Thursday, 31 January 2008

How to ski powder

Skiing powder is one of the most rewarding, exhilarating and at the same time potentially frustrating experiences you can find on a pair of skis. The technique is not necessarily difficult, if the snow is friendly, but it is one that many skiers struggle to get to grips with. This is particularly true in the many ski areas worldwide where powder snow is a cherished rarity rather than a daily occurence, meaning this is a technique that skiers do not get to practice that often.

Since I wrote this post around three years ago it has consistently been one of the most visited pages on the whole blog. With this in mind  an update with new photos and a few extra tips seems a good idea.

It is true that very deep powder, or deep snow that is heavy or crusty, can be difficult to ski and require very precise balance. On the other hand a manageable depth of light fluffy powder is not that difficult to ski but it can be quite counter intuitive as you have to forget a portion of what you have learnt for skiing on the pistes.

The biggest difference in powder is that the ski is floating within the snow, rather than riding on top of a hard surface. What is actually happening is that the ski compresses the soft snow beneath it until it can support the ski. This means that the ski tends to bend under the skier's weight with the tip and tail being pushed upwards by the snow. The diagram below shows a weighted and unweighted ski in powder. The difference on the shapes means that the weighted ski will tend to float upwards and the unweighted one to dive downwards.

The upshot of this (apologies for getting a bit technical there) is that weighting the outside ski, as you might on piste, will result in the inside ski nosediving and the skier making a spectacular cartwheel. To avoid this you need to apply the weight to both skis equally. Try to develop a rhythm - push down on the skis so that they bounce up closer to the surface, then turn and sink down ready for the next bounce.
As noted in the comments below, there is a common myth that it is important to lean back in powder. This is definitely not the case - if you lean back your legs get tired and it is much harder to turn. I explain this in more detail in the post Why We Dont Lean Back In Powder.

It is also quite important to ski quite delicately in powder, and even more so in more difficult soft snow conditions. If you over-pressure or over-edge a ski it tends to cut into the snow, sink and stop. I like to think of a bounce and float turn - bounce to initiate the turn as described above, then gently float both skis through the turn as they unweight.

It is important to note that powder is normally found off piste, and skiing off piste carries a whole new set of inherent risks. Avalanches, route finding, unmarked hazards like cliffs and ravines, crevasses on glaciated terraine, tree wells in the trees are just a few. I don't want to put you off, but you do need to be prepared. Learn about the hazards and how to deal with them. Seek local advice, check the avalanche and weather forecasts, take safety equipment (transceiver, shovel, probe) and know how to use it. The safest option is to hire a qualified guide. That said, it is often possible to find powder snow on the edge of the pistes, or in patrolled areas of resorts that are deliberately left unpisted, and these areas are relatively safe to go and play in.

Updated 9th April 2011

Monday, 28 January 2008

Safe Skiing

After seeing a spate of accidents on the mountain recently, including my own mishap a couple of weeks ago, I decided to write something on ski safety. Our ski school building (above) has been covered in protective orange padding since last week to protect it from the skiers hurling themselves into it's walls. Actually it was put up after a young girl crashed into the wall and was lucky to escape with a broken wrist. Hopefully now anyone skiing into the building will escape serious injury.

That collision was a one off, but out of control skiers are all too common. Whilst losing control occasionally when learning to ski is normal, putting oneself in a position where losing control could hurt somebody is reckless. Time and again I see people hurtling down the mountain without the slightest semblance of control, and then going back up to do the same thing. I have some sympathy for the 'can do' attitude, but when transferred to skiing runs way beyond your ability it is likely to be somebody else that gets injured when you knock them out of the way. The most frustrating aspect of this is when the same people continuously fly down out of control, not caring who they crash into, and getting beligerant when anyone challenges them and points out how dangerous their behaviour is to other slope users.

I have no objection to people pushing their own limits and taking a risk they have judged and accepted. However when bystanders are put at risk it is a different issue. Perhaps the biggest risk as a ski instructor is being crashed into by other skiers or snowboarders. It has happened to a number of my colleagues, some of whom have lost significant amounts of work and income as a result. All because someone is too arrogant or selfish to think about the consequences of their actions.

Friday, 18 January 2008

The One Before The Crash

After the crash mentioned in the last post I discovered my previous jump had been caught on camera - this is the last run these ski pants (the instructor uniform ones) made before being cut off following my accident on the same jump the run after.

