A Pro's Notebook: Skiing in Control?
A Ski Pro's Notebook
Skiing in

from the March 1999 issue

It was a strong strong group of skiers: clean round parallel turns, a comfort zone that stretched up into black slopes, steep slopes. We were having a great time, working on perfecting details, not merely mastering basics. But one student, technically the best skier in the bunch, always lagged behind, barely appearing over the horizon line of a steep Aspen Highlands run when all the others were screaming in to a stop at the bottom. How come? An unconquerable aversion to speed? A simple unwillingness to just let the skis run? No, her answer was simpler and, I think, totally honest. “I just don’t feel in control when I ski fast, so I don’t want to ski fast. I don’t like feeling out of control.”

Neither do I...

....It’s just that I have a different sense of what control is. What it consists of. And when I have it. Yet I find this a fascinating and important subject. What does ?skiing in control? really mean?... My answer is actually many answers, because I think that control, skiing in control, means something very different at each different level of skiing. Let me explain this idea with an example from everyday American life: driving a car.

At slow speeds (for example, driving in first gear) being in control of your car means that you can stop on a dime. Let’s say you’re in the parking lot of a supermarket and suddenly a small kid darts out from between two parked cars. You stomp on the brakes, and wham! your car stops, right there.

But as you drive faster, in a totally different setting, you would no longer dare simply to stomp down on the brake pedal. For example, if you are driving along a country road, at 40 or 45 mph, and you see a crossroads with a stop light coming up, you apply the brakes progressively. Naturally it takes a lot longer to stop than it did in that parking lot. Yyet you certainly don’t feel out of control. You are exercising a different kind of control.

Then as your driving speed increases (think of freeway driving at 65 mph) whenever you need to brake you find that you have to slow down very, very slowly indeed. You “feather” the breaks, stopping, if necessary, over a very long distance. You know that if you hit the bakes suddenly, at freeway speeds, you’ll most likely skid out of control and crash. Once again, different circumstances, and higher speeds, create a different notion, an altogether different feeling of being in control.

Finally, consider the problem of winter driving on black ice. On a very icy road, a skilled driver doesn’t use the brakes at all, since any braking whatever tends to make the car skid. Instead, a driver who is skilled at handling icy roads trioes to look and plan ahead more carefully, to adjust the vehicle's speed before hitting a tricky corner, and, when in trouble, to steer his or her way out of it, without braking at all. Does this mean that such drivers aren’t in control of their cars? Not at all. They have simply graduated to a different level, a different style of control. And so it is with skiing.

It’s critical not to equate "control" on the slopes only with the ability to stop on a dime. As they become more skillful, skiers trade in that level of control (suitable only for green novice and beginner slopes, and for very slow speeds) for a different type of control. With efficient parallel turns skiers can certainly pick their own path, avoid other skiers and obstacles, and they can still stop, whenever they need to. But they can no longer stop suddenly. It will take more time and space to do so. That’s what was making my student at Aspen Highlands so apprehensive. She knew she couldn’t stop instantly. Although of course, she could have turned patiently uphill to a stop whenever she wanted to, it simply would have taken her a little longer....But this delay in stopping made her feel she was no longer in control.

My suggestion, for this skier, and for you too, If you’ve ever felt nervous for the same reason, is to get used to this next level of control by skiing extra fast on an extremely easy, extremely comfortable slope, and then practicing repeated pull-outs, long slow patient uphill christies. The rule of thumb is simple: the faster you ski, the slower you slow down. Get used to this kind of gradual, progressive braking action when you don’t really need it, on a very safe-feeling slope, and then, when you do find yourself skiing fairly fast on more challenging slopes you will no longer feel out of control. You will have acquired a different sense of being in control.

Very skilled skiers, in very challenging snow conditions (extreme steeps, cut-up crud, icy slopes) develop a sense of control that no longer depends at all on their ability to stop. And sometimes, just like the driver on an icy road, they can’t. Instead, their version of skiing in control depends on their ability to launch another turn. It’s true, most expert skiers will turn their way out of trouble. This is, of course, why experts tend to ski very challenging slopes with continuous linked turns. Each new turn, down the hill, is a kind of dynamic recovery from any possible mistake, loss of balance or crisis in the preceding turn. This pattern is quite analogous to the way skilled drivers handle a skid on black ice, by steering their vehicle into the skid, rather than hitting their brakes.

The idea is simple: as you develop expert skills, and ski at progressively faster speed, you should also develop a new sense, an expert’s sense of exactly what it means to ski in control. It’s not the same thing on every slope. And as we’ve seen, there’s a lot more to skiing in control than the ability to stop on a dime.    A Pro's Notebook: Skiing in Control?
© 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....