When things go wrong with steep skiing technique, the space-constrained uphill ski always seems to be the instigator. Who hasn't felt their uphill ski catch at the worst possible moment? And yet, as I continue to diagnose the weaknesses in my own steep technique, I find myself thinking if the uphill ski is the symptom of the problem, the downhill ski is the cure.
For the purposes of steep skiing, I'm going to argue the downhill ski plays two key roles: first, it sets the position of the body, and second, it determines the timing of the turn. When you understand this, intellectually and intuitively, and when you are able to implement it, everything else just seems to fall into place.
Let's begin with an exercise: find a modestly steep blue or black run that is perfectly groomed, and start making short-radius turns directly down the fall line. Former racers will be used to lifting their uphill skis to maximize pressure on the downhill edge (and step onto the new ski), but I want you to do the opposite: lift your downhill ski.
Now, there is going to be some ambiguity here because in slalom turns, uphill and downhill skis are shifting places rapidly, but here is the concept—as soon as you've pressured the downhill edge and gotten the necessary rebound, lift the downhill ski aggressively, transferring all your weight to the uphill edge of the uphill ski.
From here, you should have no problem rolling the weighted uphill ski to its downhill edge as you simultaneously initiate and execute a new turn. If that sounds weird it's not; it's just expert technique (admittedly with an extra dose of anticipation). Racers do this all the time, consciously or not. If it is a problem for you, focus on getting this right before trying anything else.
As you become more familiar and comfortable with this exercise, I want you to really lift that downhill ski. Make it obvious; make it extreme. It's an exercise—no one's watching. When you can smoothly execute the lift on both legs, turn after turn, we're going to add one more crucial modification:
Lift only the heel of the downhill ski.
That's right, glue that downhill ski tip to the snow—maintain tip pressure on the snow if you can—but lift that heel high, so the tail comes completely off the snow. See if you can get the downhill ski tail six inches off the snow. See if you can get it even higher while keeping the tip continuously on the snow. Notice how, suddenly, magically, your fall-line slalom turns improve.
Why does this happen? Because you are now using your downhill ski to set your body position and control the timing of the turn. When you get this exercise right, you may find yourself making better slalom turns than you've ever made before. But wait—it gets even better. We're going to take this same technique and discover it works like gangbusters on any pitch, however steep.
An Extreme Example
Let's look at the photo above, of Dave Braun skiing Muir's East Buttress (if you want to see this turn in real time, go to 12:01 in our Muir Disconnect video). I've frozen the frame at exactly the moment where Dave is rebounding off his lower leg—ie, initiating the new turn. Notice Dave's lower leg is (almost) fully extended, which allows him to position his body out over the lower ski.
This can be done statically before you start the turn or while you're side-slipping into a new turn. Either way, it is critical. You must get your weight on a fully-extended lower leg or else your body will be positioned too close to the hill. Extend that lower leg, weight it, and lean your torso over, right out into space!
Remember the exercise we just did? We're going to use the same motion: lift the heel of the downhill ski while keeping the tip either touching or floating just above the snow. That motion, in coordination with the impulse on the downhill leg, initiates the turn. And, keeping the tip down and lifting the ski heel up keeps the ski and body properly aligned throughout the turn.
Lift the tip of the downhill ski, in contrast, and you will finish the turn in the backseat.
The Pedal Turn
Though we're focusing on the downhill ski, let's quickly look at the uphill ski to see what it is doing. First, notice the extreme angle of Dave's knee—his uphill leg is almost completely flexed. This not only assists in positioning the body over the downhill leg, it also pre-positions the uphill ski such that almost no vertical motion is necessary to initiate the turn.
Basically, all Dave has to do from this starting position is just pivot off his downhill ski, and the uphill ski will follow around, perfectly well-behaved.
If you look at the turn in real time, in the video, you'll see that as soon as Dave's ski tips clock past the fall line he begins to extend his uphill leg (which is now the new downhill leg). Dave thus perfectly positions himself for the next turn. This extension of the uphill/new downhill leg is the 'pedaling' motion that gives the Pedal Turn its name.
Strictly speaking, you don't have to do it. You can land the turn on a bent leg. However, you will drop a longer distance, which is generally unwanted, and you'll then have to extend the new downhill leg anyhow to start the next turn, so I recommend at least experimenting with the pedaling motion (note: you may wish to avoid pedaling the uphill leg if the snow is especially grabby).
These ideas have not only improved my skiing on my favorite steep drops, they have also allowed me to look back at various videos of myself and predictively identify which turns will go wrong. Am I weighting my uphill ski pre-initiation? There will be trouble. Does the tip rise when the downhill ski lifts? Ditto. Knowledge, in this case, is power—the power to make stronger, safer turns.
Be sure, if you haven't already, to check out the other articles in my steep skiing series, which include Principles of Steep Skiing: Revised and Uphill Ski Management. I'll continue playing around with these ideas, and refining and revising them over time. As well, we haven't yet talked about perhaps the most important subject of all: risk. I sense that discussion is now overdue.