Snow from the Sahara

Weather from the south has deposited a layer of sand from the Sahara desert. Needless to say this is not ideal and the temperatures are correspondingly too mild to be much good for skiing. Yesterday I managed an 80km bike ride between storms and today the rain returned once again in the afternoon. The conditions didn’t stop us from going up the glacier and working on steeps technique… Gareth now has a specific turn – or application of a turn named by by himself – the “Dripping Glacier” turn.

The Dripping Glacier Turn

Many years ago when introducing Gareth to dynamics I demonstrated to him off-piste how to fall into a steep turn with leg retraction and how the skis would surprisingly follow – and that this would give a surprisingly stable turn. I teach this in deep snow for people who want to ski slowly. The key is the dynamics and the very low stance the retraction brings – then the power from the leg extension during the turn. All this was done by moving the body to get onto the inside edge of the outside ski right at the start of the turn. More recently, when using this form of leg retraction to teach compression turns on the flat I’ve made sure to pivot the skis instead – staying on the outside edge as long as possible with a strong pole plant. This is how I’d start to teach people how to ski bumps. So what had Gareth changed? Well for a start he’d linked the retraction to the pivot by himself – but more importantly he’d:

  1. spotted that it is the perfect turn for real steeps where control of speed is critical.
  2. He took it further by realising that the leg extension provides an even more powerful pivot than I’d ever spotted and
  3. if the extension is done very strongly and rapidly as the feet are pushed forwards after the retraction and dynamics then there is total control of speed on the steeps.
  4. This makes steeps so easy it becomes boring.

Anyone can ski steeps by being brainlessly aggressive and Gareth has plenty of experience of that. He recounted to me one story of a classic Homer Simpson calibre when he fell in a couloir and had his zipped ski pants ripped off and ended up coming out at the bottom naked. Sadly Gareth is currently expunging his inner Homer. I’ve seen plenty others exploring their inner “luge” – usually face first. Cartwheels is another Homer favourite. Basically, after a while you don’t want to play Homer Simpson any more. The negative side of this is that you become over-cautious and then more and more nervous. The standard way to overcome this is to throw in some jump turns – but when it gets seriously steep that starts to become dodgy too. Unfortunately the tendency is to default to either more aggressive dynamics or short swings – with standard “down/up” timing for good skiers – or crappy “up/down” timing for people who have been coached by idiotic Brits burbling moronic rubbish about “balance”. The main safeguard is to “commit” to the turn  – move downhill – but it’s always a bit dodgy and Homer is waiting to pounce. Personally I’ve only used leg retraction for either bump skiing or racing (outside of specific teaching situations) and I don’t use it much because it is tiring. It never occurred to me to use it on REAL steeps because “falling down while retracting” is not very appealing in a life threatening situation. In addition I’d have been right because all of the new elements are necessary to prevent a Homer episode from occurring. Retraction in racing is towards the end of a turn when there is massive load on the legs and body and you are inclined strongly into the turn. The softening and retraction of the legs paradoxically allows the body to come up and out of the turn – sometimes getting airborne.  You use this to prevent yourself from going into orbit between turns. This would then be followed by the body falling down and over into an inclination towards the new turn centre aided by a powerful acceleration generating extension of the outside leg (preferably of tree trunk width) – while the centre of mass drops down towards the snow. There is also a small degree of this in rutted slalom and deep snow skiing. To summarise; the legs extend as the body goes down and retract as the body comes up. We maintain the necessary “down/up” dynamics. What hadn’t occurred to me is that although this happens in racing due to speed the same should apply to excessive steepness where gravity has a powerful acceleratory effect and the terrain itself is sharply inclined. Watching Gareth, he appeared to be jumping but the “jump” was in the middle of the turn. In fact this was just the body being airborne as a result of combining dynamics with the retraction. Once this was pointed out he eased off on that and kept the skis comfortably on the ground and in contact – despite atrocious snow conditions on the steeps beneath the Tignes cable car. When I worked at it I found that the active use of dynamics with retraction, powerful extension with feet forwards and powerful pivot made for a profound level of security and control even in difficult snow. Experimentation showed that it was better to separate the feet and legs for independent leg use  – pushing the uphill ski ahead but keeping it down near the level of the lower ski. Keeping a (feet together) narrow stance makes the whole pelvis turn and so the power of the leg can’t be used to swing the ski as actively during the extension. The swing with the leg extension seems to have power like a punch – being ridiculously snappy if necessary. This is an area I’d never looked at before. Gareth is one of the very few professionals I’ve explained the (outside edge) pivot to so it’s fascinating to see where he has taken it already. I knew it would be the key for safe steeps because it guarantees the feet kept below the skier at all times – but I couldn’t see the right way to use it.

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