How to Ski Ice, Steeps, Trees and More…
Sometimes the most daunting obstacle facing adult skiers is simply getting started. It takes a certain measure of courage, fitness, and sense of adventure to hit the slopes once our athletic prime is in the rear-view mirror. But the next big obstacle often comes when a beginner gets comfortable on easier trails, and looks to take that next step.
Let’s face it – there is something alluring about challenging yourself, pushing past your limits. But coming to grips with those limitations can also be unnerving. That’s totally understandable. Nobody jumps out of bed one morning and finds they can rip a line like Michaela Shiffrin or Ted Ligety. It takes time, and repetition, to develop that skill set.
So, to get you to the next level and new terrain, we reached out to a few old friends from across North America who are also ski instruction experts. Here are their tips for transitioning from tentative novice to daring intermediate over a variety of conditions. If you have any doubts about getting in over your head, sign up for a lesson.
“Your instructor will gradually move you along to harder terrain as your ability improves,” said Robert Shepherd, an instructor at Brighton in Michigan and Beaver Creek in Colorado, and an ambassador for the National Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month organization. “Asking your instructor which hills would be best for you is a very appropriate question. Don’t be disappointed they didn’t suggest the most advanced hill. They want you to be safe, and keep coming back.”
The over-riding factor, no matter what the terrain, said Kevin Jordan of Snowmass Mountain in Colorado, “is to have fun.”
Sounds like a solid plan to me.
In the Northeast, ice is ubiquitous. In fact, it’s so prevalent that long-time New England skiers jokingly refer to ice as “New England powder.” Not just those occasional scratchy patches, but sheets of blue ice, or boilerplate, that can instantly take you from nice, comfortable turns to a nerve-wracking rollercoaster ride. So, before you even hit the hill, visit your local ski shop and get those edges tuned.
“Learning to improve your turns on icy conditions can be challenging with skis that have dull edges,” said Heidi Ettlinger, producer of GearingToGo.com and a member of the Professional Ski Instructors of America‘s National Alpine Team. “The first step to greater confidence on ice is having your skis sharpened. Over time the edges of your skis becomes dull and there is a noticeable difference particularly when the conditions are firm.”
Second, keep breathing, and relax.
“The best thing to do here is not panic,” said Keri Reid, assistant director of the Ski + Ride School at Okemo Mountain Resort in Vermont. “Keep calm and ski on. Many beginners will instinctually try to throw their skis on edge faster to slow down, but this can put them off balance. Continuous motion is the name of the game here. Don’t hold on to a turn. Keep turning your feet until you’ve completed an arc then move on to the next.”
Anyone who has driven in winter can appreciate the comparison.
“Skiing on icy trails is a lot like driving on slippery roads,” said Ettinger. “You want to adjust your movements to make them progressive, just like slowly turning the steering wheel around the corner versus making a quick sharp turn.”
Feeling the need for speed? Unlike ice, the steeps allow you to go fast, but in control, provided you’ve got good technique.
“Steeps can be intimidating,” said Jordan. “Many skiers and snowboarders lean too far up the hill. Stand on your outside ski and face down the hill. Use your turn shape, such as skid or elevation loss, to control your speed.”
If you’re new to steep terrain, don’t make a beeline to those trails for your first turns.
“Before heading to steep terrain, use a blue groomed run for some warm-up activities,” said Ettlinger. “Your goal for steeps is to combine shorter turns that are quicker from foot-to-foot, leg turning to direct the skis across the hill for speed control, and engagement of the edges to help with accuracy to stay in a corridor.
“Begin with practicing a few hockey stops, where you work on twisting your legs across the hill while engaging the skis edges at the same time until you come to a stop,” she said. “Slowly transition to linking these hockey stops together but rather then coming to a stop begin the new turn once you start to slow down. When you develop some confidence with these movements find a steeper blue trail or a groomed black trail to practice these movements.”
