May 9, 2013

Principles of Steep Skiing: Revised

Principles of Steep Skiing: Revised

I don't how, exactly, my obsession with steep skiing began, but even as a kid, I remember arriving at ski areas and immediately wanting to find the steepest run on the hill to see if I could ski it. Later, I became aware of the steep skiers of the Chamonix valley, and their incredible high-angle feats, which led to a visit to France that vastly expanded my horizons.

I returned from France determined to decode the mysteries of the technique men like Baud, Vallencant, and Boivin were using to ski the super-steeps. The turn they developed is generally known as the "Pedal Hop" turn, and even today, decades later, it remains a state-of-the-art technique for controlled descents of extreme terrain. The Pedal turn has been described in various ways, most typically as a hop turn executed from the uphill ski.

Armed with that concept, and ancient blurry PAL video frames, and every other scrap of information I could find, I tried to teach myself the turn. And I failed. And I kept trying. And I kept failing. Over time, I suppose I began to give up. I began to think that either I was somehow just anatomically unsuited for Pedal turns, or maybe even that the turn itself was overrated—that any number of other steep techniques were just as good.

Then I began skiing with my friend Trevor Benedict. On steep pitches, I soon noticed (1) his technique looked surprisingly similar to those grainy old PAL clips of the French masters and (2) his level of fluidity and control on steep pitches was vastly better than mine. Curiosity and pride combined in me with a vengeance, rebooting my mission to understand and master the Pedal turn.

STEEP GOALS

For the purposes of this article, we are concerned with a very specific turn. We want to begin and end this turn in a stationary, static position. No sideslipping to begin; we start from a standstill. We want to lose as little elevation as possible with each turn—we don't want to drop a long distance, which in high-angle terrain is a safety threat.

We also want to conduct the turn within as narrow a lateral space as possible. Think of the confining walls of a steep couloir. We want our turn to take place entirely within those boundaries. We don't want to have to slide horizontally into the turn, and we certainly don't want to shoot out sideways (and out of control) at the end of the turn.

At its core, our hypothetically perfect steep turn takes place within the smallest possible three dimensional box. It must be efficient, it must be stable, and above all else, it must be reliable, turn after turn, in good snow and bad, so that we know we can depend on it no matter how desperate the situation.

THE CHALLENGE

To understand the steep turn, you first need to understand why it's hard to do it. To be clear, I'm not talking about 30 or even 40 degree pitches. Steep skiing for me begins at and above 45°. Let's take a quick look at what happens when the slope angle crosses 45°—and why that number is so significant. Go get a ski, right now, if you can. A shorter kid's ski will be easier, but any ski will do.

Now set that ski flat on the floor. For the sake of visualization, let's say the tip is pointing to the east, and the tail is pointing west. Expert skiers generally understand that to turn their skis they've first got to unweight them—that is, get their body weight off the ski, releasing or "unsticking" it so that it can be easily pivoted. In this case, we want to rotate the ski 180° east-to-west, so that tip and tail end up pointing in the opposite direction from where they started.

That's one "turn". Do it now, on the floor, just so you can see the motion. Those of you who are feeling especially lazy can use a pencil, or any other ski-shaped object. The principle remains the same. Rotate the ski 180 degrees, keeping it flat against the floor. Easy, isn't it? This is the turn we all use every day on green, blue, and black pitches.

Steep Skiing Technique Demo

Now, let's shift to the realm of the super-steep. Take your ski (or pencil) to the nearest wall, and place the ski level against the wall. This wall for us represents a high-angle slope. Yes, in this case it's an unskiable 90° pitch, but it will nonetheless serve perfectly to illustrate a crucial point. Once again, let's define the tip of the ski as east and the tail as west.

Once again, try to rotate the ski east to west just as we did on the floor, and look what happens: the wall gets in the way! You've just identified the fundamental challenge of the steep turn: we cannot simply rotate the ski as we do in flat terrain, because the hill blocks a horizontal pivot. Find a steep inbounds run, and you'll see countless skiers—even seasoned experts—struggling with this problem. The uphill ski gets pinned against the hill.

THE UPHILL SKI

As it turns out, the common description of the Pedal Turn as "a hop turn executed off the uphill ski" gets one key thing right: it directs our attention to the uphill ski. Returning for a moment to our ski-against-the-wall example, let's notice that the uphill ski will always be the closest to the wall, because the downhill ski is always at least a pelvis width farther out.

In practical terms, this means if the uphill ski has enough space to pivot without getting stuck against the slope, so too will the downhill ski have enough room. And if the uphill ski does not have enough room, it doesn't matter what the downhill ski is doing—the turn is going to fail. This leads to an understandable error: we might think the solution is to create lateral, "outward" space between our ski and the hill, to enable us to rotate it.

