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To a skier, there is nothing comparable to going down a beautiful snowy slope at the highest speed, enjoying the wind and scenery around you as you showcase your skiing prowess. The only thing that surpasses this feeling is doing it in a powder ski. All skiers, whether novices or veterans, the dream of mastering the art of powder skiing. Who wouldn’t want to seen speeding down a mountain expertly with a spray of snow behind them?
One thing, however, is that powder skiing is vastly different from regular skiing. Even experts find it challenging to powder ski, needing to practice over and over in order to master it. Whether you are an expert looking to perfect or just starting out in your skiing journey, here are a few tips that will help you get the most out of the next powder snow.
What is powder skiing?
Powder skiing, also known as off-piste skiing, refers to skiing on natural snow that has not been compacted by a piste basher. The snow is in its naturally powdery state and therefore the skis tend to sink into snow as opposed to rising from it.
Because of the powdery state of natural snow, the type of skiing you will do on a powder ski is different. It takes a bit more effort and a different technique all together in order to float over the snow instead of sinking into it. By the time you read through this article you will know how to powder ski like the pros.
First things first: Safety
Powder skiing is not like skiing on compact snow, and therefore special precautions and gear are required. You do not want to get injured and spend a lot of time away from the ice. So, here are a few tips that will keep you safe on the slopes.
- Thicker skis. As mentioned earlier, powder ski is fluffier and you will be prone to sinking into the snow rather than floating above the snow. Regular skis will glide perfectly over a groomed slope, but things are different off-piste. In order to avoid digging into the powder, you need to invest in a pair of thick skis that have a larger surface area. Experts recommend skis that have a middle thickness of 110mm or more. This way you will be stable and use less effort trying to stay above the snow. Skis with reverse camber at the tip and at the tail are perfect for powder skiing.
- Quality boots. If you are skiing near or at a resort, then you might get away with your regular snow boots. However, if you are going to be skiing in wild mountains that will require a lot of walking then you need to invest in quality boots. This might mean that you will need to spend quite a bit more than you were expecting but that is completely worth it considering the pain in the foot that you would otherwise experience with the wrong boots.
- Ski poles. Regular ski poles have a small basket, I.e. the circular tip at the bottom of a ski pole. These are good for hard groomed slopes, but they will be ineffective on softly layered powder. Equip your ski poles with larger baskets to increase the surface area of the bottom. This way, your ski pole will not sink into the snow and get stuck in it when you are skiing. If this happens when you are speeding, serious injury could occur.
- Ski groups. When powder skiing in the mountains it is important to have other people with you. Every member of your ski group should be equipped with transceivers, probes, shovels, and other mountaineering equipment in preparation for factors like avalanches. Take turns skiing down steep slopes so that it is easy to respond to any dangers. Keep about 10 meters away from the next skier when on normal powder slopes.
When skiing off-piste, there is a very real risk of avalanches. That is why it is important to have a team with you so that you can help each other out in case of an avalanche. It is also important to know about avalanche danger levels and keep an eye out for weather reports before and after you go out skiing in order to be safe. Remember, steeper slopes are more likely to experience avalanches.
The danger levels of an avalanche are:
- Level 1. This is the lowest level of avalanche risk. At this level, the chances of an avalanche occurring are very low and will occur when very steep slopes experience a lot of stress. At this level, it is safe for you to ski off-piste.
- Level 2. At this level, there is a slightly higher chance of an avalanche occurring but only on steep slopes. An avalanche at this level will be caused by high levels of stress on the steep slopes. It is safe to ski off-piste at this danger level, but you should be aware of and keep in mind the more avalanche-prone slopes in the area you are skiing in.
- Level 3. This level means that even low levels of extra stress will cause an avalanche on steep slopes. The avalanches could be medium-sized or large and they could happen spontaneously and often. You can ski off-piste at this danger level, but you need to be careful. Keep to moderate slopes and assess each mountain before skiing on it.
- Level 4. At this level, even the smallest of additional pressure will cause an avalanche on steep slopes. Medium-sized avalanches occur at quicker intervals and it is very possible to have larger sized avalanches. It is safer to ski on less steep slopes, especially those which are flatter than sloping. Assess the likelihood of an avalanche for each slope before embarking on it.
- Level 5. This is the highest danger level for an avalanche and even the smallest amount of pressure will cause an avalanche, even in moderately sloped mountains. At this level, you should not be out skiing. You can practice powder skiing positions in the privacy of your room, and enjoy a warm drink while you wait for better conditions to put your skills into actual use.
Now that we have the essential safety details out of the way, let us dive into the nitty-gritty of powder skiing.
The proper posture and position for powder skiing
You should practice the positions for powder skiing away from the slope so that you know what to do when in the mountains. Different body parts will be positioned differently, and most of these positions will be different from your normal form when you are skiing in regular mountains.
