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 Tactics for Terrains and Snow Textures and Racing--Skiing Hard Snow/Ice

by Bill Jones, Ski Instructor
Certified Professional Ski Instructor (Registration #110478), Level III
private ski lessons at Keystone, Breckenridge, Vail, Beaver Creek, Arapahoe Basin, other areas

In the West, skiers often complain of icy ski slopes. Eastern skiers scoff at this, for to them ice is like what you put in a cocktail drink. They brag of  reading a page of The New York Times over which they have stopped, frozen under a layer of clear ice. Western snow can be hard, too, and is occasionally ice if there has been a long snow-less spell with repeated freezing and thawing. Continual skier/boarder traffic over a ski slope can also produce an icy snow surface, as with each passage of a slider the snow's crystal delicacies are melted only to freeze again after the slider passes. Another ice situation occurs where a groundwater spring seeps up into the snow and freezes. And there can be a surface stream that has run amok or a broken water line for a snow gun that spews water that then freezes on the slope, or the gun itself could have been badly calibrated  or malfunctioned and generated the wrong mix of water and air that then sprayed onto the slope and froze.

A tactic for ice is to avoid it when you can, or be a racer and love it for the speed and predictability it will give you. Ski edges that are smoothly filed and with a smaller base edge bevel and a larger side edge angle may help, creating bevels on base and side that generate an overall corner that is more acute and therefore slices into the ice more. For ice, ski bases should have no convexity that would make edging less sure, although some add a slight concavity to the base so the edges touch the snow more than the base. (See Ski Equipment/Ski Edges for a fuller discussion of edge bevels and edge maintenance.) Some skiers use skis that are stiffer longitudinally for ice, but all should prefer skis that are stiff laterally so the ski holds firmly when tipped. Boots should be firm and buckled well, and power straps should hold boot liners firmly against shins. Pole tips should be sharp so they will not slip when touched on the surface.

If the slope is partly hard snow or ice and partly softer snow, use the softer areas for as much of your turns as you can; your skis' edges will grip there better, and drift with flatter skis across the icy areas. If a large patch of ice occurs and your edges slip out, you can either go faster and edge harder so your skis will slice into the ice and hold, perhaps adding more weight to the outside ski (the racer's choice) or reduce your edge angle and drift across the hard surface, maintaining a balanced stance with taut core and legs. Firm but progressive movements of the body are vital, for more rapid or forceful movements are likely to break the skis from whatever edge grip they may have attained and cause the skis to skid more.

Here is an analysis sent to one skiing associate who was having trouble managing his speed on steep and slick narrow corridors:

I know I didn’t make clear what I was getting  at in suggesting a way to solve your need to control speed in descending narrow slick spots while alpine skiing. And I’ve not addressed this adequately on but this report to you inspires me to add something there... So I hope you’ll let me try again to explain a way to control speed in that situation. I know you know most of this explanation already, but perhaps I can put it here in a way that ties it more together. Know, too, that this explanation applies mainly to when headed down the fall line. If descending at an angle to the fall line, such as on a wider slope or on a narrower trail that slants downward instead of going down straight, you can make a bunch of skiddy sort of half-turns, creating a garland pattern as your skis scrape the snow, in sort of rounded sideslips.

The basics are that besides falling over there are only two ways to slow skis. One is to turn them so they point less downhill and begin to carry the skier at an angle to the fall line or even uphill (or just head up a reverse slope). And the other is to increase the friction on the skis.

Imagine a 1x4 piece of wood about as long as a pair of skis that is sliding with its long dimension pointed straight downhill. Of course it would be top-heavy if it slid on the 1 inch side so it will be sliding flat to the snow.  But even in this position if it is turned (rotated) so its length is no longer pointed straight down the fall line but at an angle thereto, the 1x4 will keep sliding the same direction and as fast, as the same amount of surface is still in contact with the snow and therefore the friction on it must be the same as before it was turned. Recall the board is still flat to the surface it is sliding down. There is thus a difference in where the 1x4 is pointed and where it is going (rather like an airplane at takeoff, climbing with the fuselage pointed at an angle steeper than the line the plane itself is following). In order to change where the board is going a deflecting force must occur. This could happen from an irregularity in the surface on which it is sliding, a little bump or twig or the like that slows one side and perhaps lifts the other, so that now a slight change in direction and angle to the surface have occurred and the uphill edge of the board digs a bit into the surface and starts to scrape sideways over it, creating more friction that slows that side still more, thus creating a rotational force, and at the same time causing the board to begin sliding more along its uphill side that is now touching the surface more than the rest of the board. The more the board tips, the greater the friction on the edge of the board that is on the surface, and there will be a variable blend of how much scraping versus how much change of direction might occur. Thus when the board became pointed a new way it did not actually change where it was headed until something deflected one side of it, causing the board to get on its edge and enhance the deflection. Steel edges on the board would increase the effect. If the board was shaped like a narrow-waisted popsicle stick, as the board tipped it would grab more at its leading and trailing ends and possibly bend into a bow, creating an arc that the board would follow to the degree that the board tracked on its edge versus skidded on its edge. The more the board tipped, the higher above the surface would be its narrower middle and so the more the board could deflect into a stronger bow and therefore a tighter turning arc.

