Monday, 31 March 2008

Why we don't lean back in powder

There is a common misperception in skiing that in order to ski powder, or other deep snow, it is necessary to lean back. In any type of skiing, it is important to stay centred over the feet, and any fore-aft movement should never take the weight behind the heels. The moment the weight moves aft of the feet, the pressure is on the tails of the skis and you end up trying to turn by levering the whole ski around with the cuff of the boot - not good for your skiing or your legs.

So why do so many people say to lean back in powder? To keep the tips out of the snow is the answer I often hear. Another reason is that good skiers often appear to be leaning back in powder, and their tips often do come out of the snow. Both answers are related, but we need to take a closer look at what is really going on to show that you don't actually have to lean back.

When we say we need to be centred, we are talking relative to the ski - most people know that as the slope gets steeper we have to lean forward more to maintain our position over the ski. On a firm, groomed slope, the ski is flat on the slope, so the position we make over the ski is the same as the position over the slope. However, in deep snow the ski tip needs to come closer to the surface of the snow, and the ski will compress the snow beneath it to form a supporting platform. The result of this is that the ski is no longer parallel to the slope but angled upward, so that the skier who is balanced over the skis appears to be leaning backwards against the slope. The diagram shows two skiers, both in balanced positions on similar pitched slopes, however the bottom skier is in deep snow so the whole picture, including the skis, is tipped backwards.

This may seem a bit pedantic - after all the skier does look like they are leaning back - the important point though is that they will feel centred and in balance. If someone is told to lean back they will inevitably lean onto the backs of their boots and find it hard to stay in control.

Sunday, 30 March 2008

The Best Apres Ski Drink

After a hard day on the slopes, it is a great feeling to hit the bars still in ski gear for a spot of apres-ski. The first drink after skiing is always the best one you will taste, and the second is not far behind.

On a sunny day most people will probably go for a cold beer or maybe a cider. On a cold snowy day, or damp one, it is hard to beat a hot wine. Known as gluhwein in German speaking areas, vin chaud in France, and vino caliente (a bit of a mouthful I know) here - the recipe is always similar. Wine, herbs, fruit, cloves, maybe a dash of brandy or other spirits mixed and heated. Actually this post was inspired by (and is a tribute to) the vino caliente pictured above. It was made by Pablo, a barman at Ciscos here in Arinsal, and as you can see he put a great deal of effort into the presentation. So much so that I had to take the photo. I was quite reluctant to drink it at all, as I didn't want to spoil the artistry, but managed to force myself in the end.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

End of Season Snow

We have just over two weeks here until the end of the season and just like last year the snow is pouring out of the sky. Again March is proving the snowiest part of the winter (well spring now) and the next two weeks are again expected to be quiet. This week is actually surprisingly busy, due to an early Easter, but from Saturday until close the slopes will probably be deserted. I can never understand why more people don not ski in April. The slopes are quiet, the snow is usually good and the weather is warmer in between snow storms. People tend to assume I think that the resort closes when the snow melts, so the last couple of weeks before close day they might expect the snow cover to be patchy. In fact this resort closes in mid-April because there are not enough visitors by then to make it viable to open longer. Apparently people go to the beach instead - which is another thing I have never understood; why go to a beach when you could ski instead?

There are a string of other reasons why the end of season is a good time to ski. I think I mentioned a few this time last year. Some examples are end of season sales in the shops, cheap packages and accommodation and staff who know their jobs well after a few months in post (unlike at the start of the season where many staff are new).

With all this snow I think another post on how to ski powder could be in order, as a follow up to the last powder ski lesson I posted back in January.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Dealing with Ice

We have reached that part of the season where the slopes are usually very firm in the mornings due to the melt-freeze cycle. Some days the snow can be firm and grippy, other days it can be like a sheet of ice. Ice is one of the most intimidating snow types for many skiers, so it seems like a good idea to address the techniques to manage it. Technically there is a difference between hard slippy snow (stuff that fell out of the sky and has transformed due to weather, passage of skiers, groomers etc.) and ice (water which was liquid and then froze), but to most skiers the difference is academic.

On firm, slippy, icy terrain there is a perception that the skis need to be edged more to increase grip. In order for this to work the pressure against the skis needs to be increased to maintain balance, and the picture looks like the skier on the left in the diagram. The force against the skis has to be balanced by the centrifugal effect of the skier going around the turn, and by the weight of the skier. With high performance skis, perfectly tuned, a very good skier can do this. However, maintaining this position is dependant upon the skis continuously gripping a very firm surface. The moment the grip fails the skis skid out sideways and the skier's mass will fall downwards, probably hitting the ground.

