Going Down Hill
|Training & Technique|
By STEVE HINDMAN
Downhill skiing on any type of equipment is a lot like riding a bike ó the balance acquired from spending time on skis is far more important than any specific technique. Practice these suggested activities to increase your comfort and relaxation while sliding downhill on skis.
Start with the basics. Stand on our skis like you would while talking to a friend at the supermarket checkout stand. Flex your ankles just a bit more and bring your hands to about waist level. This is your basic position. Slide down a slight hill, concentrating on keeping your ankles flexed and your hands forward.
Choose short hills that flatten or go back uphill so you do not need to worry about stopping or turning. Gradually increase the pitch as your ability to stay relaxed increases.
Stopping and turning require you to be able to move from ski to ski. On a hill that you are comfortable on, place some markers directly down the fall line. The fall line is the path a medicine ball would travel if you rolled it down the hill. Slide down the hill, stepping back and forth over your markers. To step, youíll have to stand on one ski as you pick up the other. To stand on one ski, you have to move your core over the ski you wish to stand on. Your core is the area from your thighs to your ribcage. Once you are on one ski, move your core towards the markers (photo 1), bringing your unweighted ski beneath you. If you reach too far beyond your body with your ski, youíll get caught between your feet, unable to move from foot to foot.
With the ability to move from foot to foot, youíre ready to change direction by stepping your ski in the direction you wish to go. Choose a slightly downhill track. Glide in the track, move your core over the ski that is toward the side of the trail, and pick up your other ski. Turn your hips, shoulders, and head to face across the track, toward the middle of the trail. Then move your airborne ski beneath and in line with your torso as you step forward onto it (photo 2). This is the downhill theme ó moving your core where you want to go before you move your other body parts. After you have moved onto the newly directed ski, bring your other ski along side.
To move back into the track, make a series of step turns until you are facing across the track. Remember, if you want to go right, pick up your right ski first, and visa versa. As you cross the track, allow the outside ski to cross both tracks and then step into the inside track (photo 3).
Use these same basics to make step turns on a hill. You can place markers on the hill to practice turning when needed. As your speed increases, your movements will need to get quicker and be more aggressive to keep up with the rapid changes of direction (photo 4, XT-39). Step turns at speed are an effective and efficient way to negotiate corners on a fast trail. An easy way to keep on track is to keep the curving trail framed between your outstretched hands as you continually step your feet between them.
With enough room, you can stop by step turning until your skis turn uphill. If you donít have that kind of room, you have several options.
The wedge or snowplow is often one of the first downhill maneuvers a skier learns, but it is not easy to do. Be sure to keep your ankles and knees flexed and your butt over your feet. Donít squat on your heels. Start by moving one ski out into the wedge position. To guide your movements, take your ski pole and draw a quarter circle starting at your heel and curving forward. Your heel should follow this line as you make a half wedge. Slide your hips sideways as you trace this curve with your heel. Keep your ankle and knee flexed. Your leg should rotate in your hip socket as your heel moves forward and out. As your ski moves out from under your body, it naturally goes on edge. You should not need to crank your knee in and towards the snow to place your ski on edge. Avoid the other common mistake of straightening your leg and pushing your foot straight out or back. Practice a half wedge on both sides.
Sliding down a slight hill in a groomed track, pick up the inside ski as you did when you stepped out of the track. Move into a half wedge with your un-weighted ski as you slide your hip sideways and place that ski onto the snow (photo 5, XT-40). Donít slam the ski down. If you do, you are likely to slam your face in to the snow.
Continue to slide your hips out until the zipper on your jacket is between your feet. If you need more stopping power, bring your zipper farther over the wedged ski (photo 6, XT-41). Stopping power comes from weighting the ski that is angled and edged against your direction of travel. What the ski wants to do is to flatten and go straight. It takes a lot of muscle power and determination to maintain the wedged position of the ski.
When you have success with the half wedge, practice moving into a full wedge on a flat area with no tracks. Then move to a slight hill. Well away from any set tracks, start to slide and sink as you move both skis out and forward. Press through both arches and keep your legs flexed, your hips forward, and your hands out in front. Flex your knees towards your ski tips, not towards each other. Your tips should be considerably closer together than the tails of your skis, but donít keep them too close. Gain some speed and then see how quick you can come to a stop.