We skiers can influence what happens to our “boards” by how we position and/or move our bodies above them, and thus we can manage what our boards (skis) will do. Thus, rather than waiting for a chance deflection to occur, we can turn the direction our skis point by applying turning forces. We should want to do this in a way that allows us maximum options and flexibility of timing, yet adequate force for the amount of turning we want the skis to get. Most skiers do this by rotating their entire bodies around a vertical axis, causing the skis to turn. Another way is to just turn the lower part of the body down closer to where the skis are in contact with the snow, which reduces some of the “slack” in the former way and thus makes the application of the turning force more precise, stronger, controllable, quicker—and even stoppable, as once a rotation force gets started we need also to have a way to slow it up and/or stop it. To do this a method of movement has been developed and was analyzed by Georges Joubert of France.  His work was brought to America in part by Ron LeMaster (who is now a consultant to the U.S. Ski Team and has books of his own and with whom I have skied a few times and is probably in Sochi right now). The movement is called bracquage, and involves rotating the femurs inside the pelvis either independent of one another or in sync. It is argued that the femurs must rotate independently in order to keep the skis parallel in a turn, for the radius followed by the inside ski of a turn is not as long as that followed by the outside ski; thus the inside ski must be turned more. This is not possible to do if a person rotates the whole body and is especially does not work if in a narrow ski stance, just because of some anatomy. The effect of the different radii on the turning skis varies with the width of the turn, becoming greater with shorter radius turns and thus more important to use bracquage in shorter radius turns than longer, ‘though important in both.  It’s not that you have to ski with bracquage, it just gives better management of the skis in more conditions.

But in order to point the skis in a new direction using rotational forces that we apply to them, the skis should first be flat to the snow just as in the example with the board because that if either the board or the skis are tipped before we apply a turning force, the edges will catch and impede the turning. Most skiers resolve this problem by just applying more force but that reduces how quickly they can turn the skis and also creates a need to subdue the excess rotation a bit later in the turn. 

In order to get the skis flat to the snow, we must stand with the forces of our weight coming down perpendicular to the skis; if we tip so our weight comes down differently, the skis will also tip--because of the lateral stiffness of our ski boots. If our boots had no lateral stiffness we would be much more likely to stand so our weight force is perpendicular to our skis, and this is why experts and racers sometimes ski with their boots unbuckled or lightly buckled, so they can improve their feel for this balanced position. This is not to say we should always be balanced, for moving out of balance is one way to place new forces on the skis and get them to do new things. (This point is mine alone, heresy in ski instruction where you are told to always be in balance; if you don’t do some move, no new forces will be applied to skis and they will keep doing what they were, not necessarily what you want.)

Thus with skis flat to the snow we can initiate our turns more quickly and more precisely and as the turns develop and accelerate downhill and the skis because of their design sidecut begin to turn themselves, the skis will naturally catch (“edge”) on their uphill sides because our bodies have been “left behind” slightly uphill from a vertical line above them, and we are thus tipping them more. We can control how much we tip them, too, which will influence how much they scrape their edges on the snow versus follow along the lines of their arcs as they bend more.  We give ourselves better options for tipping by flexing our legs so we can move the knee (eversion) more to the inside of the turn and even by pressing the knee (some people say the foot) with our muscles down toward the snow (press the little toe down, lift the big toe up is another way this is said). 

The end result is a way to create more friction to better maintain the speed desired on slick snow where there is little maneuvering space.  There are even drills to help develop the skill described. The drills are needed, for folks do not normally use their legs in the way of bracquage. An old classic drill is to ski with poles held horizontally in front and at comfortable arms’ length while skiing straight down a gentle slope at the same time keeping the poles perpendicular to the fall line. If one turns the hips one cannot do all this, so one must rotate the femurs inside the pelvis to succeed. A more advanced form is to start on a smooth low-blue slope, go straight down a yard or so standing perpendicular to your skis (the body necessarily tipped outward from the slope) while turning them by rotating your legs inside the pelvis at the hip joint, bellybutton always pointed straight down the fall line, flexing downward as the skis come back around below you and finish their turn, then rising and tipping downhill to perpendicularity to do it again—all this within a corridor no wider than your skis are long, or as near as you can. (In instructors’ tests this must be done in a corridor of ski-length width.) Women tend to be able to do this better than men because of extra cartilage in their pelvis that makes that structure more expandable, useful in child-bearing. You can see Mikala Shiffrin perform the skill of bracquage wonderfully in her slalom racing. For instance, look at this view from Ron LeMaster: You’ll see her turning her skis without turning her torso, or as a ballet dance instructor put it to me, “Always show your pearls to the crowd as much as you can, even while spinning”. But avoid the trap some fall into, thinking that all turns should be done with the torso always facing downhill. This is more for shorter-radius turns which is what will help for slick, narrower descents (and bumps and slalom races).  In longer-radius turns the torso will turn more with the skis, but it will follow (not lead) the skis as turns are started using the legs and feet.

