“That initial slip makes us uncomfortable. We slip and that can feel scary,” notes veteran ski pro Katherine Rockwell, part of the Professional Ski Instructors of America’ Eastern Division’ Board of Directors and an area representative for Blizzard Skis.
In truth, on many weekend afternoons, whether at Mount Snow or Stratton Mountain, after a day of busy skier traffic, many trails can become firm and, dare we say this, somewhat glassy. At these times, these slick trails can feel challenging. Still, despite the conditions, the best skiers remain balanced and move cleanly from one turn to the next.
How can you refine your skills?
Start with tuned skis. Understand, the edge must be sharp enough to actually cut through the hardpack if we are to comfortably feel control. Just as skaters maintain sharp edges when skating, so too, skiers need sharp edges to slice and dice the hardpack.
Start with sharp edges. Then develop sharp skills.
“Sharp skis are much more suited for ice. And I think knowing that my skis should grip makes me more comfortable,” notes Rockwell. “Then I feel that if I make the appropriate move I’ll get the appropriate result.”
Second, realize that too many people move with harsh, hard, movements. In contrast, many fine skiers emphasize positive and smooth movements.
Don’t be discouraged! You need these skills. Afterall, while a favorite trail may be impeccably groomed at 10 am, by 2 pm you may experience slick, smooth, even shiny ice. In some cases, by afternoon it can seem like the entire mountain is slick. Now, while some skiers meekly retreat into the lodge when the slopes become this hard others still enjoy the mountain experience by honing their skills.
“In the afternoon, with high traffic, it’s all about skiing on hard pack,” adds Bill Austin, another PSIA ski pro. “If you don’t learn to ski on the hard pack you will limit your time on the mountain!”
How can you learn to move gently, strongly, and deftly?
To start, understand that even the sounds of ice can hurt performance. Maybe, dare we say it, the sound is even worse than the actual sliding sensation. Hearing that scraping, skidding, and screeching sound of our (dull?) edges can be nerve-wracking. But you can’t truly call yourself an expert unless you are competent at skiing all types of snow conditions, including ice.
How can you greet this challenge? Welcome to the advanced class.
Ski Pointer #1: Maintain well-tuned skis.
Start with tuned skis. “When I know it’s going to be icy I use a sharp ski,” notes Austin. “I keep them sharp!”
Remember: Hockey skaters and figure skaters only venture onto the ice with immaculately tuned blades. Similarly, the edge of a ski must be sharp enough to actually cut through the hardpack. That means you need a freshly tuned ski to maximize your skills.
Start by checking your edges. Be sure they are free of burrs and sharp. If your skis are dull either visit your mountain shop or tune your skis!
Think of the advantages of a sharp knife slicing butter. That’s our goal on the mountain! Be sure YOUR skis are sharp, waxed, and well-tuned.
Well-tuned skis are key to enjoying the hardpack!
Ski Pointer #2: Relax and stand centered.
Many skiers become – understandably - tense on ice. Learning to relax is key. In fact, the best skiers develop a relaxed, centered stance.
“I think being relaxed allows you to anticipate,” explains Rockwell. “Then you see where you are skiing and that helps you make appropriate choices. But if you’re tense and concentrating on holding on you won’t move as effectively.”
By standing centered and relaxed you can best maintain a square, balanced position. From that position, work to maintain good ski-snow contact. Work to maintain pressure control, work to stay centered, and work to keep moving in the direction of travel.
Success depends on a relaxed, balanced, and centered stance.
“From that centered stance you act or react. If out of balance, your decisions won’t be effective,” notes Rockwell.
When relaxed, think about having skis slide in the direction you are seeking. Relax! It’s allowable to slide on ice! Think about “controlled” skidding or sliding. That can help make you more relaxed.
“Stay in that balanced position,” suggests Austin. “In the back seat you are in a defensive position. The foundation crumbles. You need to stay balanced.”
To start, begin practicing on more moderate terrain where you can focus on your skiing rather then surviving! As you relax on that more moderate terrain, try to stand centered. Try to relax. Try to breathe evenly. Ice can enhance the challenge. Choosing less demanding terrain reduces one variable and offers the opportunity to work on your skiing rather then in survival strategies.
Ski Pointer #3: Maintain consistent energy
Most folks brake at the end of the turn. But experts guide the skis consistently throughout the turn. Over the past winter I have been thinking about “metering” my energy throughout the turn! On ice, this is critical.
“If you are driving on ice you don’t want to slam on the brakes. In skiing,” notes Rockwell, “you have to accept you can’t ski like corduroy. Spread the energy throughout the turn so you won’t get out of control. If you are moving well, ice doesn’t have to be any different then skiing on other surfaces.”
One focus is to tip the skis onto the edge at the beginning of the turn. This is in contrast to too many skiers who simply push the tails out. The latter typically ends with more slide then ideal! In contrast, tipping at the beginning of the turn means that it takes less effort to develop the turn. Realize that it’s most effective to move from one turn to the next and the next rather than turning and stopping and turning and stopping.
“Do adjust your expectations,” suggests Rockwell. “Stay balanced. Meter those turns.”
Practice consistent - metered - movement patterns. Strive for smooth, relaxed skiing. Realize that skiing on ice offers both risk and challenge.
Accomplished skiers approach icy conditions with sharp, well-tuned skis, with solid skills, and with a balanced position and attitude. Skiing ice may not, at first, offer the same delight as packed powder but it can sharpen your skills. But that takes practice. Lots of practice. Start with tuned skis. Start on modest terrain. Start with a balanced position.
Savor your day. From that first run to your last run.
Contributing columnist Tony Crespi has served as both a ski school supervisor and development team coach. His column is published throughout the season.