If you are racing, or race training, the technique described above works well. For most people the skier on the right in the diagram illustrates a more realistic approach. Accept that you are going to skid sideways, and try to make it a controled skid. Keep the skis fairly flat and the bodyweight above them - this way when the skis skid sideways the body is not left hanging in the air but stays above the feet. Making skiddy turns keeps the speed under control and minimising the pressure under the feet reduces the likelihood of the skis skiiding out sideways. The idea, unless you really want to go fast over the ice, is to ski delicately and gently. Even if you want to start carving turns on ice, try to stay more over your feet and use less pressure. It is possible to increase the edge angle whilst keeping the center of mass closer to the feet, but that is another lesson I'm afraid.

Ice is just one more type of snow (notwithstanding the comment above) with its own set of demands on the skier. If you don't let it intimidate you it can be just as rewarding as any other condition.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Blogger's Block

I seem to have hit a bit of writer's (blogger's) block lately amongst the end of season rush. Suddenly we only have a couple of weeks left - in fact next week will probably be the last week of work. All the things I meant to do this season are mostly still undone. Partly lack of snow, partly lack of time. The best snow of the season was just after I had my little accident and was taking things easy. So this week and the remaining few I'm trying hard to get in all the skiing and partying I can in the knowledge it will all be over soon. When I did find time to sit down to the blog I had a complete blank on what to write.

When teaching skiing, I usually respond to things rather than make something up out of nothing. There is something of a script with beginners - plough, brake, turn, plough-parallel, parallel over the course of the week. Non-Brits should probably read wedge for plough there. After week one though there is not really a set progression and the instructor has a lot more freedom. I have never been stuck for an idea though. There are always various options, and usually I teach depending on the terrain and on the group. Sitting in front of a computer with a blank blog to write is a bit different. I can talk about anything at all I want to, with nothing to point me in a certain direction. I find that a lot harder. Give me a skiing question, or technique, or terrain etc. and I could talk for hours. Give me a free rein and I'm stuck. Oh well, probably just hitting that end of season tiredness phase. Give me a few decent night's sleep and I'll be typing away again.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Days off and days away

Last week was an unusual week in that we had two days where the mountain was shut due to bad weather. Whilst this was quite common when I worked in Scotland and New Zealand, it is a rare event here (we have only had one closed day in the last two seasons). The first closed day was spent in the flat, catching up with various websites etc. The roads were pretty dicey so no one was keen to go anywhere else. On Friday though the roads were clear and we had the opportunity to head toward Ordino for lunch at Gaspa's (the Hotel Gaspa). This is a well known spot amongst the locals although it doesn't look much from the outside, being dominated by the petrol station next door. A very pleasant afternoon was spent enjoying Catalan cuisine and a few bottles of wine.

This weekend the weather cleared up, and the snow was excellent where it hadn't blown away. On Sunday I went to Baqueira in Spain with another instructor. We made an early start as it is just over two hours drive, but the skiing was fantastic with some great off-piste opportunities. The sun shone all morning and it was just nice to be skiing somewhere else for a change. After lunch the weather changed dramatically and we were soon skiing in a whiteout with visibility down to a few metres. It took me back to learning to ski as a child. Too often these days I don't go out when the weather is bad - after all I have all season to ski - but days like this are really good for your technique. Obviously high speed carving is not safe, but doing short radius turns when you can't see the terrain ahead of you really makes you feel for what your feet are doing.
I'll try and post some pictures over the next few days, but I need to get them from my colleague first.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Drag lift tips

Following my tribute to the Poma drag lift in the last post, I am going to give some hints on using these and other drag lifts for the newer skier who may not have come across them yet. I teach many second or third week skiers who can happily get around the mountain and use the chairlifts, but look at me blankly when I suggest taking a Poma up the hill.

These lifts work by having a large button on the end of a pole which is attached to a moving cable overhead. The button is placed between the skier's legs and tows them up the mountain. Other drag lifts exist including the T-bar (where two skiers can ride together, one each side of the T) and the simple rope tow (hold the rope and let it drag you).

The big difference with any type of drag lift is that your skis (or snowboard) stay on the ground. It may seem obvious, but the lift does not support you, it tows you. Therefore you need to stand up - if you try to sit down on it you WILL fall.

Since you are skiing on these lifts, you need to point your skis straight ahead, parallel. If you point your skis to the side you will get dragged sideways, and again, you will fall. The lift won't steer your skis for you, you have to do it yourself.

To mount a Poma lift, check which side of you the button lift will be on, and put your poles in the opposite hand. Slide forward to the gate, or wand. Wait for the gate to open, or the light to go green. Slide forward through the wand and in one motion pull the button down towards you and place it between your legs. Be ready for the acceleration as the lift will move quickly once it starts.

To dismount, pull the button towards you and out from between you legs, then let it go and slide forwards. DO NOT dismount too early.

If you fall over on a drag lift, let it go and move off the track quickly. Don't try to hang on.

