How to Ski the Steeps: Avoiding the High-Speed Trauma-Hawk
Ski Expert Kyle O'Donnell shares his tips and tricks for skiing the steeps to make your trips into steep terrain a lot more safe and enjoyable.
It’s a warm spring day in April and I pull into the parking lot at Pinkham Notch in Coos County, New Hampshire. It’s full, wall-to-wall with an army of skiers looking to get a few more turns in for the year. To those unfamiliar, this may sound like a resort parking lot, but anyone looking to ski here will have to earn it. There are no chairs, no t-bars, and no rope tows. If you want to make turns on Mount Washington, it will be a human-powered endeavor. From Pinkham Notch, it takes a few miles of hiking to get up to Tuckerman’s Ravine, the Northeast's most famous backcountry skiing zone.
The east-facing bowl offers some of the steepest slopes in the country, and Northeast skiers flock to the area once the weather becomes more inviting. On any given weekend in the spring, there could be a few hundred people in the bowl skiing, sledding, and for those who don’t mind carrying the weight, barbecuing. As I skin up to the bottom of the bowl, I see a line of skiers booting up the face. They look like a line of ants, slowly marching up the ever-steepening slope. At its steepest point, the slope angle can be 60 degrees, which is much steeper than anything you'll find at a resort.
If you’ve ever been to Tuckerman’s, the next part of this scene will probably sound all too familiar. A skier begins their descent from the ridge. They’ve chosen to center punch the headwall, the steepest part of the bowl. Things start out okay, but as the slope gets steeper, they start looking shaky. Their turns have gotten awfully long and they're picking up more and more speed. They’re leaning way back and they fall on their butt in the middle of the face.
A slow skid turns into a slide for their life, and now this poor soul is tomahawking down the face leaving their poles, goggles, and skis strewn along the fall line. The spectators in the bowl moan and groan with each somersault, and all goes quiet as the rag-dolling skier finally skids to a stop. The skier sits up, dazed and a little sore, but throws a thumbs up into the air. The crowd in the bowl goes wild! They’re all hooting, hollering, and cheering as the skier hikes back up to grab their gear.
This happens all of the time at Tuckerman’s and other places where slopes get steep. People get stiff, they pick up speed, and all form goes out the window as they panic while trying to get their skis back under control. If you're lucky, the only thing that you injure is your ego, but even this is very avoidable. I’m going to walk you through a few tips and tricks to make your trips into steep terrain a lot more safe and enjoyable.
Keep Your Form
It is so important to keep a solid stance when you're skiing, and this becomes even more crucial for steep skiing. That being said, it’s not always easy to remember this as you’re white-knuckling your poles, puckered out of your mind, and staring down at a face that seems to fall away beneath your feet. Even experienced skiers have trouble maintaining their form as an adrenaline rush courses through their veins. It’s important at this moment to take a breath and remember all the basics.
First off, keep your weight in the front of your boots. This has probably been hammered into your head since you first donned a set of skis, but it tends to be the hardest thing for people to remember on steep slopes. People want to lean back as things get more and more vertical, but once they're in the back seat, it’s game over. If you have to, say it out loud as you drop in — you'd be surprised at how well this little reminder works.
The other common mistake happens when adrenaline spikes and skiers stiffen up; they don’t keep their knees bent. If your knee on the downhill leg is locked out, you're probably not putting good pressure in the front of your boots, and your downhill edge won’t be nearly as effective. Your stiff leg won’t absorb any bumps in the snow, and the ski will be bouncing all over the place. This is the beginning of the end. You always want to have your knees bent in an aggressive skiing posture.
Quiet Upper Body
Keeping your form doesn’t stop at the lower body. Your upper body needs to be in control, too. Good form means the skier is looking down the fall line with their shoulders facing down the fall line as well. Most of the rotation of the lower body should be generated from the hips, and your hands should be out in front of you. If your hands fall behind your hips, it will be very hard to get in control of your turn and transition to the next one. This happens a lot in steep terrain when people over-rotate.
A lot of people drop their hands when they turn to their non-dominant side, and that turn tends to be longer and less controlled than the turns they make with their hands out in front. There is a great drill to correct this behavior! Hold your ski poles in both hands like a set of handlebars. Ski as you normally do, and if you start dropping your hand, the pole will bump your torso. This is a great cue that will force you to correct your bad form!
Your poles aren’t just for correcting bad form. They are a great way to initiate turns in steep terrain. When you're ready to make a turn, firmly plant your downhill pole right before you disengage your edges and start your next turn. This gives you a solid platform to swing your skis around faster. Your uphill ski swings around, becoming your new downhill ski, and your original downhill ski will come to rest just downhill of your pole. The momentum of the turn will lift the planted pole out of the ground as you finish. Once you feel balanced and stable, you're ready to make another pole plant and another turn. Keeping your turns short and in control is crucial to prevent your skis from running away from you in steep terrain.
Keeping your turns tight around your pole plants requires a bit of technique that may seem counterintuitive. People often try to use more edge in really steep terrain. However, this will lead to long, arcing turns and a rapid increase in speed that can be difficult to control. In reality, you want to keep your edge angles low so you can skid your turns. Your edge isn’t as engaged, so it is easier to create a smaller turn shape and swing the ski around faster. The skis won't pick up as much speed, and they'll be far easier to control.
When things get really steep, or you're skiing a narrow chute, a skid turn might not be quick enough to get you down safely. In this case, you can use a hop turn. You still start with a pole plant, but rather than skidding around the pole, you use a small hop to initiate the turn. Once airborne, you rotate your hips and rotate your skis across the fall line. Once you feel balanced, you pole plant, hop, and repeat. This requires a lot more energy than a skid turn, so use it in moderation.
Hop turns are also the most difficult turn to execute on this list. They require a bit of coordination, but there are a couple of tricks to make it easier. The first step is to get the hop right. Generally, people try to only jump off their outside ski, but your uphill leg has more bend in it and it can generate far more upward energy for easier hops. Make sure to use that uphill ski to get a better hop, more clearance off the snow, and more time to rotate your skis.
Practice on Low-Angle Terrain
So, now you’ve read all these techniques, and you may be tempted to go after that steep line you’ve been salivating over. This is a good time to pump the brakes. If you try to execute new techniques without practicing, you’ll end up like that unfortunate soul at Tuckerman's Ravine, tumbling down the slope at a terrifying pace.
You can practice every one of these techniques on low-angle terrain and on-piste. Get comfortable with new techniques there first. Keep trying the techniques on gradually steeper terrain until you get to the really steep stuff! If you build up gradually, you're less likely to stiffen up and lose your form when you really need it. Take your time and get comfortable and you'll be confidently skiing those steep lines in no time. If you have any questions, reach out to a Ski Expert for free, personalized advice and recommendations!