Training & Technique

The Basics of Going Up Hill


Not even the best skiers can climb every hill with the diagonal stride. The alternatives, the herringbone and the side step, appear to be simple techniques, but, in fact, many skiers struggle to use them effectively.

The herringbone uses the edges of the ski to grip the snow when the wax or waxless pattern is inadequate to the job. To use the edges, place your skis in a V position with the back ends at the point of the V and the front tips spread. Turn your toes out from the hips to spread the tips of your skis. By rotating your entire leg, you keep your knees aligned over your feet as you flex your knees and ankles. This position is both more comfortable and more effective.

With your toes turned out, the distance between your heels should be about twice the width of your shoulders. Flex your knees and ankles, pointing your knees towards your ski tips so that you look like a cowboy who just got off a horse. Push the edges of your skis into the snow by pressing your core forward. (Your core is that region from your thighs to the bottom of your ribcage.)

Do not roll your knees inward, toward each other. Keeping your body upright and angled forward between your skis pushes the edges of your skis into the snow and keeps you from sliding backward.

To move forward, stay in that "saddle sore" position and waddle up the hill. Your feet should move forward as though you were kicking a ball up the hill with the instep of your foot. Move your hip forward to kick the ball, rather than just swinging you leg (photo 1). Lift one ski over the tail of the other as you step forward.

Your opposite pole should be planted just outside the V of your skis and even with your front foot. (Left pole even with right foot when that is the front foot.)

Avoid the common problem of squatting between your skis and attempting to bring your next ski up the hill with your foot and knee (photo 2 and photo 3).

Side Step
When the hill gets too steep, the snow too deep, or the herringbone too tiring, it is time to side step. Keep your body upright and over the skis to dig them into the snow and avoid slipping down the hill (photo 4).

When you step up the hill, move your hips (your core) first, then bring your ski beneath you. Skiers struggle when they try to place the ski uphill first (photo 5). If you don't keep weight on the ski, it slips. The other key to side stepping is to keep your skis 90 degrees to the slope. (If you're climbing directly north, say, your skis should be directly east-west.) If your skis aren't 90-degrees to the slope, they will slip out from under you toward whichever end is pointed downhill.

Skis angle up or down hill when side stepping because the tips or tails catch in the snow. To free your tip from the snow, pull your toes toward the top of your boot as you bring your knee to your chest. To get your tail out of the snow, bring your heel to your butt.

Diagonal Stride
Balance, proper body position, and continuous forward movement of your core provide maximum glide, the major feature of moving on skis. The instruction column of the December 2002 issue of Cross Country Skier offered ideas and activities to help you glide over the flats, and even up small hills. At some point, however, you will need to develop a bomber grip and a powerful kick to give your diagonal stride the horsepower to fly over the flats and to motor up the hills.

The Monster Kick
A great wax job and properly fitted skis are a tremendous help when you want good grip. However, a skilled skier can get adequate grip from a wide variety of skis and waxes. Although various techniques help, an experienced skier gains a feel for his or her skis that makes the real difference.

Drills and exercises are intended to help you discover some useful movements and gain some of that "ski feel." They are not lists of ingredients that can be carefully assembled, as in a recipe, to create "good technique." Think of any drill or exercise as an experiment that may or may to prove useful to you. The monster kick detailed here allows you to isolate and experiment with small parts of a series of continuous movements that, combined, are called the kick.

To start, simply stand on your skis. Reach forward with the foot you want to grip the snow (photo 6). Flex your front ankle to drive your hips over your foot, bringing all of your weight, concentrated in your core, onto and over your front foot (photo 7). (Remember, your core is the area from your thighs to the bottom of your ribcage.) Your knee should bend with your ankle, creating a parallel alignment of your front shin and your spine. As you flex your ankle, knee, and hip, your core will fall forward. This forward fall contributes to your forward momentum and compresses the "springs" of your ankle, knee, and hip joints. The energy stored in these springs can be used to push your body forward when you uncoil onto your next ski.

As you move your core forward, your ski will stop and grip the snow at about the same time that your feet pass. Learn to feel when the ski stops and has enough grip that you can extend off of it.

Once you sense that you may move forward, extend at the hip to begin the step forward. Then open your knee and continue to drive your core forward. Keep your heel on the ski as long as possible, so that you can apply force through the entire foot (photo 8).

