A Pro's Notebook: Turn Shape
camera Edgar Boyles


from the January 1999 issue


A Ski Pro's Notebook
The Mystique of Turn Shape

FROM THE CHAIRLIFT, I spend a lot of time looking at skiers below me: comparing styles, watching the lines their skis are tracing on the slope, admiring and critiquing, trying to figure out, or simply guess, a skier's background and history from a few turns, a brief glimpse of a body in motion, a pattern on the snow. It's an intriguing game....

From above, it's always obvious who is a good skier, who is a great skier, who is a mediocre skier and who is barely coping. Sometimes the differences are so subtle they are hard to put into words. But the most obvious difference between accomplished and less accomplished skiers is always the shape of their turns. The better the skier, the rounder the arc of their turn. Why?... Why round turns, anyway? Why are they so important?

In modern skiing, there's a real mystique about turn shape? Sometimes the expression, "turn shape," becomes nothing more than a cliché, a buzz word. "Okay class, today we're going to work on turn shape." But again, why, and to what end?

I know that most skiers don't share my fascination, my appreciation of round arcing turns. For most skiers, turning is something you do in order to point the skis in a new direction, period. To go that-a-way. It should be much more, and, paradoxically, less too. Less work anyway. Let me start my explanation of this mystery by saying that there are really two reasons why skiers turn. One, of course, is to change direction, but equally important, we turn to control our speed. And that's precisely where we'll realize the greatest benefit from pure round turns. It works like this.

No matter how steep a slope you are on, when you are traversing across it, it's as though you were skiing on a gentler pitch at a gentler angle. But each time you turn downhill (toward the "fall line" in ski jargon) the angle of your skis steepens until you reach the true angle of the slope. And of course, you speed up. Skiers can always feel this sudden acceleration as they turn down the hill. Beginners feel it their fist day on skis. And I know you do too. So having just accelerated, the question now becomes how to slow back down. (After all, nobody wants to go faster and faster, from turn to turn, all the way down the mountain.) And this is where skiers have two choices: They can twist their skis sideways and skid, or they can continue turning slowly, patiently, almost gently through a round arc. Both choices slow you down, but in completely different ways.

When you skid sideways across the snow, you are using your legs as shock absorbers to scrub off speed, digging into the snow, resisting your speed by tensing your leg muscles. It works. You definitely slow down by skidding, but after a day of skiing like this-speeding up, then slowing down, by skidding on every turn-your legs will be shot. On the other hand, if you can avoid skidding altogether, and instead get your skis to follow a round line in the snow, something very different happens. The further around that arc you come, the flatter the snow becomes underfoot, until eventually you'll even find yourself arcing back uphill. In this second case, it is the decreasing angle of the snow beneath your feet-rather than the friction of scraping and skidding-that slows you down. This is the same phenomenon that slows you down when you ski into a rounded gully and up the other side. When you make a very round turn, it is actually the round shape of that turn that slows you down-not the force of your own turning action. In a real sense, the your turn's shape controls your speed. So the mystique of turn shape is really as more about function than form.

This is so important I'd like to repeat it another way. Expert skiers slow down, not by how hard they turn, but by how far around the arc they go. Indeed, experts make very round arcs. The image of a clock face is often used to describe round turns. Imagine starting your turn at 12:00 o'clock, as you arc around to 3:00 o'clock, you will be speeding up. Then as you continue arcing on around the clock face, you slow down, progressively, inevitably. Continue your turn until 4:00 o'clock and you'll slow down a little, but not much. Continue on to 5:00 o'clock, or 5:30 and you'll slow down a lot more. If you really need speed control, guide your turn all the way to 6:00 o'clock or even past, slightly uphill again. Once more, what gives you efficient speed control is how far around the circle you turn, not how hard you twist and skid.

And it's your choice. There's no rule telling you how far around that arc you should go. The idea is to stick with your round turn until it feels just right: fast, slow or somewhere in between. But what is it-you are probably asking-that makes a round turn round? That keeps your skis turning? Simple. A round turn results when your make almost no twisting movements to get started; when you transfer your weight to that outside ski early, and keep it there. Naturally, it's that extra weight on your stance foot, on your outside ski, that bends the edge of that ski into an arc-the arc of your turn. The longer you 'hang out' on that outside ski, the farther around an arc your ski will track.

The opposite pattern - twist and skid - resembles a wrestling match with your skis. Once you've twisted your skis too hard at the start of your turn, you're condemned to skid. There's no way out. Better not to over-initiate in the first place. The price that skiers pay for over-pivoted and skidded turns is twofold: an awkward ungainly descent now, and very tired legs later this evening. Don't fall into this double trap.

Remember, in modern, high-level skiing, turning is not something you do to your skis, rather it is something that your skis are doing on the snow - a subtle but important distinction. And what those skis should be doing is drawing beautiful round arcs over the snow    A Pro's Notebook: Turn Shape
© Lito Tejada-Flores
In his
SKI PRO'S NOTEBOOK series, Lito plans to explore, demystify and explain the WHY of modern expert skiing. Not just what to do, but why certain patterns, certain techniques, even certain ideas, are so important....