March/spring 2005   



a powder skier's apprenticeship
part 3

adapted from Chapter 7 of Breakthrough on the New Skis

Putting together great powder runs

Once you've learned to turn in powder (the goal of parts 1 and 2 of this series) you can begin to believe in yourself as a real, or at least emerging 'powder hound,' a dyed-in-the-wool deep-snow enthusiast. But between simply coping with powder and actually reveling in it, dancing through it, there is still quite a distance. How to get there?

Your main strategy, as ever, will mileage and repetition. You become a confirmed powder skier progressively, run after run, by skiing powder, not by thinking about how to ski powder. As a first step, I’d like to suggest that you try to ski a smoother, straighter, more sinuous line. That you take care not to guide your skis too far out of the fall line before turning back down the hill. From the chairlift on a powder morning, you can see what I am talking about by observing the tracks of the best powder skiers. These tracks never seem to cut back across the hill; in fact they almost never turn more than about 45 degrees from the fall line. The turns that these beautiful tracks draw in the snow are long ones. Think about the skiers who made such tracks. Were they in a hurry? I think not. And, of course, from that same chairlift observation platform you can probably watch not just tracks but the skilled powder skiers making them. Notice how fluid and slow all their movements are. As I said earlier in this series, powder skiing really is a slow-motion sport.

Light powder vs. heavier powder
But there’s another important factor that will influence, even shape, your apprenticeship as a powder skier—and that is, where this introduction takes place: whether in the Rockies or closer to a coast, either coast. I’m referring to the difference between the cold, light, dry snow of a so-called continental climate, the very light powder snow of the Rockies, of Colorado, Utah, and their neighbor states, and the much denser, heavier snow that is more typical of the so-called maritime climates of California and the Pacific Northwest or even of New England. Making freinds with untracked new snow is a very different experience in the Rockies than in the High Sierra, for example. Let me spell out this difference and tell how to deal with it.

A foot or so of light high-altitude snow in the Rockies won’t slow you down that much. Even on a gentle blue slope you’ll have no problem sliding, keeping your speed up enough to turn. But farther out west, (or later in spring when fresh snow is heavier) the same depth of snow will seem denser, stickier, because of its greater moisture content, and immediately you will discover just how much new snow can slow you down. In West-Coast mountains, whether California’s High Sierra or the Cascades, you will need to seek out much steeper slopes for your powder apprenticeship. On a typical powder morning at Squaw Valley, for example, skilled skiers weave their multiple curving tracks down the steepest slopes, like KT-22 and Red Dog, and then, at the bottom of the steeps, all these tracks converge into one track leading out across the flats where the first skier has walked out. In short, on gentle slopes you just won’t slide through this sort of heavy powder. As a result, your early efforts in powder snow will feel quite different in these heavier maritime snow conditions.

In such heavy powder, I want you to find slopes that are perhaps a little too steep for you in regular packed conditions. You will quickly discover that the drag of this heavy, deep snow converts them into very friendly practice slopes—if you simply can’t slide very fast, what is there to worry about? But on very steep slopes, make your first straight runs in the form of traverses. Pick an angle steep enough to slide, not steep enough to bother you. And after getting used to this deeper heavier snow, practice some uphill turns — just to get a feeling for how you will end your turns in this heavier powder snow. In thick, heavy powder I suggest a special kind of uphill turn from your initial traverses, an uphill hook that you will create by pushing your skis sideways, out from under you. Technically, we could call this turning by extension, and it works like this. In a comfortable though moderately steep traverse, sink down to get ready; then from this low flexed position I want you to push the heels of both boots down the hill. To do so you are in essence stretching your legs back out; only instead of standing back up, you are extending your legs down the hill, pushing your feet away from you at the same time as turning them up the hill. And, of course, you come to a stop, but do so slowly, smoothly, progressively. Remember our first powder principle: no sudden jerky movements. And that means no sudden jerky turns.

Practicing the finish of a turn in heavy, West-Coast powder, by extending legs and skis out from beneath you. Pressing smoothly out to slow down.
So let’s say you have successfully made a few of these uphill turns to a stop by extending, pushing your feet out through the deep snow. Do a few more, but now do each one from a steeper and steeper traverse. And finally, from a straight run, or schuss, vertically down the hill. This pushing, turning extension into the snow that we have been practicing is really the tail end of a turn in deep and heavy powder. And with that move under your belt it’s time to just dive in and ski, making complete turns with up-motion as I described earlier. Heavy, deep western snow calls for bigger, more ample, and powerful movements, so you’ll need more than a small bounce to start your turns. And I want you to start your full powder turns from a steeper angle than normal with a little more speed than normal. Up-motion accompanied by steering both feet down the hill starts the turn. A smooth sideways extension of the feet finishes it. And repeat ...
Going with the flow...and believing in yourself as a powder skier
Perhaps you are already discovering that powder skiing whether in light Rocky Mountain powder or heavier West Coast powder is largely a confidence game. It really is. Believe in it and it works. More or less well. If the novelty and strangeness of deep snow psych you out — the fact that you can no longer see your boots and skis, that you are no longer standing on a solid surface — then you’ll tumble for sure. Powder is a comfortable medium to fall in but I’d rather you stayed on your feet. Which is why my first suggestion, back in parts 1 and 2, was to get used to the snow, to cruise straight through it before trying to turn. But don't minimize the importance of believing that you can really sail through this powder-covered world.

By now at any rate, you have already become a powder skier. Even if all your turns aren’t yet powder perfect. We’ve gotten used to the two-footed balance needed in deep snow. We can start turns, medium-long turns with smooth up-motion. And we are developing the patience needed to wait for things to happen in this slow-motion medium, untracked snow. But perhaps you have noticed that something is still missing. Mostly, I’ve been talking about individual turns in the deep stuff, not about linking your turns. And linking turns, smoothly, subtley, inevitably is really our goal.

Typically, we often observe expert skiers linking short turns straight down the fall line — whether on packed slopes or in powder — with a pattern I called dynamic anticipation. Wouldn’t it make sense to do the same thing in powder? You bet. And especially down very steep slopes. That is in fact the way expert powder skiers ski.

But here we run headlong into another aspect of the powder paradox. Initially, it is always much easier to learn and practice individual, medium-to-long-radius turns, taking our time, feeling our skis interact with the powder, coming slowly around. To link short turns with anticipation in deep powder risks a certain sensory overload, at least at first.

But with increasing familiarity and comfort in powder, the linked short-turn pattern becomes more and more attractive. And once you get the hang of it, linked turns with anticipation are always easier. They offer the powder skier the same advantage we’ve seen in steeps and bumps: Each turn becomes a dynamic recovery from any screwup, any loss of balance, in the previous turn. Rhythm and grace plus added security in the deep—sounds good. It works. Don't think about this too much. Just do it. More and more. And it looks like this:

The secret of a beautiful powder run: turn, yes, turn continuously, but don't turn too much. Weave sinuously from one side of the fall line to the other, but avoid twisting your skis across the hill and braking the flow of your movement down the slope.

Can you see the pattern of dynamic anticipation at work in these linked powder turns? The body moving more-or-less straight down the hill, while the skis and feet turn, gently and progressivley, from side to side beneath the trunk.


 March/spring 2005  


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