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"SKIING IS A SLIDING SPORT":
"Is it the arrow or the Indian?", "the pilot or
the plane?", "the dancer or the shoes?" mused
the long-time ski
instructor. "What matters more?"
Is it the skis or the boots that are most important? Because we can't get along without either, we'll explore both. "Shaped" skis are ones having narrower waists (the waist of a ski is where the foot goes). These shaped skis, or parabolics, have taken the sport by storm the last several years and are clearly the best for intermediate and upper level skiers. Racers, too, are using them. Beginners may do as well or better on conventional skis (which are also shaped, but less radically).
The rise in popularity of shaped skis comes from the need of all skiers to manage speed. It is not hard to make skis go fast--find a steep slope and point the skis down it. But aside from picking one's terrain and snow and other conditions, or falling down, there are only three ways to slow up a skier: Scrape the ski's edges against the snow by skidding them sideways (at least in part) to create friction, Sink the skis and legs into powder snow to get resistance, and Turn the skis uphill (or less downhill) to avoid the downhill pull of gravity. (One can also ski into the wind, if there is any.)
Shaped skis are popular because skiers basically must manage their speed and direction to keep from losing control from going too fast for their skill level, thereby running into things. It happens that it's more fun and more effective to turn skis than it is to scrape their edges, and the shaped skis give us more options in turning. And so skiers basically keep turning But skiers should be able to use either or both skidding or turning at all skill levels. Skidding skis sideways on their edges is done in earlier maneuvers such as the wedge turn (also called snowplow turn), wedge christies (this is like a skidding wedge turn), and even open-stance parallel turns (still a skidded turn but with skis lined up). These types of turns are easier to learn because speed management can be done both using friction from the skidding edges to slow up (a straighter ski side allows the ski to skid more easily) and by turning the skis less downhill. One can also, however, turn the skis less downhill by utilizing the shape the engineers have designed in. This is done simply by tipping the skis on their sides, upon which the skis bend from our weight and/or the outward force from the turn we are in, creating an arc on the snow; moving along this arc, the bowed ski turns us. This type of turn, the carved turn, requires a higher skill level than skidded turns, but is more easily done with modern shaped skis which are narrower underfoot, thereby allowing them to bend more when tilted up on their sides than do conventional skis. Beginners can learn on shaped skis, however, and advanced skiers can ski carved turns on conventional skis, though not as well.
Skiers are subject to constant shocks from uneven terrain; they absorb these for a smoother ride by making their legs longer or shorter by bending their ankles (and therefore their knees), creating a shock-absorber effect. They also bend their ankles and knees to effect balance changes. (Normally when we bend our knees we first flex at the ankle. Doing so keeps us balanced. In your street shoes or socks, try bending your knees without bending your ankles. You can do this but you will fall over backwards.) For us to stay in balance, ski boots must allow our ankles to flex. With ankle flex, therefore, when the knees bend forward and the hips are thereby lowered, weight remains distributed evenly along the skis and the whole lengths of the skis are pressured. (The boot must be rigid laterally, however, so that we may hold the ski's edge in place when we tilt it.) Resistance of the boot to flexing forward should either match your skiing preferences or be controllable with an adjustment device built into the boot, because pressures developed in skiing vary. A beginner skiing at slow speeds will not develop the same level of force on boots that a racer does, and is likely not as strong as the racer, so in order to bend the boot forward, the beginner must have a softer boot.
The three ways of slowing up a pair of skis are complemented by just three ways of turning them. One way is to twist the leg (and therefore the foot) so the ski turns; another way is to tilt the foot and therefore the ski so the ski will have room to bend into an arc; finally, an abrupt checking movement at a high ski tilt causes the ski to rebound and release stored muscle energy to cause the turn. In twisting the foot (using the lower leg) and therefore the ski, the flatter the ski is to the snow, the easier the ski is to twist with the leg. But so far we have only changed the direction the ski is pointed, but not necessarily the direction we are headed. (A car spinning on ice, for instance, is constantly turning, but still is headed in the same line.) The other way to turn a pair of skis is by tilting the foot and therefore the skis (which can happen because of our laterally rigid boots), and so the ski's edge engages and thus, the ski's tip being wider so that it catches the snow more, and the ski being bent into an arc, the ski begins to turn. Most ski turns are a combination of this twisting and tilting, but the movements of twisting versus tilting can be isolated. Pure twisting of a ski flat on the snow produces spinning of the body within a line of motion (you can even spin in circles while tracking along the same line, rather like the Earth in its orbit). Pure tilting of a ski edged on the snow produces a continually turning skier that turns at the same rate as the skis. Combining turning by twisting and turning by tilting in varying proportions gives the most options in managing our skis. Lower level skiers use turning by twisting more, wanting to slow speed as well as to turn. Racers, of course apply pure tilting of the skis for the carved turn, wanting to change direction without losing speed.
