When To Level Up As A Skier

Ski expert Abe F. overviews how to know if you are ready to advance as a skier and tips for improving your chances of success.

Photo by Ben Currier
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When friends ask me if they are ready to move up to the next level of skiing I almost always say yes. I’m not reckless, it’s just that over the years I’ve found most people advance in skill more quickly than they build confidence. If they have an inkling that they might be ready for a more advanced run, then they probably are, and in most cases the biggest factor that holds skiers back is fear.

So first of all, I’ll say, “Go for it!”

But if you need some extra reassurance to prove to yourself that you are ready for the next step up, I can offer a few red flags that will tell you if you are NOT ready for that move. If you aren’t doing any of the below things, then seriously... go for it!

Are You Frequently Falling Down When Skiing at Your Current Level?

If you are, then you guessed it, you probably aren’t ready to move up. Still, you may be wondering what constitutes frequent falling. If you are skiing aggressively on slopes within your range you should allow yourself up to three falls per day. If you are skiing conservatively on slopes within your range, you should be able to make it through the day with one fall, or none. Once you get to that point of comfort within your range you can start dabbling with the next level up.

Do You Lose Good Form When Skiing at Your Current Level?

Two beginner skiers making their way down a slope under a chairlift  in a blizzard
This little guy should get his left arm up and straighten his skis. Photo by Fabio Hanashiro

Are your hands all over the place? Do you get in the back seat too often? Do your skis still get crossed? These are all signs that your technique isn’t quite up to snuff and if that’s the case, it probably isn’t time to level up. Once your hands are staying front and center, you aren’t leaning back, and your skis are staying parallel on all the terrain at your level, you are ready for the next level!

Do You Lose Control of Your Speed When Skiing at Your Current Level?

Speed control comes in many forms, and as you improve you will need to master more types. At first it is the snowplow, then the hockey stop, then skid turns and carves. If you can carve, turn, and stop at will then it is likely you are ready to move on up!

Did You Just Move Up a Level?

An aerial view of a line of skiers making their way down a steep slope
Spend some time on your form! Photo by Toa Heftiba

If you just went from greens to blues a few days ago, it probably isn’t time to move from blues to blacks just yet. Even if you aren’t falling much at a new level, it’s still good to get comfortable with it before moving on again. You can always work on developing technique at that level before your next move up. Try straightening out your carves and seeing how fast you can go. Try staying as close to the edge of the slope as possible by making your turns quicker and quicker. Try hitting every side jump you can. These kinds of exercises will make the most of your time at an intermediate level before you move on.

If you are the athletic and courageous type who wants to jump from greens to blacks, I would still advise giving blues a day or two. There are plenty of people who are able to pull off that jump, but they wind up having to spend longer working on techniques than they would if they had progressed a bit more gradually. If you are fearless and tough, it’s possible to fight your way down an expert run, but you will be so concerned with just making it down you won’t really have a chance to improve your form.

How to Level Up as a Skier

If your answer to all the above questions is “no,” then as I said before, go for it! And if you are going to take the plunge into more challenging terrain there are a few tips that can improve your chances of success and a few safety considerations to keep in mind when entering into serious expert areas.

A warning sign posted at the edge of a slope on the top of a mountain at a ski resort
If you are progressing as a skier, get ready to face those fears! Photo by Henry Boulind

Know What Fear Does to You

Everyone gets scared when trying a new challenge out on the slopes, and it’s almost impossible to ignore fears altogether. It isn’t as much of a problem if you are aware of your tendencies and bad habits. A lot of people start to lean back and tighten up when they are in an intimidating situation. Many people let their hands droop to their sides. A lot of people hesitate before bringing their skis around for the next turn and lose their momentum. All of these habits—and many more—can be very detrimental to good skiing.

So figure out what your issue is, or what your issues are, and develop a mantra to keep them at the forefront of your mind. Repeat a little phrase to yourself over and over all the way down the hill when you know you are a bit intimidated and make sure to actually take your own advice as you give it!

Don’t Freeze Up

Everyone needs to stop and take a break occasionally, but when you are skiing something that is intimidating to you, don’t stay stopped for very long. Standing there looking at how steep the slope is and thinking about how scared you are does no good at all! Leg muscles are prone to tensing up unnecessarily and tiring prematurely when standing around scared. If you are in a good rhythm but need a rest, get on edge and allow yourself to start gliding very slowly to the side soon after you stop. Get a little movement going again as soon as you can, even if you aren’t ready to really start skiing yet. Before you decide to stop, always remember that the first turn from a stopped position is the hardest.

Plan Your Turns

Before you get going, give the slope a quick survey. Examine where the pitch is more and less extreme. Try to notice patches of ice, rock, or plants. Identify areas of quality snow where you know you’ll have no problem getting an edge in. Once you have a collection of areas to aim for and a collection of areas to avoid, try to imagine the optimal line that makes turns at an angle and frequency you will be comfortable with while connecting the spots you want to reach and missing the areas you don’t. Then visualize yourself skiing that line while miming some of the necessary motions while standing in place. Now you are ready to start skiing.

A backcountry skier with skis on his backpack at the top of a mountain looking out at the snowy mountain expanse
This skier is carefully examining a gnarly line before going to ski it. Photo by Bobby Stevenson

Know How to Self-Arrest After a Fall

Falls are going to happen—it’s just a fact of skiing. On steep and extreme terrain it can be a dangerous challenge to get yourself stopped once you start tumbling. The moment you start to lose control, start preparing for the fall. On gentler terrain it can be okay to try to regain control and power through a potential fall, but in extreme terrain the risk-reward is just not worth it. If you think you might go down, let it happen, and instead of focusing on staying up, focus on getting your body into a position where a fall won’t hurt and you’ll be able to get yourself in control.

The safest position to be in when you fall is on your side with your legs directly downhill. From that position, immediately start digging your heels and elbows into the snow. If you do wind up falling and totally losing control, punch and kick into the snow as you make contact with it to create as much resistance as possible. If you still have your poles with you, it can be helpful to dig those in too.

Ski with a Group

One of the safest things you can do when trying to ski more challenging terrain is to go with someone, or a group you trust that has done it all before. They can guide you to the simplest ways down, point out potential hazards, remind you to avoid bad habits, and give you an overall confidence boost. They can help gather gear after a wipeout and go for help if necessary. Pushing yourself too much when you are skiing alone is a recipe for disaster.

Stay in Control

There is no need to show off or impress anyone when taking your first turns into extreme terrain. Steeper slopes don’t mean you should be going faster. Slow and steady definitely wins at first. Quick short turns keep you in constant control and minimize risk.

Four skiers and snowboarders discussing their next steps in the backcountry
These folks are skiing in a group and planning their lines. Good ideas! Photo by Chen Gang

Safety should always be your number one priority out on the hill, but don’t let fear hold you back forever either. Progress with care and confidence, bring some trusted friends, and you’ll be okay. Avoid moving on when those red flags are still popping up, and once they aren’t, keep these tips in mind and go for it!

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Written By
Abe F
Ski Expert
Two years of volunteer experience as an adaptive skiing instructor, Level 1 avalanche certification, and a lifetime of experience out on the hill!
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