Continue with the monster kick drill by bringing your feet back together. Start the cycle over again by reaching forward with one foot. Learn how and when you can get your ski to stop and grip the snow. Then go skiing. When you want your ski to grip the snow, move over your foot until the ski grants you the permission of grip to move forward.

Uphill Diagonal
As you stride up steeper hills, the basics of the diagonal stride stay the same. Your glide will shorten, forcing you to quicken your tempo and shorten some of your movements. As the angle of the hill increases, your ski will hit the snow farther behind you when you swing your leg forward. Look at the horizon at the top of the hill to adjust your body position so that you can land on your heel with your foot beneath your hips.

When the hill is steep enough that you can no longer glide at all, flex your ankle and push your knee over your toe as soon as your ski lands. This will put weight on the ski and give you the immediate grip to maintain your position and to stride farther up the hill.

The November issue covered some basics of balancing and gliding while skating. Although it seems like skating uphill requires more edging, more pushing back and lots of grunting, focus on forward motion of your core and maximizing glide. Match the angle of your front shin to the angle of your spine to stay in a balanced and powerful position while skating.

The basic uphill technique is the V-1. It is easy to confuse the V-1 rhythm with the V-2 alternate rhythm. In the V-2 alternate, you plant your poles after you step onto your next ski. In the V-1, you plant your poles at the same time that you step onto your next ski. Getting the poles in earlier in the V-1 allows you to use them immediately on hills and where your skis don't glide as easily.

Canadians call the V-1 the offset skate. Unlike other skate techniques, your feet are offset when you plant your poles. Your poles also need to be offset when they plant (photo 9) or they'll end up between your skis. Many skiers plant their poles with little or no offset, inhibiting both their ability to step up the hill and their lateral movement onto the next ski (photo 10).

To maximize the uphill power of the V-1, focus on three things: step up the hill with each foot, plant your poles with your offside hand in front of your power hand, and don't come up before moving over onto your offside ski. Your poling side is your power side, the offside is the non-poling side. To offset your poles, plant your offside hand lower and in front of your power hand (photo 11). Both pole baskets should be planted near the toes of your feet. It helps to curl your palm towards you and plant your power pole with a crook in your arm. This position, similar to how you would pull down on a vertical rope, allows you to recruit more muscles for your pole push.

Step up the hill with each skate, picking up your ski with your thigh. Be sure to keep your toes turned out from your hip. Don't let your heel move inward so that it is even with the center of your body, and be sure to step onto a flexed ankle (photo 11). The amount of forward motion of your core, rather than how far you can stride uphill, determines the size of your step. Many skiers twist toward the next ski as they pole in the V-1. Although your poles are offset, your poling motion should resemble double poling as much as possible. Stay over the power ski until your poling motion is almost complete. As your hands pass your hips, push back, not up. Stay low as you move onto your next ski (photo 12) and drive forward.

People often fail to drive forward onto the offside ski, and that failure resuls in an unbalanced V-1. Standing up before moving to your offside makes it very hard to drive onto that ski. Stay low, make sure the step up the hill on your offside equals the step on your power side, and drive forward as you step onto your offside ski.

V-2 used to be relegated to the flats. These days, you see more and more skiers using it to climb steeper and steeper hills. The secret is good poling and a quick tempo. In fact, you can even double pole up surprisingly steep hills by focusing on the same things.

For effective double, or skate, poling, be sure to bring your core forward. After completing a push with your poles, completely relax your arms. Gravity will start them forward, but you can bring them farther forward with a "hip flip." Your upper body should then be over your poles. Pole in a motion similar to doing an abdominal crunch. Practice your double poling, and challenge yourself on some hills. As the grade gets steeper, shorten your pole stroke, stopping just after your hands pass your hips. Be sure to open your hands and continue to push back wherever you end your stroke. Skiers often take more time bringing their poles forward than pushing them back. When you are double poling or using the V-2 on a hill, this hesitation will make you stall out and struggle. Recover your poles quickly by relaxing your arms and aggressively bringing your core forward. After your arms begin to swing forward, bring your hands quickly into position for the next pole plant.

Practice eight or ten quick double poles followed by eight or ten quick V-2 skates. Skate between each double pole in the V-2. Focus on a quick and aggressive drive of your core forward after each double pole and not on pushing yourself uphill with your legs. To help, remove your poles and use your hands to push your core forward. Keep the same leg and torso position when you go back to using your poles.

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