For my money, moguls are the most fun you can have on the hill. Even though my enthusiasm for moguls has been tempered by the passage of time, I still like to test my quads in the bumps. If you’re new to the bumps, start small, and find a trail that allows you jump onto some groomed terrain to recover.
“The goal for skiing the moguls combines short turns with knowing where to turn and how to link turns together,” said Ettlinger. “A good warm-up activity for getting started is taking your hockey stop with a solid pole plant and applying this to the moguls. Start by placing your skis on the top of a mogul where it feels easy to turn your legs or pivot the skis.
“Using the movements of a hockey stop combined with a pole plant, practice linking these movements together by starting on top of the mogul for the pivot, and then slowly engaging the engages the edges and planting the pole as the skis are turned across the hill moving to the next bump,” she said. “Once you develop some confidence with sequencing these movements together, begin looking ahead to map out and anticipate moving to the top of the next mogul and applying these movements.”
My brother Mike, one of the best mogul skiers I’ve ever watched up close, always talk about “soaking up the bumps.” Jordan takes a similar tact.
“I tend to focus on pressure control with students,” said Jordan. “In other words, we focus on absorbing the terrain and absorbing the moguls. It is mostly about flexion and extension of the body to absorb the bumps. However, other skills like rotary, or turning, and edging come into play, too.”
Ah, this is where the real adventure is. Even if the glades are squeezed between a pair of groomed cruisers, skiing the trees gives us a taste of the backcountry. But skiers beware – except for baby pines, trees represent one incontrovertible truth.
“Trees don’t move,” said Shepherd. “You are moving. You don’t want to run into one. They hurt, a lot.”
To avoid those immovable objects, experts agree on one all-important technique – focus on where you want to go, not on what you want to avoid.
“Ski the spaces and not the trees,” said Jordan. “How many times have you been driving, looked at the passenger, and notice the car veer to the right? We go where we’re looking.”
The trees also reward skiers who are versatile, and can make quick, short turns.
“Skiing in the trees requires shorter turns with accuracy to negotiate corridors through the woods,” said Ettlinger. “Your goal for the trees is to master shorter and more accurate turns on ungroomed trails without trees before taking these skills to skiing the trees.
“Begin with areas where the trees are spaced wide apart, and find areas where you can clearly see a ‘lane’ or corridor,” she said. “Visualize a line down the middle of this corridor where you will plant your pole. At the end of the corridor, stop, and then visualize a second corridor to begin another set of turns. Once you develop confidence skiing shorter corridors you can begin to combine these into longer stretches.”
Most skiers dream of a big, overnight powder dump, with the promise of untracked terrain for those willing to set the alarm clocks early and grab the first chairlifts. But the reality of deep powder can turn those dreams into a nightmare for the unprepared.
“Powder is one of those relative terms,” said Shepherd. “Two inches of fresh fallen snow on top of groomed snow will be sought after by everyone coming down the hill until it’s all skied over.
“Twelve inches will provide some floating but you will still feel that groomed slope beneath,” he said. “Now, three or four feet of new snow, and you can’t feel the ground. It gives you the sensation of floating or flying. And it is wonderful.
Reid agreed, with a caveat.
“Powder is serious fun,” she said. “That being said, it can be difficult to navigate as a beginner. The skier will be best served with a narrower stance and a more open turn shape to keep up momentum.”
Jordan said he borrows “an approach from the popular television show, ‘Mythbusters.'”
“I like to ‘bust’ the myth that you have to lean back in powder,” he said. “Nowadays, with modern ski design and technique, you can be more centered. Sure, you do not want to be levered forward on the skis, but you do not need to sit back and “wheelie” down the hill. Instead, we teach people to get some momentum either by pointing it down the hill or skiing steeper terrain.
“Once that momentum is developed, students can work on getting a rhythm,” he said. “Plus, since powder will slow people down due to the resistance of it being compacted under the ski, it’s good to have a little more speed.”