So the sequence is get the skis going downhill, get them flat to the snow by standing perpendicular to them, rotate the femurs in the pelvis at the hip joint to change the way the skis point, allow the skis to naturally catch their edges as they will because of their design sidecut, enhance the tip of the skis by flexing downward so the knee can be bent more and the lower leg can be tipped at a greater angle to tip the skis still more, getting the amount of friction desired by how much the skis are tipped, meanwhile with the skis because of their design arcing to the side and then coming back to run downhill below you. Then relax and rise up a bit at the same time allowing the torso (and even the legs if at higher speed) to cross over the skis so they are to the desired degree on the downhill side of the skis and do it all over again.

This is not to say that rotation of the whole body does not have a place. In deep and heavy powder with a variable texture and depth it is difficult to get in just the right balance position so the forces from the weight of our body is perpendicular to the skis, tracking as they are on their own “surface” that develops from the forces they produce on the varying textures of the powder and which phantom surface holds them at a relative depth in the snow.  And if one misses that position of balance and the skis won’t turn or turn well enough, one can rotate the whole body without concern of over-rotating as on a groomed-snow surface, for the resistance of the deep snow will stop the rotation. I was failed at certification exam once because the examiner did not understand this principle and did not accept the rotation I applied. Folks using the terrain parks, too, start many maneuvers with a whole-body rotation before they leave the snow for one cannot create the spin needed once launched.  Likewise with the confused examiner just cited, the ski instructors’ association had advocated against any such rotation until the kids in the terrain parks showed what it could do. You’ll even see Olympic racers using the technique in speed events when they want to get from one set of edges to the other in a fast way or in the slaloms for the same reason or to correct a slight miscalculation or prior bobble that kept them from  not starting a turn soon enough. Then these racers stop the excess rotation by a hard edge set and a blocking action of the muscles. (This is much the same as I learned in the old-school method of throwing a discus in which you first spun and then just before releasing the platter you braced the inside foot with core tension, stopping rotation on that side and allowing the outside of the body to spin a bit more, theoretically adding impetus to the throw --now discredited, however, even though the move is useful in skiing and possibly some other areas).

And you are right, clean edges are a requisite for control on slick spots, but also consider different edge bevels. Manufacturers recommend base bevels from ½ to 1 degree and side bevels usually in the 1 to 2 degree range, but the recommendations are also specific to their particular models.  And even then  these recommendations are general purpose. Because you have a specific concern, you might experiment with your own choices for bevel. Racers often use a 3 degree side bevel, and I have come to that. Sometimes bevels are varied along the length of the edge, depending on what part of the ski’s length one wants to have more effect. Before rocker skis were invented, for instance, we got much the same effect of the upturn at either or both tip and tail by sometimes having a lesser base bevel in those areas compared to what we had in the underfoot region. Because the bevel does not have much effect except on groomed-snow areas and even there it has more effect on the hardest areas, you normally needn’t be much concerned with an effect in softer snow. But don’t overlook the importance of developing the bracquage technique, too. Clean and beveled edges are not worth as much without bracquage, or vice versa. (I also have a bit of a discussion on edge angles at, and there may still be more in the Tognar Toolworks catalog, if still available by requesting online at that name.

A final word: Eventually, after selecting the tactic to apply, you must "Point the skis down the hill; let them buck; the mountain will teach you!"

Contents of "TACTICS FOR TERRAINS and Snow Textures and Racing":
Skiing Groomed Snow
Skiing Hard Snow/Ice--you are on this page.
Skiing Among Trees
Skiing Narrow trails
Skiing Moguls
Skiing Powder Snow
Skiing Cold Snow-Warm Snow/New Snow-Old Snow
Skiing "Spring" Snow
Skiing Steeps

Skiing Gates/Racing

"SKIING IS A SLIDING SPORT"--a skiing web manual:    Skiing Web Manual Contents   Why Read This Skiing Web Manual That First Skiing Lesson  A Little Skiing History   A Little Skiing History   Motion in Skiing  Conventional Skiing Wisdoms  Skier Excuses   Fear in Skiing  Conditioning for Skiing  How Skis Work   Equipment and Technique  Skiing Equipment  How to Develop Balance on Skis  A Skiing Turn Simplified The Final Skiing Skill: pressure management   TACTICS FOR TERRAINS and SNOW TEXTURES and  RACING  Skiing Tips and Tales--a potpourri   Exercises for Developing Skiing Skills   Children and Skiing  Gender & Skiing  Age and Skiing  Culture & Skiing Skiing Ethics and Slope Survival  Slope Safety Skiing Environment    Videos and Apps  Glossary  Acknowledgements SkiMyBest Website Contents  
This "Skiing Hard Snow/Ice" page last modified 07/28/2017 02:25:40 AM. Did you come here from a link on another website? For latest version of this page, copy to your browser: Copyright © 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017. William R Jones.