Why is this approach a mistake? Remember our steep skiing goals: we want to fall as little as possible in between each turn. Yes, with an energetic leap outward, we may (or may not) be able to create enough space to rotate the uphill ski in a horizontal plane, but as a result we will certainly be dropping a long way in between turns, compromising control and safety.

A SOLUTION

Oddly enough, the answer to this dilemma can be found in our very first example: ski flat on the floor. Remember how you pivoted your ski on the floor? We're going to do exactly the same thing (more or less) with our ski against the wall: rotate the ski so that it remains in the plane of the slope. The easiest and most effective way to visualize this is to imagine dropping the tip of the ski so that it points straight down. Go back to the wall and give it a try.

Steep Skiing Technique Demo

Now you understand why photographs of a correctly executed Pedal turn often appear as if the skier is pointing straight down the hill—as if they aren't turning at all. This is the iconic image of French extreme skiing. If you look like this in the middle of your steep turn, chances are good you're doing it right.

Notice that as we drop the tip of the ski, we also have to rotate the ski about its long axis, so that the ski becomes flush against the wall. Hey, no one said this was going to be simple! To get this turn right, there is a complex interaction of angles, edges, and body mechanics that will all have to be coordinated into a quick, fluid, and efficient series of motions. And you'll have to get comfortable doing it in high-consequence environments. But that's the heart of steep skiing.

BODY POSITION

Now that we understand what the skis have to do—uphill ski tip drops, downhill ski follows—let's consider what your body has to do. And let's also revisit that flawed description of the Pedal turn, as a hop executed off the uphill ski. Go stand with your body next to your wall, just as if it were a super-steep slope you were trying to ski. One shoulder (say, your right) should be lightly touching the wall, along with one hip.

Now: try to transfer your weight to your uphill ski! How did that work out? Okay, what we've just demonstrated is that transferring your body weight to one foot necessarily shifts your center of mass over that same foot. In the case of steep skiing, if we weight the uphill ski, we are shifting our body toward the hill, which is exactly the opposite of what we want to do—we want to create space, not reduce it.

Steep Skiing Technique Demo

Remember, we are attached via legs and boots to those skis of ours, and if we're going to drop our tips to pivot our skis, our bodies have to follow. This means our center of mass needs to be out away from the hill before we initiate the turn. A good pole plant helps achieve the correct position: reach well down the hill, drawing your upper body over your downhill ski.

You can experiment with various hand and body positions, including twisting your shoulders and hips to "coil" your body like a loaded spring, and using deep flexion of the uphill knee, to see how subtle shifts affect the position of your center of mass relative to your downhill ski. In general, the goal seems to be to get as much weight as far away from the hill as safely possible, again, in a static, stable stance, before we initiate the actual turn.

INITIATION AND EXECUTION

Initiation and indeed execution of the entire turn will be done in essentially one fluid motion. As we've learned, shifting weight to the uphill ski has negative consequences. Depending on how 'sticky' the snow is, we may ideally be able to lightly rest the uphill ski and perhaps some leg weight on the snow, allowing the ski tip to drop and pivot while in contact with the hill. In less favorable conditions, we may be forced to lift the uphill ski completely free of the snow to prevent grabbing.

Either way, the key turns out to be coiling your upper body to create position and potential, and then executing a quick bounce off the downhill leg. Immediately uncoil your body while also pressing those ski tips down the hill. The uphill ski leads this tip-down motion, and the downhill ski follows. All of this happens quickly, almost instantly, ending with you facing the opposite direction, once more stationary on your skis.

It is true you can also think of this "tip drop" as a heel-lift motion instead, in which we're flexing our knees. However, I've found that thinking in terms of lifting your ski tails results in a less effective turn. Using "tip drop" as a mnemonic forces you to think in terms of pressing the body forward and down the hill—even though the heels will be simultaneously lifting and "flipping" across the hill.

You can and should practice these motions relentlessly at home. Using a chair or coffee table, stand with one leg on the chair (this is your uphill ski) and your other leg on the floor (downhill ski). Position your body weight out and over your downhill foot (ski), and then jump off your lower leg, pivot in the air, and land facing the opposite direction with one foot on the ground, and your new uphill foot on the chair. Execute these motions so that you rise vertically as little as possible.

ON THE SNOW

On the snow, if your experience is anything like mine, you'll probably find that everything immediately falls apart. Inevitably, the problem will center around your uphill ski getting pinned against the hill because your center of mass is too close to the slope. As conditions get more difficult or more frightening, our bodies automatically shift closer to the hill, seeking safety.

