The snow’s surface is pristine. Below you, an endless wave of powder waits. This day has been a long time coming. Maybe you ski in New Hampshire and have never been lucky enough to get a powder day. Maybe you are new to skiing and this is your first opportunity to experience the gratifying warmth of slaying a fresh powder run. Either way, you look down, and you feel like a conquerer. You drop in, ready for anything and…
Fall flat on your face.
Powder skiing is not easy. It requires a reversal of many of the things you are taught on hard pack, and requires having better balance and better technique. There is a misconception that you can slap on a pair of powder boards and go out and rip powder fields like Cody Townsend.
The truth is, learning how to ski powder takes time and effort. It requires you to relearn many of the things you might take for granted in your own skiing and apply them differently depending on the terrain. There is no easy button, but there are a lot of little tips and tricks that would help. The most important thing you can do is get out there, think about what’s happening with your skis, and have fun, but here are 5 tips for the beginner to get you started towards powder domination!
1. Know your Gear: Modern ski technology is incredible. The downside to it is that, if you want to ski every inch of terrain and every snow condition to the best of your ability, you’re going to need more than one pair of skis. The “one-ski quiver” doesn’t exist. A carving ski carves, and a powder ski floats. You can ski powder skis on groomers and groomer skis in powder, but you’re going to have more fun if the equipment you are skiing on is designed for the snow you’ll encounter that day.
There are differences both obvious and subtle. Powder skis are wider, more flexible, and often have “rocker” technology, a new shaping style that has surged in popularity that is more or less based off the water ski. While specific rocker technology differs significantly between brands, the general idea is that the tip and tail flex upward in order to create float that will keep you above the snow. Traditional skis have what is called “camber,” an aggressive downward flex from tip to tail that allows you to put as much of your edge on snow as possible. A traditional cambered ski requires much more work to keep afloat, and while it is a no less correct way to ski, the new technology makes everything much easier.
An important thing to keep in mind is that every ski and every skier has a different style and it’s crucial to find one that fits yours. I personally like quick, sharp turns, and a playful bouncy ski in deep powder. I like a solid mix between camber, for a little pop, and rocker, for float. I ski on the 112mm-wide Moment Deathwish. On the flipside, the ultra rockered style of Volkl, one of the country’s most popular ski brands, I can’t stand (even though everyone else loves them). I would recommend visiting a demo shop on the mountain and giving as many different models a try until you find one you really like! For a more thorough to buying a pair of skis, check out our blog post!
2. Take a Lesson: This is going to sound like a weak plug from a ski instructor but, seriously, take a lesson. I am putting this at number 2, not number 5, to emphasize its importance. You can read the next three points – which will end up being much of what you discuss in your lesson – but only an instructor, in person, can watch you ski and help you improve. A good instructor can pick up on tiny bits of inefficiency through “Movement Analysis” and is trained to correct them. Without them, you’ll never know if you got the right tips from this article or not. Behind the scenes, the instructors you see at your local mountain live and breathe skiing. When they aren’t on the slopes they’re sitting around with their fellow instructors talking about skiing, technique, and ways to improve. We are all total ski nerds. People become ski instructors for the love of the sport and an interest in helping others – it’s definitely not to make money (because you don’t).
Beyond being able to help you ski better, a principle job of an instructor is to teach you how to ski safer. There are a lot of simple corrections you can make to your form that will significantly reduce your risk of injury (we will go over some of this later!), and no one wants to end a ski vacation with a torn ACL or a broken leg. The PSIA model isn’t necessarily about speed, or power, it’s about control, safety, and efficiency, even when you are skiing with speed and power. Even if I am skiing with a much better skier than I, I can pick out subtle things that they could improve upon (it makes watching ski movies really interesting). A lesson will be worth your time, and money, and will greatly heighten your overall skiing experience.
Now, onto the real ski tips….
3. Loosey Goosey baby, Loosey Goosey: This is not just a classic Jack Black moment; it’s a motto to remember when you enter the deep stuff. Mechanically, skiing in powder and skiing on-piste are extremely different. Hardpack skiing involves rigidity and power, it requires your outside leg and both your edges to be working hard, gripping the snow, and carrying you through the turn. It requires fluid motion in its own way, but that motion is far more repeatable and less drastic.
Skiing powder is more like flowing through a liquid, and you can’t approach it the same way. You have to be ready to react and balanced on both feet. The biggest change is that the range of motion you move through is much greater. You need to lift your knees out of the snow every time they plunge back down. The biggest thing is, at speed, you have to be ready to absorb an inconsistency in the snow or an unseen obstacle. Failure to be fluid will result in a lot of tip-diving and face plants.
4. Torso downhill, hands where you can see ‘em: This is true of all skiing: you want your upper body to move as little as possible. Skiing is a sport that focuses on the hips down – the more stable and stationary you can keep your torso, the better. The goal is to have your chest pointed down the fall line, at all times, which enables your legs to move under you and gives you a consistent point to balance from. Whenever your center of mass, located near the belly button, starts shifting, it will change your balance point and will force you to be constantly re-adjusting. Eventually, your re-adjustment will fail and you will fall!
In conjunction with that, there is a misconception that in skiing you need to move your arms in order to “pole plant”. Your arms, when skiing, function as two giant pendulums attached to your torso that can unbalance you faster than anything else. The more your arms move, the more you have to recalculate your balance and the more likely you are to lose it all together. My trick is to keep my hands in the peripheral of my goggles, and any pole touch is nothing more than a movement of the wrist. It might feel silly at first to have your hands out like this all the time but it will help your balance immensely.
5. Don’t Lean Back! Perhaps the biggest misconception of all, when it comes to powder skiing, is that you should “lean back” to “let your skis float out of the powder.” Now, don’t get me wrong. This works. You can absolutely lean back and your skis will come out of the powder. Instead of leaning back, try over flexing your ankles at the end of the turn by raising your toes to the top of your boot. You will get the same effect without any of the danger!
With all skiing, you want to find a balance point such that your whole body stacks up over the center of your foot, which is theoretically the center of the ski (depending on how your bindings are mounted). You want to get flexion and extension out of your ankles, knees, and hips. It’s a very similar concept to weightlifting and even simply jumping – you maximize your physical capabilities based on where your balance point is. You should be able to draw an imaginary line from the arch of your foot up to your belly button. You can practice this at any time in your home – just crouch to jump and notice where you balance, jump, and notice where you land.
The reason for this, beyond simple balance, is that by leaning back you isolate the muscles surrounding your knees, mainly your quads, and you put an inordinate amount of pressure on your joints. If you were to fall (which becomes easier by the nature of your balance point) the isolation of the knees in your stance greatly increases your risk of an ACL tear.
Hopefully these tips have given you something to think about the next time you hit the slopes. Remember that skiing is an active sport! We can always improve, and the more aware we are of our movements, the faster skills will develop. Try picking one thing to focus on for a day, and you’ll amaze yourself at how fast you can progress.
At the end of the day, what is truly important is that you are out there having fun with a smile on your face, and as long as you accomplished that, it was a successful day of skiing. No matter what, don’t get frustrated! No one progressed from beginner to expert in a single day, and the more fun you can have while learning, the faster you will improve. Now get out and slay some pow!
Zach’s Gear for Skiing:
[Zach d’Arbeloff is a PSIA certified Alpine and Telemark instructor who spent the last two seasons at Grand Targhee Resort in Alta, WY]