May 6, 2014
Steep Skiing: The Unweight
The Handoff, Sucking, & The Divine Exemption
Three years I've been obsessing about steep technique. Three years of drought. It strikes me now that the irony is, having finally found the steep turn I've been looking for all my life, I may never put it to use skiing horrifically steep big lines because (1) we haven't had any snow, and (2) my life doesn't just belong to me, and me alone, anymore.
I have a video library of myself skiing going back at least four years or so, and the thrill of it is, I can look at that old footage and see exactly the technical issues I'm struggling with, and how to fix them. The downside of that, of course, is that I've got four years of footage of me sucking on camera, basically, but I've yet to figure out how to travel back into time to school myself on how to look properly pretty.
And in any event, if I'd really known what the hell I was doing when I first moved to California (or better yet, if Dave Braun and I had somehow connected when we were both in our twenties), I'd either be known as the guy who skied every face in the Sierra, or (equally likely) the kid who got himself killed trying to ski the north face of Mount Doom.
So. With that rambling preamble, let's talk about the unweight. In skiing of any kind we are keenly concerned with the intricacies of the unweight (literally: to get your body weight off your skis) because it frees the skis from the snow, allowing them to be steered and/or pivoted to change direction—aka make a turn.
Watching my seven-year-old ski the apron beneath Hangman's, I could see exactly the same struggle that all of us adults have experienced confronting the steeps. Instinctively, my son knows he needs to lift his downhill ski (see photo), but as soon as he does, his entire body weight shifts to his uphill ski, which basically glues it to the snow, making a turn impossible.
How do you cope with that? If you're my son (or any number of other, really good skiers, of any age), you side-slip. You side-slip because it obviates the problem of friction, by creating a cascading curtain of snow beneath your uphill ski which acts as a lubricant, allowing the uphill ski to pivot even with your body weight sitting on it.
Let's call this strategy 'The Handoff'. In the Handoff, we very simply hand our body weight from one ski to the next—specifically, from downhill ski to uphill ski. The uphill ski, though weighted, executes an edge-to-flat motion that (with soft snow and a little luck!) releases it from the snow, thus allowing a fluid turn.
This is very much the turn the DesLauriers brothers describe in their opus; it works brilliantly, as they say, until it doesn't—namely when the snow becomes hard, crusty, and/or grabby, or in any other situation where side-slipping isn't easy-peasy. What do you then? Flounder, basically. Or else come up with a modification.
When the basic Handoff breaks down, the only way not to suck is to...suck. More specifically, I'm referring to the 'sucking motion' Brad Brown describes in executing a heel lift via knee flexion. Them's a whole lot of big words, there, so let's break it down bit by bit:
I want you to stand up and execute a standing leg curl with one leg. Only the lower part of one leg should move—your upper legs remain motionless. Call it sucking or tip-down or heel-to-butt, this marvelous motion replaces the far-cruder knee-to-chest lift of the downhill ski, creating that holy grail of expert technique: de facto down-unweighting.
Yes, you're still handing body weight from downhill to uphill ski, but it's a reduced weight, as if you've suddenly gone on a major diet, and that reduction in force frees the uphill ski in most (but not all) conditions. You will still be vexed in the grabbiest of conditions, and of course whenever things get exposed. The interesting question is, how good can you get at this?
THE DIVINE EXEMPTION
Gravity is of course the constant that binds all skiers, and yet... I have a recurring dream in which I'm skiing and I have the ability to step off the snow at will, flying however long I like. Being an old school grump as I am, I of course immediately begin hitting a ridiculous combination of twisties and spread eagles and the like, one after another, crusing just above the snow, until I get bored with such things and decide to touch down, to resume skiing Earth-bound once more.
Though it surely must be impossible, my brain insists that steep skiing grants the highest masters a similar license to set gravity aside at will. It's as if, in respect for the sheer artistry of your steep technique, gravity itself decides to look the other way—just for an instant—as you shift weight from downhill to uphill ski.
Think of it as the handoff perfected, the limit-of-the-curve physics of getting the motion, the mechanics, so quick, so fluid, that you're already through the turn and on to the next before the force of your body weight ever gets a chance to stick your skis to the snow, no matter how grabby the snow, no matter if you're skiing on flypaper.
Impossible or not, the sensation of defying gravity is utterly, absurdly intoxicating, as irresistible to the cortex as having sunlight beamed directly into your soul. It is the pinnacle of the craft, and once you taste just a piece of it, heaven help you, my friend. Perhaps, in my efforts to demystify and codify the steep turn, I have been doing all of us a grave disservice.
Hmm. Hard to say. It's too late for me, I suppose. I'm already thinking about making the same turn in the same spot on Mammoth's upper mountain over and over and over again next chance I get. As for the rest of you: maybe you should just stick with hop-turns. :)