That's just an instinctive response you'll have to work to counter, using tools like your pole plant, body positioning, angulation, counter-rotation, and, ultimately, time. You'll find there are many variables you can tweak to customize the process to fit your own style and specific anatomy. The key to the turn remains getting your center of mass as low and as far away from the hill as possible, pushing decisively off the downhill ski to unweight and create space, and then driving both ski tips aggressively down the slope so that you can flip skis and body across the hill.

Steep Skiing Technique Demo

Notice, when watching video of the masters executing this turn, it will often seem as if they are indeed weighting and pushing off their uphill skis. They aren't—that's an illusion. Bend your uphill knee deeply and extend your lower leg like an outrigger (which lowers your center of mass), and bend your upper body out and over your downhill ski (which creates space).

From this position, execute a quick and light hop off the downhill leg. You'll soon discover this gives you all the space and time you need to easily unweight and pivot the skis across the hill, even on the steepest pitches. With practice, these motions become instinctive, efficient, and elegant. No doubt there is much I've left out in this article. But I hope it proves useful to you in your own exploration of steep technique.

RESOURCES


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

22 thoughts on “Principles of Steep Skiing: Revised

  1. rod says:

    all ski turns are basically the same. if you lookat a picture of a wc skier in a gs turn, then rotate it 90 degrees, it looks like ke is skiing 60 degree terrain.
    n gs or slalom turns, you start the turn by transferring the weight to the uphill ski, Either by extending, or by retracting the downhill ski. (uphill and downhill refer to the position of skis at the end of the turn.)
    again, if you look at a skier executing a high angle gs turn, or at your picture with one leg on the low table, both show a straight downhill leg. physically is impossible to push off a straight leg.

    you can try to put your ski boots on (to prevent ankle flex) stand straight and jump up.impossible.
    but if you flex your knees, you can jump.

    same thing when you are on a steep slope.
    the feeling I get when I make a turn on steep terrain is of simultaneously pushing off the uphill ski and retracting (lifting) the downhill one, while pivoting the sskis, tips down.

  2. Andy says:

    It is true you can’t jump off a fully extended leg. But you can get all the bounce you need off a very slightly flexed leg. In the position you see in my photo, I’ve got all the flex I need in that lower leg to create all the space I need.

    Try this at home–you’ll quickly see using the uphill leg to create space just isn’t necessary.

    Now, all of this changes if the slope angle is below 45° or so. At lower angles, pressuring the uphill ski works like a charm, just as it does with GS turns, as you mention.

    In true steep terrain, I’m convinced significant uphill leg pressure is a trap. It leads to excessive air, or awkward body position, or worst of all, a pinned uphill ski.

    Experiment with these ideas on snow and off, and let me know what you find.

  3. brad brown says:

    A couple of thoughts from someone far less qualified. I notice if you rotate photos like the one of PV to make the snow less steep they all seem look like world cup skiers at a gate. Also, I was taught that you always keep your body perpendicular to the slope which is essentially what you technique ends up accomplishing, initiated by the below foot pole plant. I not sure how these observations improve things but they seem to hint a something. I just watched one turn by another steep master Coombs, and what he seems to do is fluidly link turns on sick steep without the stop in between, amazing. Fascinated by the whole discussion, appreciate the effort at educating us mortals.

  4. rod says:

    andy, you should try pushing off the down leg with ski boots on to see if it’s possible.
    with sneakers on, it’s easy to use the ankles to jump.

  5. Andy says:

    I’ve been testing this out on-snow on 50-65° pitches, and I’m absolutely finding I can create all the space I need off the downhill ski. It feels better, smoother, and more efficient.

    That said, in some of the videos I’ve been studying, the French skiers sometimes appear to be using their uphill skis as a brief ‘resting point’, along with actually weighting the downhill pole. And sometimes, they hop off both legs simultaneously. So I should probably tweak some of what I’ve written here to reflect that.

    I suspect, however, that we’ve all been misinterpreting these videos by thinking Baud, Vallencant, Bouvin, and others are executing the push off the uphill ski when in actuality their downhill leg is providing the key initial thrust. Maybe… :)

  6. Andy says:

    Here’s one more at-home experiment for you to try:

    Do my living room test again, but this time put your uphill leg really high (maybe use an easy chair arm or a stool), so that your knee is very deeply flexed. This is a fair representation of starting body position on a really steep pitch.

    Now, fully extend your downhill leg so there’s no possibility you can cheat and jump off it, and try to get a good bounce off the uphill leg ONLY.

