May 6, 2014

Steep Skiing: The Unweight

The Handoff, Sucking, & The Divine Exemption

Steep Skiing: The Unweight

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.

THE HANDOFF

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.

SUCKING, REVISITED

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. :)

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


7 thoughts on “Steep Skiing: The Unweight

  1. Brad Brown says:

    “……misread could have been”*** I meant my skiing sucks

  2. Brad Brown says:

    *** extra credit to the one who finds the movie credit

  3. Charles says:

    Just returned from Mammoth/Tioga/Sonora and conditions were excellent all around- you still have a few weeks to get some steeps practice in on the Ellery Bowl headwall. Its definitely too early to put the skis away!

  4. brad brown says:

    I completely agree with Andy and other SD diehards that the “Suck” Hop Turn (SHT) needs to emphasize tip down to work, should have mentioned that previously. I also want to emphasize something I’m working out with my own technique as I keep rerunning the mental “tape” of recent steep adventures (LOL to Andy’s talk about the Turn on Mammoth he keep thinking about-addicts all of us). In my steep (relative) skiing, or my steep death gravel infused hill descents I train on (recommended), it seems like the suck can actually pull the feet uphill from the traverse line. At least it feels like it does relative to elevation loss in the traverse. The “uphill” hop can happen from a static position, moving traverse, or at the end of the previous turn. Or for the more daring, cause it takes a little speed, after a turn that ends in an uphill arc which adds a sort of a whiplash (actual camber loading/rebound energy) allowing the heals to snap uphill into the coolest looking turn ever. The slow speed “uphill” landing allows feathery soft landings, mitigates or eliminates the cliff dive feeling by basically starting the fall line rush from a standing stop, matches skis to slope (tip landing first), briefly realigns lower body to upper, brings the lower legs to an optimal angle back under the body so the shins can be pressed forward against the now downhill aiming boot making the new turn initiation possible. Clearly this doesn’t happen all the time, it’s more of a feeling, because the ski/snow contact point is a moving target. Psychological it soothes the nerves by reducing starting mph upon entering the fall line to near negative numbers thereby avoiding the holy crap moment before the safety of a new edge. Since there’s not a lot a speed, at least the way I ski steep, there’s no camber buildup to rebound off of, partly explaining the need for a hop instead of skidding or carving to get over to the new edge set. Basically I’m just trying get the suckers around without getting stuck and spending the briefest flat ski-in-the-fall line moment possible. Whoops, forgot to pedal.
    Now for the heresy portion of this post: not a mention of Pedal Hop Turn (PHT) to be found above. Nay, the feet can stay together throughout the hop in true parallel fashion because the unweighting tactic has changed. True, pedals still appear to happen but I think anymore it’s part timing misfires and/or just fear of blocking or tangling skis. The delayed ski lifting sequence, AKA PHT, was a way to guarantee ski alignment upon touch down on freakish pitches, it was state of the art. However, what was originally by design, is now vestigial. Like the human appendix it’s there but no longer necessary. You do see modern masters pull the uphill ski a split second sooner that the downhill on occasion, but it’s an illusion of a pedal-safer in that order than the reverse but not mandatory (see tangling above). However, lifting skis simultaneously is so much more efficient and elegant. I’m getting fond of calling this a Ski Mountain Turn (SMT) because that’s who uses it proficiently, besides the term suck sucks so strike SHT from the nomenclature. 2 images supporting this technique shift graced Sierra Descents in a previous link provided by John Pei (5-29-13, in SD “Principles of Steep Skiing: Revised on 5-9-13) and I’ve seen it on numerous vids including Schwartz and Plake’s Black Divide trip (part 3, can’t find link again). I had deluded myself into thinking I found the Holy Grail, this hidden secret that the SMT had replaced the PHT-wrong, sort of. Pei also makes a similar comment regarding Lecluse observing that “…he does not seem to be using the pedal hop turn..”, obvious genius. Meanwhile Rod, in the same series, feels like we just don’t see the pedal unless the footage is slowed down. True statement but, to reiterate, my read is that it’s more timing/human frailty than an actual requirement of the technique. So dare we think an evolution has transpired? I do. Furthermore, I don’t think the PHT has any advantages over the SMT. Perhaps better to think of the PHT and SMT as a waypoints along the ski learning curve continuum of flail-wedge-christie-parallel-carved-pedal-SMT-???. PHT is the Cro-Magnon of steep technique, SMT is Neanderthal-who knows what’s next. LOL but my tennis forehand, 30 years ago, used to start with my body 90 degrees to ball flight, now it faces ball flight-sport technique like science advances. Tangentially, think the SMT evolution was waiting for tool progression (caveman make fire) to be possible, witness the new school ski (thanks Soul 7’s). The final coffin nail in my thinking was Bernard’s comment on 4-9-14 (same article, and yes a year later) about a monoski steep turn, basically it’s pretty hard to pedal on one stick. Lastly, I beginning to see this as analogous to mogul technique which deemphasizes edging because no edging exist in the SMT until in the fall line. Stunned silence? Burn the ski witch? Well this is an ideas forum, were all learning from each other right? There’s a ton of more talented skiers that me reading (or writing) at this site so I’m curious if I’m on to something here? Or are you all up the high country actually skiing rather than stuck in the city theorizing at a lap top?