- Eye positioning. During your first time’s powder skiing, you are likely to be nervous because of the unfamiliar feeling of the snow. Your instinctive reaction will be to look down at your skis while skiing. Do not do that. Train your eyes to always look forward to the terrain as opposed to down at your feet. With your eyes trained forward you will be well-acquainted with the terrain and able to plan in advance the moves you will need to make while skiing.
- Hand positioning. Stand up straight and stretch your hands out in front of you and slant them downward. Widen the distance between your hands past both shoulders, and keep going until they are about 6 inches outside your shoulders. Keep your hands in front of you and reach forward. This might look ridiculous on a flat surface or indoors but with practice, it will come to you naturally when on the mountain. Your hands should be able to remain in this position even when you are speeding to minimize the movement of your body and reduce the chances of falling.
- Feet positioning. Your stance should be narrower when powder skiing. Practice this with your skis on in order to get the right position. Your feet should be close together but your skis should not touch. This way you exert more pressure on your skis and you are less likely to slide when on the ice. This stance will be a great aid to you when you need to turn when powder skiing in order to avoid falling on your face.
- Body posture. With your feet and arms in the prescribed positions, lean back on your feet and bend your knees. This will be your default position when skiing, almost like you are about to sit. However, do not actually squat into a sitting position because you will strain your muscles needlessly and remove the needed weight from the front of your skis. Weight is needed in front of your skis so that you do not fall. With your arms reaching forward, lean back on your feet. Ensure that your knees do not go past your ankles when you lean back. According to expert powder skiers, you are doing things right if you can scrunch your toes. If you cannot scrunch your toes then you are leaning too far back and you need to correct your posture. Remember, if you lean too far back you will fall and so you need to practice your posture until it comes to you like second nature before attempting to powder ski. Keep your core tight throughout.
Steering through the powder
Once you have mastered the body position and stance for when you are out on powder snow, it is time to learn how to steer in order to actually ski. When powder skiing, you need to get into a rhythm and a speed that will propel you down the mountain.
When powder skiing, you need to develop and maintain high speeds. This reduces the friction between your skis and the powder, and this way your skis rise up out of the snow instead of bearing down into the snow and sticking to it. High speeds when powder skiing are as important as high speeds are to airplanes. The higher the speed, the larger the chance that you will remain afloat.
Before upgrading off-piste, practice picking up speed on a groomed slope. Maintain the positioning and posture outlined above and go as fast as you can on your skis. Remember that even at your fastest you should be in control. Do not measure your speeds against those of another skier: speed is relative and unique to each individual skier.
Pole planting refers to the action of digging your poles into the snow while skiing. When powder skiing, pole planting helps you maintain your rhythm and speed. It is therefore important to learn how to pole plan the right way so that you do not lose momentum.
Pole plant after every turn so that you adjust to the next downward slope. Use your wrist to pole plant in order to minimize your body’s movements. This is something you can practice when you are not on the slope. You can use your ski poles when practicing to plant your pole perpendicular to the ground using just your wrists. This way your wrists remain deft and learn to act independently, keeping your body in its position. This video shows the proper way to pole plant:
Turning in powder
You will encounter more turns when skiing off-piste compared to when you ski on a groomed slope, and you need to be properly prepared for this. There is a different technique to turning in an off-piste slope. Here are some useful pointers:
- Speed. Do not slow down before taking a turn; maintain your speed when you see a turn coming up. This way your skis do not sink into the snow, something that could lead to a fall.
- Hand position. Keep your hands in front of you at all times. Do not whip your hands back and forth as this will rotate your core, which should remain engaged at all times when powder skiing. You may find yourself swinging your arms back after releasing your pole, and it is important to practice so that only your wrists work the pole out of the snow instead of pulling the weight of both your hands behind.
- Core position. Use your lower body to make turns. When practicing, imagine yourself turning using your thighs rather than your ankles and feet. This helps you keep your ski posture and keeps the right amount of weight and pressure on your skis. Engage your whole lower body when you want to make a turn, from your pelvis to your ankles, not just your knees.
- Curve angle. You should aim to turn in a smooth curve, more like an S rather than a jagged Z. This reduces the resistance between your skis and the snow so that you do not trip and fall. Keep your fall line in focus and purpose to stay within the fall line instead of moving in a zigzag manner outside the fall line. As experts say, incline rather than angle.
- Pole movement. Anticipate the end of your turn and swing your poles in preparation for the next plant. Do not wait until you are done with the turn before swinging your poles as this will affect your speed and interrupt your rhythm.
- Weight and unweight your skis. keeping your core tight, maintain your skiing position when taking a turn. Before the turn is complete, rise up on your skis using your knees and incline your body in the direction of the next turn. This technique is popularly known as the ‘flex and pop’ technique and it helps you navigate turns easily without losing momentum.