    It’s really hard, slow, and awkward!

    On the other hand, just bend that lower leg a little bit, and you can easily create a quick, forceful push that gives you all the room you need to execute the turn.

  7. trevor says:

    I’d say you got it right….the downhill ski primarily initiates the turn with the slight help of the uphill ski. Once the downhill leg has used it’s initial thrust hopefully you have set your body and uphill ski up properly enough to finish the turn with the uphill ski.
    The key is to use both skis synergistically at different capacities throughout all phases of the turn. Of all things rollerblading helped me dial this in as I was linking tight turns down a moderate pitch at a state park. I noticed that if I did not slowly weight and pressure to my uphill ski (skate in this case) that the downhill skate would wash out when I needed it most in the beef of the turn.
    By rotating weight onto the uphill ski progressively throughout the turn also forces you forward and keeps you out of the backseat!

  8. Dan Conger says:

    For me the key is to focus on the tips rather than the tails. Think of a swinging pendulum, but only upside down. The tips of your skis are the point from which the pendulum swings, and the tails are the end point of the swinging arm. The tips really never should leave the snow, which means the tails just rotate straight up behind your back, and rotate down the other side until they are flat again. By keeping the tips in light contact with the snow and pivoting the tails up vertically and around behind you, the super-steep turn is executed well.

    I’ve used this technique in Kiwi Flat, Philippes, ad the steepest part of the paranoids at Mammoth, as well as at Alpine Meadows in the steeps there.

    Last, the super steep technique I’m describing really only works well on firmer snow. In fluffier powder, once must alter the technique a bit and give the tips some altitude to get out of the deep fluff and avoid falling forward over one’s own tips.

  9. brad brown says:

    Grasshopper here, my son and I were using tennis raquets (my fair weather addiction) and the net this morning to similate flat vs high angle and the “blocking problem Andy talks about . My comment basically parrots what Dan said. If I’m scared s….less I want to be certain my tips switch direction. It seems more like sucking my legs up after a pole plant/edge set/slight hop. The feeling I’m looking for is as if my tips were bolted to the snow (hard snow) and windshield wiper the tails around. Like Andy said in the article (blog? Senior citizen-apologies) the goal being to not cliff dive on each turn. But like Rod said it’s still basically a ski turn, just that the steep presents legit hazard (if only in psychologically)and incline present new physics. The French masters came up with an elegant solution for the hard snow condtion that is a logical extension of a solid lower angle technique. Love the discussion, will be dreaming about this stuff for next season.

  10. Dan Conger says:

    Well said, Brad! Wind-shield wiper, pendulum, both good analogies … I think I like yours better. :-)

  11. brad brown says:

    Back at you Dan. Rethinking the “bolt” concept in light of Andy’s comment about chute width but I’m more thinking about the feeling I’m looking for. Ski nerds all of us, must be important though since it might be a record number of comments at SD.

  12. John Pei says:

    Regarding the Peddle Hop turn, Alpine Skills International used to have a class where they taugh the technique. See link below. http://www.alpineskills.com/cat_skitechnique.html
    Regarding Remy Lecluse (RIP), he does not seem to be using the peddle hop turn. Instead he appears to be transfering his weight from the downhill ski to the uphill ski while pivoting about his pole plant. He also keeps his shoulders perpendicular to the fall line at turn initiation, which allows for good anglation at the hips. He also used much longer poles, which allows for a more upright stance on very steep slopes. Ocassionaly he will use a double pole plant. And it appears that he used 170cm or shorter skis to avoid the problem of the ski tails catching snow on the uphill slope. See the video (3:16) below where he is demonstarting his technique above a massive serac at the Aiguille du Midi in Chamonix. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_E2wBno6kpU
    He also demonstrates in the video below his technique on a very steep and crusty descent again in Chamonix.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YypOyu0KTnM&NR=1

    http://www.alpineskills.com/cat_skitechnique.html

  13. Andy says:

    John those are great links! Regarding weighting the poles, Anselm Baud talked about this also. It works, but I’ve come to see it as a liability, because of the hazard of the snow/pole unexpectedly collapsing at an awkward moment.

    I see Remy’s technique in these videos as exactly demonstrating what I’m describing here: the key impulse is coming from the downhill leg, which momentarily freezes the upper body in place, creating the space to allow a quick and decisive flexion/pivot.