Moving on to the rules. There are two common rules on drag lifts, which good skiers tend to ignore as they think they know better. I have been guilty of this in the past, but in fact the rules are there for good reasons. If you understand why the rules are there, at least you can break them properly.

Rule 1 - No slalom

I.e. ski in a straight line under the cable and don't weave from side to side. The reason for this is that skiing out to the side pulls the cable out sideways, and in an extreme case it could cause the cable to derail from the pulleys. Fixing this takes a good bit of effort and the lift will be shut for an hour at least.

Rule 2 - Don't get off half way

The reason for this rule is that a button released early can wrap itself around a pylon and cause at best a lost button, at worst a derail. If you are going to hop off early, always do it after a pylon and not before. This is more of a problem with T-Bars and non-detachable button lifts which are attached to the cable with a reel of rope. As the rope reels back in, the button or T-bar can swing around a pylon quite easily.

Friday, 7 March 2008

The Poma Drag Lift

Also known as a button or platter lift depending what part of the world you are in, the Poma drag lift is a design classic of the Ski world.

I decided to write something of a tribute to these lifts because they are becoming rarer as more resorts upgrade to high speed detachable chairlifts. If they disappear completely they will be sadly missed, at least by me, although I suspect they will always have their place.

The Poma lift was invented in 1936 by a Polish immigrant (to France) named Jean Pomagalski. The first lift was installed at Alp D'Huez in France, and the Poma lift company has been building drag lifts to essentially the same design ever since. Although drag lifts existed previously (mostly rope tows powered by tractors or whatever was available), the Poma lift was the original detachable lift.

The big advantage of a detachable lift is that it can run a lot faster. In the case of the Poma, the button is stationary until the rider is ready, then it attached to the cable and accelerates up the hill. Poma lifts were by far the fastest lifts on the mountain until the advent of high speed detachable chairs in te early 80s (not counting trains and cable cars where you have to take your skis off). The modern high speed chairlifts carrying six or eight people were not introduced until the 90s.

Other than speed and nostalgia, a big reason I miss drag lifts as an instructor is that they actually help you to learn to ski. Ten minutes sitting on a chairlift teaches you nothing (unless the instructor is sat next to you explaining something). Ten minutes on a drag lift (although it's usually less with them being high speed lifts) is ten minutes balancing and sliding on your skis. You need to keep them parallel, steer to stay in the track and adjust your fore/aft and lateral balance to stay on your feet. In short it teaches you techniques that will lead you to parallel turns.

Many skiers these days do not encounter drag lifts until the day they really need to use one to get somewhere. Here, for example, you can get across to Pal without needing a drag lift until you try to come back. In the next post I will give a few pointers on using drag lifts, as well as the reasons for the rules they post on the pylons (no slaloming or getting off half way etc.) I'll leave you to admire the photo above, from the Poma website.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

First Closed Day

Today is the first closed day all winter. It is still snowing hard with no sign of stopping, but it is the high winds which stopped the lifts from opening. When this storm dies down things should be fantastic up on the mountain.

On the one hand we get an extra day off, but we will have to make that up at the weekend to make sure people get their full week of ski school. It has been great to sit in front of the fire watching the snow, but I'd rather have been out in the powder skiing it.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Winter Snow Arrives

We are currently having what looks set to be the biggest snowfall of the season so far. Although the snow up until now has been far better than last winter, there was still less early season than last year. Just like last year the big snow has waited until March to arrive.

This is a fairly common pattern - I remember several winters over the last decade or snow where the snow has arrived late, but been excellent at the end of the season. This is one of the reasons I always suggest a later trip to people - March rather than January.

Here we are all grinning of course. I'm sitting in the flat with the log fire blazing, watching the weather through the window. On Sunday I was sat outside a mountain restaurant in a T-shirt at 4pm, sipping a beer in the sunshine. Today I had my big ski school jacket plus fleeces and thermals and I was still chilly. With the snow, wind, cold and mist it finally felt like winter had arrived. We see it again and again, but it still amazes me how things can change in the mountains.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

My New Unicycle

It may seem an unusual purchase, but one BASI trainer said to me recently that several national ski teams are using them for training. They are good for balance, core strength and to an extent leg strength as well. I went for one with a big tyre as it looked better suited to riding outdoors on bumpy roads and hills. I have since been told that a small tyre would have been easier to learn on. Oh well, this one will be faster when I eventually get the hang of it. It is definitely harder than it looks, but I have managed to go the length of the corridor in the appartment building without having to touch the wall. A corridor is the perfect place to practise, as to begin with you can use both walls for support. Later, a touch on the wall can avert a fall, allowing a bit more milage.

Interestingly a lot of the common faults are the same as those in skiing - looking down instead of ahead being the main one. It also helps to keep the weight forward, like when learning to ski. Keeping the upper body strong is important, again, just like skiing. With all this in common, one might suppose a good skier would know all the right things to do - unfortunately this does not seem to make it any easier to do them...