- Ski movement. when turning with your skis, remember that your legs and feet should act like one. In your head, you should imagine that you are balanced on only one ski or a surfboard. When you make a turn, turn both legs and feet in the same direction. Once you master this alignment it will be easier for you to turn without falling.
- Go for the bumps. the first instinct when you see bumps on the trail will be to swerve in order to avoid them. Resist that instinct. Bumps are a great way to practice unweighing your skis when turning, giving you a good momentum in order to take the next turn. You need to be careful since some bumps in the terrain may be covering rocks instead of being plain snow. If the terrain is unfamiliar to you, use the help of a guide to identifying the safe bumps.
Handling a fall
Let’s face, whether you are a beginner or an expert, you will fall more than once when powder skiing. For a beginner, the number will be higher no matter how much you practice, and this can get discouraging. You might be tempted to quit your powder skiing adventure, an understandable factor since you are putting in a lot of effort with disappointing results. You should only quit if you injure yourself seriously. The good thing is that powder is soft and cushions your fall, and so when you fall you need to know how to get up and ski on.
When you fall in soft, fluffy powder, you do not want to try to get up by pushing your hands into the snow to support yourself. This might work on solid ground, but on powder snow, you will end up falling through the snow, a factor that could annoy you at best, and injure you at worst. This is what you want to do when you fall in powder:
- Depending on how you have fallen, you need to get your bearings and understand your orientation. Note where the mountain slopes up rather than down. This makes it easier to stand using the technique outlined below.
- Once you are turned in the right direction, cross your poles to make a big X shape.
- Put the crossed poles on the ground and place your hands at the point of intersection.
- Push yourself to your feet using the hand placed at the point of the poles’ intersection.
And that is it! You will be back on your feet in no time and ready to try zooming down that mountain again. You can watch a pro get up from a fall here:
It is also easier to get up if you have someone watching your back when you ski, especially when you are unfamiliar with the terrain. This is one of the reasons why you should powder ski with a group of other skiers. Have an expert ski behind you so that they can notice when you fall and help you out. When you are injured, extra help will make a big difference that you will be grateful for later.
You need to be self-aware and know when your nerves simply cannot handle another fall. Frustration and learning do not go together. When you feel annoyed and at the end of your tether from falling repeatedly, get up, dust off your face and head back to the resort, an inn or your home, get a nice hot drink and rest in preparation for another day of trying.
Fast tips: Safety
- Have the right gear. Fat skis with reverse camber are designed to float over soft powder while regular skis will dig into powder. Do not cheap out at the expense of safety.
- Keep up-to-date with weather reports. You do not want to be stranded or injured in an avalanche.
- Powder ski in a group. Have safety equipment like transceivers to communicate when one is injured.
- Proper body positioning is vital to effective powder skiing. Narrow your feet so that they are less than shoulder length apart. Reach out and widen your arms past shoulder width. Crouch down and lean back, but not in a complete squat: your knees should not lean past your ankles. Remember the toe crunch test: if you cannot crunch your toes, you are leaning too far back.
Fast tips: Powder skiing
- Remember that speed is your friend out on a powder slope. You want to gently accelerate until you reach a speed you can maintain. The faster you go, the better you will float, and the better you will ski on powder. Remember: speed is relative. Also, you are not speeding right if you cannot control your movements.
- Keep your upper body in the right position when skiing. Do not swivel or turn it around, that is how you fall.
- Use your wrists to pole plant. Do not fling your arms behind you when you move your pole upward.
- Use your lower body to take turns. Engage your pelvis down to your ankles, keeping your feet in the initial narrowed position.
- Keep your eyes looking ahead, not at your skis. Engage with the terrain, anticipate turns, plan ahead as to how you will take the turns.
- One Ski, One Turn. Your legs should act as one when you ski. Move them in the same direction even when your instincts scream otherwise.
- Go for the bumps.
Fast tips: falling
- You will fall, especially when you are starting out. Accept this as a fact and prepare yourself for that eventuality.
- Push off the ground using your crossed poles, not your hands. Otherwise, you will just fall through the snow.
- Check for injuries after every fall. Do not keep skiing if you feel like you might have sprained a muscle.
- Have a ski partner, especially a powder ski expert. Have him ski behind you and watch out for you when you fall. You do not want to be stranded, injured, in powder snow.
Videos of pro skiers floating through powder are very appealing, and they make it look so easy. However, skiing off-piste is a totally different ball game and requires dedicated practice. Even the experts need to keep practicing because powder snow is wild.
You can practice your stance and posture at home or at the resort. Do not be in a rush to get into the untamed mountains. When there is powder snow, identify a gently sloping mountain with only a few centimeters of snow to practice your moves on. You want to be able to maintain your balance and posture on smaller mountains before graduating to steeper slopes. Do not rush the process. There will always be a powder to conquer. So practice, be safe and have fun out powder skiing.