    It’s a shame the ASI class is gone. I always wanted to try it. :)

  14. rod says:

    Funny how we can be looking at the same video and see different things.
    In remy’s second video, at 2.28, you can clearly see the downhill ski off the snow first, while the uphill if coming off the snow slightly later. This can only happen if he pushes off the uphill ski.
    Dan, true that you can leave the ski togs tips on the snow, but you can’t pivot on the tips, the pivot happens under the bindings. You you swing the tails around, the hips will stay square to the skis, and you will have a hard time setting a good edge.
    And by the way, remy’s turns were pedal hops, he just didnt jump that high.

  15. rod says:

    And Andy, in your living room, you are in sneakers, and the reason you can hop off an almost straight downhill leg is that you’re using your ankles.
    If you have ski boots on, you can’t use ankle extension to jump.

  16. Andy says:

    SOME 2013-2014 UPDATES: the more focused I am on pushing/jumping/up-unweighting, the more I find I’m missing the point of the motion.

    You really just need to freeze your upper body in the right place by standing on the downhill leg and positioning yourself outward but in a static equilibrium–ie, not falling down the hill.

    Then, mentally glue your ski tips to the snow, and flip the ski tails around the hill. That’s it. That’s all you have to do.

  17. Brad brown says:

    Pretty much what I was trying to say with the “bolt” comment so long ago. I looked around a bit on Youtube and I think we’re on to something. Played around with this a little a couple of weeks ago but nothing steep enough is open locally so no further comment. Btw Soul 7’s and Look pivots were my Xmas present, will test Saturday if fully recovered from flue. Thanks again for the reviews and technique discussion.

  18. Hi, I check your blogs daily. Your story-telling style is
    awesome, keep doing what you’re doing!

  19. Keeping track like this is a great way to stay motivated.
    Wether you are young or old ,man or woman ,you certainly want to own good
    body. The choice is yours, but you can train yourself to use self-talk
    as a positive tool.

  20. Andrew says:

    I am finding your explanation extremely good. I agree that the unweighting up is done from the lower leg. I also finding that the main challenge in the turn is to avoid your tails to hit the slope during the rotation.

    However… in the example of the ski on the wall. The ski rotates against the axis that is perpendicular to the wall. This axis is your body. To set the body perpendicular to the wall is a bit scary, yet this is an only way. Also it is impossible to learn statically (unlike on green run). It is a fluid dynamic movement. Hence for me the first step to think off – setting the body out, perpendicular to the slope, extreme angular position. The second step I am thinking about is the same as yours – unweighting up from the lower leg. However the subtle unweighting from the upper leg in the direction perpendicular to the slope is also necessary (in the direction of your body – not really “up”).

    If we skiing against the vertical wall, there is no need to unweight from the upper leg. There is no force between the wall and the ski, ski can be rotated. But if the slope has an angle, there is still a component of the force that presses your upper ski to the slope. For example on the flat surface this force is the maximal and it is equal to your weight. With the vertical wall this force is zero. With the steep angle it is something in between (actually proportional to cos(alpha)). So there is still a force that stuck you to the slope, although it is significantly reduced on a steep terrain. You need to unstuck, and as in any turn you unweight “up” by pushing into direction perpendicular to the slope (not really “up”).

    In terms of thinking after unweighting lower ski I dont think just of spinning my upper ski tips down, but also about pushing a little from this upper leg away from the slope. The steeper the slope, the less unweighting from the upper leg is required, but never the less it is required. But I totally agree that this unweighting from the upper leg is secondary and very small. In fact if you push up from enough from your lower leg you create a separation of your upper leg (still bend) from the slope, and unstuck it, and able to spin tips down and simultaneously switch edges. But if for whatever reason your unweighting from the lower ski is not pronounced, you may need to add with a subtle push from the upper leg in the direction perpendicular to the slope.

    Also, about “up”. Unweighting up from your lower leg is indeed “up”, towards the zenith. You simply can’t do anything else with your lower leg almost straight. Unweighting “up” from your upper leg is in the direction perpendicular to the slope, not towards the zenith.

    Thank you once again for publishing this article. It is very useful. My comments are just personal notes. I am sure everyone will find little tweaks that are appropriate for his/her technique…

    oh… and I like your name :)

  21. Andy says:

    Andrew, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I am most interested in those situations where the uphill ski is especially problematic, which seems to happen at certain angles, and certain snow types, and certain slope geometries (ie, double fall lines), or combinations thereof.

    No doubt, though, there are many situations in which the skier can simply pivot off the uphill ski, or push off it, either in conjunction with the downhill ski or entirely on its own.

    It is an endlessly fascinating challenge…

  22. bernard says:

    Now imagine you are doing this with a monoski .
    same idea .. tip glued to the slope while the back is lifted and swing around, keeping shoulders facing down the slope.

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