  5. Andy says:

    I would say independent leg action, either Pedaling or sequential initiation/execution, becomes increasingly important as the angle gets above 45 degrees or so.

    At 45 degrees–which is still steep!–you can initiate pretty easily off a weighted uphill ski (in good conditions), and monoski technique works fine as well.

    It’s the higher angles (and difficult snow) where those tactics break down.

    Admittedly at really high angles, the discussion becomes kind of theoretical. Few skiers will encounter a 55 degree pitch as anything other than a short section of a headwall–one or two turns at most, easily side-slipped to safer ground.

  6. Andy says:

    And one last note, fresh from the snow: that leg extension really drives the pop that allows a clean turn. It’s not a fast motion, rather just a deliberate and strong push down to fully extend the low leg. This seems to position the body and create just enough ‘lift’ to free the uphill ski and allow the pivot. At some point, I suppose I’ll have to start collapsing all these posts into one master class… :)

  7. brad brown says:

    Amen to a master’s class professor, us mortals need the schooling. The leg push you talk about makes a lot of sense based upon my ongoing “research”.
    I’ve been reviewing “tape” to better understand what I think I’m seeing with the ski mountaineer turns. I’m seeing that the edging occurs well past the fall line, a point I missed in previous posts. Why? First, it’s safer because you are certainly edged upon landing. Second, the only way to get boot top to shin pressure is by getting your feet back under and uphill relative to the upper body (fall line portion of turn) via the “suck”. By starting the turn in the air you’re positioned to get well beyond the fall line before the ski engages snow. This allows the boot to shin pressure to occur at a less intimidating position than required directly in the fall line. To visualize this, first see yourself in the classic traverse position then rotate that view 90 degrees to be in the fall line. This switch automatically demands the feet going uphill relative to the upper body compared to the traverse position. If a builders’ level were held in the plumb position and touching the head it would touch the boot in the traverse, but be well below the boot when checked in the fall line. Still fascinates me that so much goes into an act that takes about 1 second to occur in real time.
    Also, your previous comment about the leg lift sequencing in the PHT makes sense. Still, in seeing what these guys are doing, e.g. Fransson, Plake, Lecluse, the sequencing seems more fear based rather than a technique requirement. I wonder if it’s like an experts stem turn (I’ve seen Fransson do this!), sort of a security blanket in scary terrain. Of course if it’s me I’m looking for a rope so I can swing out from the hill, pivot and land in a new traverse position, screw falling. I send in the best of tapes eventually for your learned opinion.

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