Photograph courtesy of Helen Parsons - thanks Helen.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Ski Instructors Crash Too

Well, after 23 years of skiing I had my first try at being stretchered off the mountain in the blood waggon (rescue sledge) yesterday. I somehow managed to slice my thigh open with my ski in what would have been a run-of-the-mill fall. 11 stitches later I was told I had been lucky to miss the muscle and was okay to ski today. I think a few people were surprised to see me up there working today but I was only following medical advice.

Anyway, I think one accident in about 130 weeks of skiing is a pretty good record, so I'll sign off now and have an early night.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Don't Panic!

Being a ski instructor, writing a ski instructing blog, it seems about time I wrote a ski instructional post. I have been planning to write an occasional series of instructional posts for different levels of skier for some time. This post is mainly aimed at intermediate skiers - from those trying to make their turns parallel up to parallel skiers trying to break into carving.

I have taught several people recently with the same issue holding back their skiing - namely a rush to get the skis around the turn too quickly, so that their tracks look like the diagram below on the left. Zig zags. The problem with this is that there is only control of speed at the apex of the turn. It is a bit like driving by alternately flooring the accelerator and brake pedals. The reason I think a lot of people do this is that they do not like the idea of their skis pointing straight down the slope.

The diagram on the right shows a curved path where speed is controlled all the way through the turn apart from the short transition which is circled. Although the curve is 'officially' called the control phase, we often call it the 'Oh ****' phase as this is what the skier is thinking as they begin to point down the hill and gain speed. The key is not to panic at this point; let the skis point down the hill for a split second and then finish the turn smoothly. I am not going to go into how to finish the turn - that is another lesson altogether, and at this level you should already have a pretty good idea.

So, just to recap - zig-zags are bad, curves are good, take your time with the turn, let the skis point downhill and don't panic.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

More on Thieving #*$%@

There has been a spate of jackets being stolen here in resort, despite this being in general a fairly crime free resort. I have heard of a few jackets being taken from bars late at night recently. Admittedly the owners of the jackets had probably had a few too many beers but that is hardly relevant in my opinion.

Recently a British student died on a university skiing trip. He had had a few drinks, lost his jacket, took a wrong turn going back to his chalet and died of hypothermia. I don't know whether his jacket was stolen or misplaced, but the point I am trying to make is; stealing someone's coat in sub-zero ski resort conditions could well endanger their life. I don't imagine any of the thieves are reading this, but if you are just think - you might be depriving someone of their life, not just a jacket.

For the rest of us - the honest ones - keep your belongings close in resort bars and stay vigilant. I would love to be able to say theft was not a problem in ski resorts, but unfortunately thieves seem to be everywhere there is opportunity.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

The Friday Presentation

The second and busiest (until February) week of the season has finished and it has flown by. I had two really nice groups to teach - one beginners, one intermediates - plus a few private lessons. In fact I haven't skied outside of teaching time all week. It has been really nice to see people making progress and enjoying themselves in the sun and snow. This really is a great job.

We generally finish the week with a presentation of certificates and a medal. Some instructors do this on the slopes immediately after skiing, but others - myself included - prefer to do it in a bar in the evening. I find this makes for a better atmosphere and is a fun way to finish the week of ski school. The problem this week was in having two adult groups. I arranged to meet one at six and one at eight, which seemed reasonable. However the six o'clock group all insisted on buying me drinks and doing their best to get me drunk and disorderly so that by eight, when I should have been returning to the bar with the second batch of certificates, I was still there and wobbling slightly. The second group also decided it was their duty to get me as drunk as possible, so that when it came to their presentation I was not quite as lucid as I should have been. It often gets to this point on a Friday where the instructor is doing their best to stay sober, while the group is doing their best to skupper this plan.

So, to recap - I had no intention of getting drunk on Friday night, it is not my fault I was drunk, I was forced into it and I'm sticking to that story. The photo is from one of my previous presentations by the way - I don't have any from Friday.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

The Tent and the Chairlift

We had some entertainment on the slopes today provided by the Andorra Sound Project. I was skiing with my afternoon beginner group (not beginners anymore, but they were on Monday). We were halfway down the mountain and decided to stop for a coffee/brandy as it was the first time above the nursery slope for some of the group. The DJ was set up under a gazebo outside the restaurant playing to a mixed response - I thought he was doing okay, but others were muttering about the tranquility of the mountains, and the volume. So we trooped into the restaurant bought coffees/brandys and sat down. Next thing we see through the window is the DJs gazebo wrapped around the cable and pylon of the adjacent chairlift, where a gust of wind had deposited it. The lift ended up stopped for around twenty minutes (with unfortunate people sitting on it in a blizzard) while the tent was removed, and soundwise, we returned the the tranquility of listening to the wind.