Tips & Technique

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. 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...

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When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

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