Stopping with the wedge is awkward and tiring. Instead of straight running and then slowing down or stopping with a wedge, it is usually easier to make a series of turns to control your speed before you come to a stop. Parallel turns and hockey stops are the most fun and take the least effort, but it is easier to start out with wedge turns.
When you stand a little taller in the wedge, your wedge will narrow and your skis will be less on edge. Use this shallow wedge, called a gliding wedge, when making wedge turns At the top of the hill on the flats, stand in a gliding wedge position and move your core forward and toward where you might want to go in your first turn. As you move your hips towards your intended destination, notice how your inside ski flattens and your outside ski rolls up onto a higher edge.
To make a turn, slide straight downhill in a gliding wedge. Rise a bit and direct your core towards where you want to go with your turn. Your edged outside ski will redirect you towards where it is pointed. The flat inside ski can be easily guided along the same path since a flat ski shouldnít catch in the snow (photo 7, XT-42, photo 8, XT-43, and photo 9, XT-44). Notice how the hips lead the turn, and the inside ski is flatter than the outside ski.
People are often confused over which ski is referred to as the inside or outside ski in a turn. If you get confused, think of a horse circling in a corral on a rope. The outside ski is on the side towards the fence. The inside ski is towards the rope that guides the horse in a circle.
At first, youíll rely more on the increased edge angle of your outside ski to dig in and "push" you sideways to make a turn. After a few of these "grunt turns", emphasize rising as you redirect your core towards your next turn. This will make both skis a little flatter, and a little lighter. Help your skis turn by rotating your legs from the hip socket. This should make your turns quicker and easier.
On the way to parallel
Turning both legs from your hip sockets and facing your intended direction of travel are the key ingredients for eliminating the wedge position when turning or doing a hockey stop. Rise as you start the wedge turn and sink as you finish. This will help you turn your skis with your legs. Increase your speed and narrow your wedge and you may find you can turn your skis with a very small wedge or no wedge at all. Hey! Youíre parallel skiing on skinny skis!
If youíve ever seen downhill ski boots, you know that they offer a lot of support. The stiff plastic keeps your ankles flexed forward and prevents you from turning your ankles out or in. On skinny skis, you have to provide this same support with your muscles. Donít let yourself flop around.
The other common pitfall is to try to turn your skis by throwing your upper body around. This throws you off balance, and places your body uphill and behind your skis. From this position, it is almost impossible to turn your legs in their hip sockets. Your skis feel stuck, or you spin around so fast you end up facing uphill.
Focus on directing your core, not your upper body, where you want to go. Think in curves, and direct your core to the point on the curving path you are traveling that is just in front of where you are. Keep your hands up where you can see them.
The Hockey Stop
Hockey stops are named after the way you stop on ice skates by throwing them sideways. On skis, get some speed, rise abruptly to un-weight your skis (photo 10, XT-45) and turn both skis sideways by rotating your legs from your hips (photo 11, XT-46). When you turn your skis, they should rotate beneath your body, with your tips brought uphill as much as your tails swing downhill. Avoid the common mistake of pushing your heels out from under your body. Keep your core, torso and head facing straight ahead, down the hill, which is your direction of travel in the hockey stop. As your weight comes back on your skis, push your hips into the hill but keep your nose over your feet (photo 12, XT-47). This puts your skis on edge so that they dig in and slow you down. This position also resists the quick deceleration of the hockey stop. To practice this position, give a friend your hands and resist them as they try to pull you over, perpendicular to the direction your feet are facing. Pretend you are wearing those downhill ski boots and edge your skis with your hips and knees, not with your ankles.
The hockey stop is a fun and effective way to stop, and a great way to improve your parallel turns. Turning your legs and feet while keeping your torso facing a different direction is a hard thing to learn. Staying in balance while edging your skis with your whole leg, and not just your ankles, is another challenge. The hockey stop forces you to work on these skills and gives you instant feedback. After you achieve even modest success with the hockey stop, your turns will improve, and parallel turns may suddenly be easily within reach.
Practicing the hockey stop is much, much easier when the snow is firm and smooth. The easiest place to practice this and other downhill techniques is on a well-groomed beginner slope at an alpine ski area. For the cost of the beginner lift ticket and a few hours of your time, youíll improve more in a few hours than you can over several seasons of walking up and skiing down on a narrow, soft trail. Pick a day when there are very few people on the hill and when the snow is firm but not icy.