Friday, 15 November 2013

In Praise of the Stem-Christie

There was a time when the stem-christie was an essential part of learning to ski. Over time both ski technique and ski vocabulary have changed and to many the stem-christie belongs in the skiing history book. The word christie has almost disappeared from the skiing lexicon, being largely replaced with more utilitarian words like 'parallel' or 'turn'.

Back in the day, when the stem-christie was part of
the skiing language
In my eyes this is a real shame since the word christie goes back to the very roots of modern skiing in 19th century Norway. In 1866 Sondre Norheim and his co-skiers demonstrated two radical new techniques in the Norwegian capital of Christiania (now Oslo). One was the Telemark turn, named for Norheim's home town. The other was a skid to stop which became known as the Christiania turn and later as the Christie - this formed the basis of the parallel turn in subsequent decades. The next major developments came in Austria with the invention of the stem and double stem turns. The latter became known as the snowplough and the former evolved into the stem christie with the addition of a vertical movement to unweight the skis. The stem part of the name refers to sliding the outside ski out into a plough or wedge shape. The christie part to bringing the skis parallel in the second part of the turn.

So what has happened to the technique, and why is it rarely taught in modern ski schools? Apart from the change of language giving us clarity at the expense of history, the basic ski progression has changed as well. A true stem involves putting an unweighted outside ski out to the side and then transferring the weight onto it. A modern snowplough or wedge turn is initiated with two skis, turning and weighting both of them at the start of the turn. This allows for an easier progression to the parallel turn as the skier is used to using both feet.

Where does this leave the stem-christie if it is not longer needed in the beginner progression? Many skiers see the parallel turn as the ultimate aim in skiing and any form of stem is therefore seen to detract from technical perfection. More practical skiers see good skiing as being about control - whether this means dealing effortlessly with difficult terrain off piste or skiing a race course as fast as possible. In both these situations the stem-christie is a useful technique to have in the toolbox. Mountain guides and ski mountaineers will have no reservations about using a stem to negotiate heavy snow on lightweight skis with a big rucksack. At the opposite extreme many a ski racer will automatically make a momentary stem at the start of a tight turn, placing the ski on its edge in the new turn before standing on it. This can easily be seen in slow motion footage of the best skiers in the world. Do they care if their skis aren't parallel? Not if it helps them go faster.

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