weekend, where I spent a full day on Mammoth's steeps, trying to decode the mysteries of the pedal turn. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't do it. The turn refused to work the way it was supposed to. Searching online that night for help, I found a detailed description of the turn by Eric and Rob DesLauriers.

The DesLauriers brothers advise beginning the pedal turn by "transferring all your weight to the little-toe edge of your uphill ski—simply take your weight off your downhill foot." From this position, with the uphill leg flexed, you push off the uphill ski, hopping your skis off the snow, lifting your heels, and pivoting the skis through the turn.

That description coincided more or less exactly with my understanding of the turn: you are effectively making the turn off your uphill foot. But their emphasis on the heel lift struck me as new and important information, possibly something I'd been missing. So I went back to Mammoth the following day to try it out. And...it didn't work!

Eric and Rob's exercises had the same problem everything else did: they broke down when the slope angle approached or exceeded 45°. Given that the pedal turn was invented to cope with 55° slopes, I realized I'd hit a brick wall. I drove home in a funk, mentally rehearsing motions, trying to identify the breakdown. I was sure I was executing the turn correctly, so what the hell was the problem?

Back at home, I couldn't let it go. I studied video tape. I practiced the sequence of moves over and over again in my kitchen. And then, completely by accident, using a step stool and a wall, I made a remarkable discovery. What if my understanding of the central principle of the pedal turn—weighting the uphill ski—what if that advice, taken literally, turns out to be dead wrong?

Here's an experiment: take a step stool and place it against a wall. Stand with one foot on the floor and one foot on the step stool, one shoulder against the wall, with your weight on your lower leg. Now transfer your weight to your upper leg. Notice anything funny about that? Does the phrase "pinched against the hill" suddenly make more sense?

After so many false breakthroughs, it is perhaps too soon for me to say whether or not I've fully cracked the code of the pedal turn. But I'm feeling very optimistic. I've been putting together a collection of detailed notes, and I think I've got it. If I do, I'll put together a full series of articles explaining exactly how to do it, once and for all...

Andy Lewicky

ANDY LEWICKY is a Los Angeles-based writer and photographer who enjoys good books, jasmine tea, long walks in the rain, and climbing and skiing the big peaks of the California Sierra. email | follow


6 thoughts on “Steep Technique: I Was Wrong!

  1. Andrei says:

    Why would you weigh your uphill leg? Wouldn’t it tire you out more? Also, if you’re turning, don’t you want your uphill leg to be light so you can get it around to put it downhill and catch yourself? Or am I loosing something…?

  2. rod says:

    andrei, you need to push off the uphill ski because on steeps, the downhill leg is fully extended and you cannot push off an extended leg. like when you jump, the legs have to be flexed, cannot jump off a straight leg.

    andy, can you explain what you megan by air between the snow and your body? or getting pinched?

  3. Andy says:

    Guys I want to try my ideas out on the snow this weekend. If they pan out, I’ll post everything I find…

    As for getting ‘pinched’, I mean that feeling that gravity is pressing you into the slope when you try to unweight, preventing you from separating and clearing the skis around the hill

  4. Alan says:

    a couple of things that I notice in teaching steep technique. the downhill/outside ski “blocks” people from being able to commit down the fall line, which is essential for making a turn on steep terrain and the second thing is that if you are feeling yourself pinched against the hill it is definitely indicative of not committing the body down the fall line which can be exacerbated by that downhill ski. A couple of drills: find a very steep large mogul face or a very steep small side hill and without skis on try to make a turn with just your boots on down this face. do this both directions and multiple times. Then do it with skis on. Second drill: with skis on standing on the top of a mogul or steep side hill and facing across the fall line, lift your downhill ski tail off the snow. Turn/tilt this ski as if you were starting a turn, meaning that this downhill ski had big toe pressure but now make it have little toe pressure. then just fall into the new turn by moving your body down the fall line. Essentially committing into the turn. Having your downhill ski out of the way, not blocking you allows you to move into and through the turn. we call this a phantom ski turn. I have heard it called other things as well. I have used this when teaching tele or alpine and it works quite well.

  5. brad brown says:

    Yikes, ski nerds! Addicts all, the first step is admitting it. Totally hooked on the discussion, good luck this weekend. What runs are you practicing on?

  6. rod says:

    andy, when you are with one foot on the stool, and one on the floor, your shoulder should not be against the wall, the uphill shoulder should be over the foot that’s on floor.

    I did some steep turns on a50+ degree section of Mainline pocket at squaw yesterday, and when I push off the uphill ski I simultaneously lift the downhill ski, and o go way down with my upper body not up.it helps to push off the uphill pole as well s the downhill pole, ie a double pole plant, like remy does (or unfortunately did)

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