Now that we understand more about tilting the foot and therefore the skis to make them go into a turn, we need to return to the notion of having a boot that allows the ankle to flex. Because our boots are laterally rigid, we cannot tilt the foot to the side much inside a ski boot. Instead, to tilt the foot and therefore the ski, we must move the entire lower leg to the side. To move the lower leg to the side, however, we must first bend the ankle so the knee bends. With a ski boot on, try moving your lower leg to the side without bending your ankle or knee, then bend your ankle and therefore your knee so you can move the lower leg to the side and observe the difference. Try tilting the foot first with the ankle and therefore the knee only slightly bent and then with the ankle and therefore the knee bent deeply. (Note that to bend the knee without putting weight on the back of the ski we must first bend the ankle. If you cannot bend at the ankle, you will find that when you bend your knees, you lever against the backs of your boots, thus putting excess weight on the backs of your skis. Your skis cannot perform well when so weighted.)
This is so important that skiers who use boots that do not allow adequate ankle flex are sometimes advised to try unbuckling their top boot buckle (not possible in some front-entry or 3-buckle boots); the result for them is usually illuminating as they begin to find an effective balance point, 'though weird and intimidating at first (and potentially dangerous, especially if done in hazardous conditions, so we advise against it, but if you try it, be cautious; a better option is to get bendable boots in the first place). Skiers with nonflexing boots must get ones that bend at the ankles before they will be able to continue progressing in their sport. Unfortunately, many boot manufacturers and rental shops ignore this vital point.
Speed can be useful, especially as we begin skiing more of the mountain and move up to steeper slopes. Speed helps us propel across flats we would otherwise have to walk across, for instance. It also helps us brush the skis around when turning. Speed helps us ski powder by smoothing out the hits we get as we go through the snow and allowing us to plane up higher in it, reducing its effect on our skis. Carved turns can be done best with sufficient speed--tending to make us fly to the outside of the turns--to hold us up as we arc around the insides of the turns. But there is fear of speed, which probably comes from fear of falling or collision. This fear is not only reasonable but intelligent, especially when we have limited experience at balancing and turning or when the slopes are more crowded. This fear, however, can inhibit us in making the very motions we must to stay upright and to turn. And therefore, we must deal with fear. Fortunately, there are ways. An obvious way is to practice speed when in a less threatening setting. Acceleration (when speed increases) is sometimes scarier than speed itself, for it feels we will never stop going faster and faster. To deal with this aspect, head down a short hill, where there is little traffic, to a flatter spot and feel the slowing, or use a deliberate wedge (snowplow) for a short time, then go back to parallel, or make a turn to the side, skiing less downhill or even uphill to slow yourself. We speak of managing speed, or controlling it, in skiing. But we do not always slow our speed, sometimes we accelerate it for effect; that is speed management, too.
What are ski poles for? We can ski without poles. Sometimes their use hinders progress because they tend to make us focus on our hands and arms to ski with rather than our legs and feet, to which the skis are attached. "If we were supposed to ski with our hands, you'd attach your skis there," has been said. Or, "If we were supposed to ski with our poles, it'd be called poling, not skiing." Beginners often progress more rapidly not using poles for a few runs, even though they at first protest this tactic vigorously. And even intermediate and advanced skiers can sometimes benefit from not using poles, for pole usage tends to be linked with other movement patterns in the body, and they may not be the best ones. Without the poles the body must retool its timing and rhythm, hopefully with a new program that gives better results. Ski instructors do teach pole usage, but not always when expected so that students may be freed from old patterns. The quip answer to the student's question--no matter what lesson they are in, "Well, when will we learn pole usage?", is "Oh, we'll do that in the next lesson." Poles are useful, too, in giving skiers a tactical reinforcement to their sense of balance as the poles reach contact with the snow. They are used to propel us in walking and to hold us stationary on slopes. They give a limited chance to recover in an impending fall. They may help us get up after a fall. Some poles telescope in and out to accommodate different skiing conditions (shorter for bumps, longer for powder of for walking) and even to become long probes to search for avalanche victims. We use them in skating forward on our skis; an advanced form of this is when racers push on their poles to increase speed
Two plus ways to use poles. As with other aspects of skiing, pole usage has evolved.
