ADAPTING TO POWDER… and HOW TO AVOID ETERNAL PUBLIC DISGRACE

 In Ramblings of an English Gentleman, Ski Nerd's Technique & Tactics

It’s the 5th of December and 2 major events are just around the corner. In order of increasing importance they are:

Major event number 1:

Christmas. You’ve probably heard of this so I won’t bother to explain. My kids are almost as excited about this as they are about major event number 2.

Major event number 2:

Opening day at Mount Washington, BC. The 9th of December. This is when they fire up the lifts and we all get out shred on.

Looking at the forecast it appears we are going straight in at the deep end, with massive fronts charging in from the Pacific and dumping huge amounts of snow on our home mountain, Mount Washington, on Vancouver Island.

We are lucky enough to have just enjoyed 12 days of skiing in Austria on our pre season camp at Hintertux, but skiing BC powder is a very different thing, and in our heads we are mentally preparing for the different conditions, thinking about the technical and tactical changes we’re going to make as we move from Austrian groomers to BC bumps, trees, steeps and pow.

On a groomer, where the skis and skier ride on top of the snow, we can ski with reasonable confidence that the snow will not throw many surprises at us between the beginning and end of each turn. The future, on groomers, is reasonable predictable.

In powder however, things are very different, and to a greater extent the future is un-knowable: We may move from denser to softer snow, we may move from shallower to deeper snow, there may be wind lips, buried bumps or other terrain features, there may be a wind crust or ridges or sastrugi all of which will affect how the skis move forward.

Specifically, the main effect felt by the skier as they move from groomer to powder is going to be the sensation of increased resistance on the skis and any other part of the body which is now moving below the snow surface.

 

It’s important to remember that this extra resistance applies ONLY to the parts of a skier’s equipment and body which are BELOW the snow surface. The upper body, except in unusually deep and soft snow, will generally be free of the snow (except for occasional face shots!) and will be travelling unimpeded through the air. The common or garden faceplant, as performed by all of us from time to time in pow, is a result of this: the feet slow down, while the upper body carries on along its path of momentum.

Click this link to see a demonstration of the faceplant by Mr. Tobin Leopkey, a Section 8 owner, and CSIA level 4:

https://www.facebook.com/section8snowsport/videos/10152000833043007/

I am sure you all enjoyed that little video. I know I always do.

Pretty obviously, that was some pretty amazing powder, and to compound the disgrace of bailing right next to the lift, after insisting that I should go first in order to film our hero, Tobin had just walked for almost 5 whole minutes to get the top of that run, and Tobin, as anyone who has walked with him knows, hates walking.

Let’s analyze what happened to Tobin there, so that we can all avoid making the same mistake and subsequent public humiliation.

Specifically, what happens is this:

Tobin begins his run well. If you look carefully you will see that his feet are extended out in front of him at the end of his first turn. The reason he does this is that he is anticipating the slowing effect of the deep snow upon his feet that he will experience as his skis slow at the bottom of each turn. As we mentioned above, the upper body however, being free of the snow, and relatively massive, has momentum and will continue unimpeded toward the bottom of the hill. You can imagine that as the feet slow and the body continues at the same speed, that there is a tendency for the body to overtake the feet.

So, as I was saying, notice how as he progresses into the final nanoseconds of his first turn, Mr. Leopkey pushes his feet forward. In fact, if you pause the video at just the right moment, you can see that his feet arrive at the bottom of the turn ahead of his body. This is good skiing. Well done, Mr. Leopkey.

Moving forward, into turn two, Mr. Leopkey’s body overtakes his feet. He reacts to this perfectly, by driving his feet forward in order that they can once again catch and support his body at the end of the turn.

Turn 3 however is a different matter, but for a second, lets enjoy the dramatic irony of us, the audience, knowing something the actor doesn’t know, but is about to find out:

I remember this run well. What happened was that as you progressed downslope, away from the skyline, the snow became suddenly much deeper where the wind had blown it in, on the lee slope. Tobin didn’t know this, though frankly I think he should have guessed. I could have communicated the fact to him, as we were just within shouting distance, however I chose not to as he is, as he likes to remind me, a level 4, and I am just a level 3, and I skied it just fine so he should therefore not have any problems. That’s the dramatic irony.

Sadly for Mr. Leopkey, he failed to anticipate the deepening snow and the increasing slowing effect it would have on his feet. His upper body continues along it’s predictable path while his feet slowed more than he was expecting.

At this stage, turn 3, as Tobin entered the deeper snow, his fate was still not sealed. He was still in control of his destiny. Public humiliation was not a foregone conclusion.

What Tobin SHOULD have done, as he felt resistance building, was to push his feet forward with a sudden and if necessary, explosive effort. This move would have involved a strengthening of the core muscles and would have involved a bend at the hips, the shoulders moving forward toward the feet as the abdominal muscles, such as they are, contracted. This would have had the effect of making his skis bust through the more resistant snow, probably with a spectacular explosion of powder. Almost certainly, Tobin would have enjoyed a monster faceshot and many, many people riding the lift, just out of shot to the left of the frame would have whooped approvingly. Probably, a few women, and one or two gay men would have fainted.

But as we all know, that’s not what Tobin chose to do. He failed utterly to make any extra move to adapt to the sudden increase of resistance. His upper body continued on its path. His feet slowed, and at a point about one third of the way around turn 3, his situation became unrecoverable, and Tobin was doomed to eternal disgrace.

So what advice would I as a coach, have for a skier about to set off down that same slope? What could I have said to Tobin to help him avoid his humiliation?

Well, for certain, anyone I took to the top of this slope would have been well prepared. We would have explored the idea of dealing with variations in resistance between different snow surfaces. To introduce this idea we would have gone looking for terrain which allowed us to move from one snow depth to another in comfort, probably along the edges of groomer, maybe making turns down the seam between groomed and ungroomed snow so that turns alternate between soft snow which creates resistance and packed snow, with little resistance which allows the skier to recover balance. We would have looked at drills to improve the ability to move the feet under the body, possibly dolphin turns, but more likely fore/aft shuffling of the feet, and talked about how we feel pressure underfoot move towards the heel throughout the turn. For people for whom it worked I would use the analogy of stamping on coke cans, for which we would naturally use our heels (try it at home), and have them think about crushing coke cans at the end of each turn, which means they push their feet out in front of them, to where the slowing feet can briefly support the mass.

Given that the skier would therefore already have some basic understanding of what is likely to happen as they descend the slope, and also a good grounding in the moves they need to make to adapt to the anticipated changes, I would simply remind the skier that resistance is likely to increase and that they are going to have to strengthen their core and think about keeping their feet moving, especially through the bottom of the turn.

I chose not to remind Tobin of this, as he is, as we all now know, a CSIA level 4, and look what happened.

Do not let Tobin’s eternal disgrace become yours.

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