Skiing downhill

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Skiing down high mountains in remote locations is exhilarating.

Gaining some basic downhill ski skills contributes to an enjoyable and safe ski trip. 

The downhill ski skills described in summary form in the following sections are not intended as step-by-step instructions. Ski lessons may accelerate your learning.

Always ski with an experienced companion, do not ski alone.

Snowplough turns

The snowplough is a stable method of controlling speed on a variety of snow conditions and when skiing with a heavy pack.

Steps:

  • Form a ‘V’ with the ski tips together and tails apart
  • Bend both knees, keeping them pointed in so that both skis are angled onto their inside edges. Edged skis provide a braking effect – a flat ski will not brake.
  • Maintain even pressure on both skis by pushing them outwards to maintain the V
  • Push harder on both skis to form a wider V to increase braking and reduce your speed
  • To snowplough turn push harder on one ski (e.g. the left one) to turn in the opposite direction (e.g. to the right).

Edging is more effective with knees bent, legs flexed and the hips low. 

Snowplough technique on deep or crusty snow is difficult. 

Using snowploughs when carrying a heavy pack is difficult and tiring. Traversing with kick turns (see below) may be a better choice in those conditions.

Direct descent

A direct descent (also known as straight running or schussing) is a straight run downhill with skis parallel without turning. An appropriate length of slope with a flat run out area at the bottom of the slope is required to avoid gaining excessive speed and crashing.

A relaxed, flexible stance with knees bent and weight forward allows your legs to absorb bumps and dips in the terrain and provides good balance.

Bending your knees more provides additional stability and shock absorption in low light, poor visibility and fresh, deep snow conditions.

Downhill traversing

A long or steep slope can be descended at a slower rate by traversing with skis parallel oriented slightly downhill across the slope.  The angle chosen will determine the speed. 

If carrying a heavy pack or are not confident on a steep slope this is the safest option for descending.  Kick turns can be used at the end of each traverse.

Steps:

  • Adopt a relaxed stance with the upper body
  • Twist and lean slightly outward with the body facing down the fall line
  • Put more weight on the downhill ski
  • Roll your knees and ankles inward towards the slope to edge and control the skis
  • Keep the uphill ski ahead of the downhill one.

If the snow is deep and soft, little or no edging of the skis will be required, but precise control of ski edges is necessary on steeper and icy slopes. 

Downhill kick turn

A downhill kick turn is an effective method of turning 180° while stationary on a steep slope. 

Steps:

  • With your skis across the slope, face your body downhill
  • Place both poles behind you for support 
  • Kick the downhill ski forward and up vertical, resting its tail on the snow near  to the tip of the uphill ski
  • Rotate the tip of the raised ski out and away from your body, bringing it on the snow facing the opposite direction (this splays your feet and feels awkward and takes some practice). 
  • Transfer all your weight onto the rotated downhill ski
  • Lift and rotate the uphill ski around until it is parallel with the and transfer weight on it as the new downhill ski.
  • Finish by bringing your poles and upper body around to face in the new direction.

Make sure your legs are flexed, and do not place too much weight on your poles.

Side slipping

A side slip is a controlled descent on icy or steep slope with a firm surface.

Steps:

  • Keep skis in a parallel position across the fall line
  • Roll the ankles downhill to flatten the skis and release their edge on the snow.
  • Allow skis to slip down the snow, either straight down the fall line (side slipping) or at an angle (diagonal side slipping) 
  • Speed can be controlled or progress halted by rolling the ankles uphill to edge the skis more

Side slipping is easier in firm conditions.

Side slipping in soft snow can be difficult as snow tends to pile up and can trip the skier over.

Descending difficult terrain

Downhill traversing, side slipping and side stepping can be used to safely descend difficult terrain such as steep slopes through snow gums or with rock obstacles.

Walking down is a last resort, but should be avoided on icy slopes or where there are crevasses (overseas locations, e.g. glaciers).

Falling and getting up in soft snow

It can be difficult to get up after a fall in deep soft snow which offers little resistance to hands and arms.

Steps:

  • If your skis are above you up the slope swing them around and rotate so they are below your body down the slope
  • Cross your ski poles, place them in the snow and hold them in the middle with your hand then push up
  • Move your weight forward over your knees.
  • Stand up

Self arresting after a fall on steep firm snow or ice

It is best to ski within your limits to minimise the risk of falling, particularly on icy and steep snow. Ski slowly and use your most reliable turn.

Sliding after a fall can be very dangerous – practice self arresting using a ski pole in a safe location.

Always ski downhill with your hands out of the safety straps of the poles

Steps:

  • If you start sliding place one hand just above the basket of one pole, discard the other pole
  • Hold the middle of the pole with your other hand and dig the tip into the snow to slow your speed
  • Keep applying pressure until you stop sliding.
  • It is important to self arrest rapidly after a fall to avoid gaining momentum.

Self arrest grips fitted to  ski pole handles provide a sharp prong with a metal tip that can assist self arresting.

Glide wax

Glide wax is used to improve the glide of ski so that they go faster downhill. It is available in hard or paste form and can be applied during trips.

  • Apply the minimum amount of glide wax needed to improved glide
  • Excessive glide wax can interfere with the skin adhesive.
  • In cold conditions glide wax can stops skis and skins “balling up” – snow binding to the ski base or skins

Summary of downhill ski techniques

Snowplough turnsStable method of controlling speed on a variety of snow conditions and when skiing with a heavy pack.
Direct descentStraight run downhill with skis parallel without turning.
Downhill traversingDescended at a slower rate by traversing with skis parallel oriented slightly downhill across the slope.
Downhill kick turnEffective method of turning 180° while stationary on a steep slope.
Side slippingControlled descent on icy or steep slope with a firm surface.
Descending difficult terrainDownhill traversing, side slipping and side stepping can be used to safely descend difficult terrain such as steep slopes through snow gums or with rock obstacles.
Falling and getting up in soft snowUse ski poles to assist getting up after a fall in soft snow.
Self arresting after a fall on steep firm snow or iceTechnique for stopping a slide after a fall – only used in dangerous situations.