May 9, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.