An earlier way to use the pole is called the pole plant. Still in use and still effective, the pole is planted forcibly into the snow (hardness/softness permitting) while flexing the legs and tilting them to set the edges, at the same time tensing the forearm and wrist causing the pole to hold that side of the body back and "wind up" the muscles of the thighs, abdomen, and lower back, tensing them, too, and even starting the body spinning around the pole. Next the blockage produced by the planted pole is released by relaxing the hand and wrist along with an extension of the legs to lift the tors upward and away from the slope so the wound-up muscles are released to unwind and turn the body more and thus the skis around the corners. This method can be done more or less aggressively depending on the tightness of turn desired; the more forceful the move, the tighter the turn result. It is used well in mogul skiing when a turn suddenly needs to be tightened. This move is energetic, however, and not as efficient as the modern way. Earlier skis required its use more commonly than do modern skis, for earlier skis were harder to turn.
A modern way to use the pole is called the pole touch. This method is almost the opposite of the earlier way. In the modern way, the pole is touched lightly as the skis reach their flattest position at the transition of one turn to the next starts. The legs have extended at this point and the torso is crossing over the skis (or the skis are crossing under the torso). This moment in the turn when the edges are between being engaged is where control might seem least, and the touch of the pole gives a tactical reassurance to the body that the balance position is correct--or should be adjusted.
Summarizing simply, in the earlier way of using the pole we plant it in the snow at the bottom of our flexion motion when the turn completes. In the modern way, we touch the pole to the snow at the top of our extension motion as the turn begins.
The reality is that we can combine the two methods of pole use, having two plus ways, emphasizing one or the other in a blend, but realizing the modern way is the most efficient and versatile, allowing us to better use the skis' design to turn us.
Important, too, is position of the hands, wrists, and arms in pole usage. Normally, the hands should be visible in front, held as though the skier is riding a motorcycle. Palms should be facing the snow with poles angled outward like whiskers ("to keep the snowboarders away", skiers say). Arms are held in a horseshoe shape with elbows up so that tension is felt in the arms and in the muscles across the chest. (This tension and arm position help keep the torso stable and turning less than if the arms were close to the body.) When a pole is touched, or planted, the arm is held in place as the body passes the pole so that the arm and shoulder are not pulled back and the skier put out of balance.
Where along the ski should the pole be planted? Because we typically turn downhill, poles are usually planted on the downhill side, which is the inside of the new turn. But if we are turning uphill, the pole would be planted there. The pole can be touched near the ski tip or anywhere in an arc out to a point downhill from the boots. A touch near the tip produces a longer-radius turn; a touch downhill from the boot produces a tighter turn. And in-between touches produce in-between turns.
If you have used poles in your skiing but are not satisfied with your results, learn poles this way. Traverse a ski slope flexing and extending the legs while touching the snow with the pole at the tops of the extensions for the modern way, or planting the pole into the snow at the bottoms of the flexions for the earlier way. (Watch for and avoid downhill traffic when crossing slopes, as always.) When ready, on your last pole touch or plant of a series, turn around the pole.
IS A SLIDING SPORT"--a skiing web manual: Skiing
Manual Contents Why Read
This Skiing Web Manual
That First Skiing Lesson
A Little Skiing History
Motion in Skiing
Conventional Skiing Wisdoms
Skier Excuses Fear
Conditioning for Skiing
EQUIPMENT and TECHNIQUE
to Develop Balance on Skis A Skiing Turn
Simplified The Final Skiing Skill:
pressure management Tactics for Terrains and Snow
Skiing Tips and Tales--a potpourri
Exercises for Developing Skiing Skills
Children and Skiing
Age and Skiing
Gender & Skiing Culture
Skiing Ethics and Slope Survival
Slope Safety Skiing
Environment Glossary Acknowledgements
SkiMyBest Website Contents