February 2005



a powder skier's apprenticeship
part 2

from Chapter 7 of Breakthrough on the New Skis

Powder Basics:
Balance and Smoothness

As usual, stance and balance are at the heart of the matter. As we’ve just learned (in part 1, last month) deep snow does require a special stance, a two-footed stance, and a special kind of balance. I’m going to suggest that you develop both by postponing your first powder turns and instead just go for a long straight slide or two to get used to this new environment. No one feels at home in powder at first. But you will soon. Build up your confidence, your powder balance, and stability in several long, fast straight runs — either traverses or schusses straight down the slope, depending on the angle of the slope. Just cruise straight through that new snow, bouncing a little on both feet to get used to the fact that you are no longer standing solidly on a solid surface, but floating. Feels good, and it will feel even better after a few straight runs.

When you push off through deep snow, I want you to spread your hands laterally, a bit wider than normal, for better lateral balance. It’s always trouble to spread your skis in powder, so spread your hands. And it’s important not only to stand equally on both skis but to develop a kind of recovery mechanism to reequalize your weight when you get unbalanced onto one ski. The easiest way to do this is by sinking, collapsing both legs a bit, which will put you back firmly on both skis. Finding and maintaining two-footed balance in deep new snow isn’t hard; it’s just different. Or at least it feels different. But getting used to balancing on floating skis is half the fun.

But we’re not really out on the mountain on a powder morning; you’re probably reading this web page on your compuer at home, maybe even at the office, daydreaming of a weekend on the slopes. And I bet you’re already wondering if this is really the best approach. Why would you want to just go straight through the new snow when all around you confirmed powderhounds are tracing graceful curved arcs down the mountain?

Trust me on this. It will make an incredible difference if you can get comfortable, feel stable and unshakeable, and grow accustomed to sliding fairly fast through powder snow before you start turning. Speed is the key. In deep snow, speed is your friend. The faster you go, the more your skis will float up toward the surface of the powder, and the easier it will be to turn, as long as you feel comfortable and stable. It’s analogous to waterskiing—the boat has to pull the skier forward at a good speed before the skis rise to the surface of the water. Indeed, a very common problem in powder is trying to turn without enough forward speed. Such turns quickly become wrestling matches with the snow, and the snow usually wins. And straight running in powder isn’t only a good balance exercise. It’s the way experienced powder skiers start most every run. They push off down the hill at a steeper angle than they would choose on a packed slope, and then they wait, and wait, until they have picked up enough speed to make the first turn easy. Have I convinced you? I hope so.

In powder speed is your friend; by straight running, you can make friends with speed.

But after a couple of good straight runs, I know you’ll be itching to simply ski. Great. And here’s the first trick I want to share about turning in deep snow. Do everything slowly and smoothly; avoid any sudden jerky movements. Powder skiing more than anything else is a slow-motion sport! Remember, there is new snow all around your skis, so if you make a sudden movement, if you twist your skis violently, they will run into a veritable wall of resistance … and trip you. Progressive smooth movements are a must in deep snow. The parallel between deep powder skiing and pure carved turns on the pack is striking — and curious. Although the snow is so different, both situations demand a slow, patient entry into the turn. If your ski tips lead you, if your skis are moving more ahead than sideways, you’ll be in great shape in powder. In powder, try to make all your movements slow and long, smooth and steady. And it goes without saying that I want you to make all your turns round, not sharp.

What else? I should steer you away from one dreadful myth about skiing in deep snow. Don’t sit back. This old bit of bad advice just won’t die. And indeed a long time ago, when all skiers had were very stiff wooden skis, it made sense to lean back in deep powder to lever the tips of one’s skis up in the deep snow. But that’s almost skiing prehistory now. Don’t do it. Stand neutral, even, flat-footed, right in the center of your foot, right in the center of your ski. Modern skis are soft enough that they tend to bend up at the tips anyway when you are cruising through deep powder. Leaning back doesn’t accomplish anything except fatiguing your thighs. Enough said. Now let’s take a look at the mechanics of good turns in powder.

Powder turns with a gentle up-motion.

A Powder Primer:
Free Your Turns with Up-Motion

Deep snow, even if it’s light powder, means extra friction, extra resistance, all around our skis, and this extra resistance tends to hinder the turning action of our skis. It sometimes feels as though our skis are stuck, trapped in the powder. And inexperienced skiers start to fight back, to use a lot of force to twist their skis through all this extra white stuff. We can do better.

To facilitate turning in deep snow, we’ll use a threefold strategy. We’ll make sure we’re moving fast enough, fast enough for our skis to float up in the snow, and fast enough to push through this extra resistance easily. Second, we simply won’t turn as much as we usually do. Certainly, we won’t complete our turns very far across the hill. Instead we’ll ski at a steeper angle than normal, and we’ll guide our skis through only part of a completed turn, a gentle, sinuous partial arc, relying on the resistance of the new snow rather than our completed turn shape to keep our speed under control. It will. And finally, we will use a special move to start our turns. A smooth, strong rising, or up-motion, of the whole body to make our skis light right at the start of the turn.

This up-motion has a fancy ski name: unweighting. Time was, when skis were a lot stiffer and skiers needed to unweight their skis for every single turn. In those days, skiers had a mantra: down-hup-and-around. They would sink down to prepare their turns, rise up smartly to take their body weight off the skis, to free their skis (that was the “hup”), and then they would twist their skis more or less vigorously in the new direction. Well, such unweighting, or up-unweighting, to give it its full name, has all but disappeared from modern skiing. It just isn’t necessary. In fact, early weight shift that important technique for packed slopes is really the opposite of unweighting. Early weight shift, of course, means standing on our new outside ski even before it starts to turn. But powder, as you already know, is different, very different. We are going to reach back into the history of ski technique and rescue unweighting from oblivion. Unweighting with up-motion to lighten our skis right at the start of a powder turn.

You have already been practicing this up-motion if you followed my advice to cruise straight through the powder, bouncing a little on both feet, getting used to the new floating balance of powder skiing. A small bounce is a great form of up-unweighting. Try it now. In a big open slope of not too terribly steep powder, push off and when your speed is comfortable, flex your knees lightly and bounce back up. As you do so, turn your feet just a little. And voilà, your skis turn pretty easily. Once you’ve started a turn in powder, it’s up to you to keep it going. Use a gentle, steady, continuous guiding action of both feet. Bounce to turn, and keep turning. Bounce to turn, and keep turning. Your turns will be patient, slow changes in direction, not sudden corners, right?

A little bounce provides a little unweighting, all you need for a gentle turn. In deeper or heavier powder, you may need more unweighting to do the job. It isn’t difficult: Just flex a little deeper to prepare your turn, and then as you trigger the action with your downhill pole, lift your body strongly up (really, you are just standing up again from your flexed position) and start your turn with a gentle turning-steering action of both feet at the same time. The notion of moving, or as I suggested, turning and steering, both feet is crucial. Equal action with both feet should result in equal weight distribution over both skis. That’s it. Flex to get ready, and as you plant your pole, rise, and turn.

Let me add, parenthetically, that if you have taken my advice (in part 1) about renting extra-fat powder skis, this whole business about up-motion at the start of the turn is much less important. It’s okay; indeed it will help. But fat boards float you so high in the new powder snow that you don’t have as much snow resistance to deal with. And, probably, even if you forget this smooth, strong up-motion at the start of your turns, they are going to work anyway. Especially if you remember to turn both feet at the same time.

Enjoy your first turns, then your first runs in powder.

 January 2005