Beginner to Intermediate
By emphasizing wedge turns when teaching beginners, mass-production ski schools risk crippling their students with a knock-kneed, back-seated stance, in which the body's weight is carried by both skis and turns are forced by twisting the entire body. Too many beginning skiers remain stuck with this stance and style, which is terribly inefficient and certainly no way to ski. Wedge turns cause an excessive amount of fatigue, and can become dangerous in situations where the skier is at risk of losing control.
Students who receive instruction beyond the wedge-turn phase will next be taught how to make skidded parallel turns (christies) using a stem (half-wedge) to initiate the turn. Once they have learned to rely upon the stem christie, it becomes extremely difficult for them to keep a stem from sneaking into the start of their skidded turns. To avoid these problems, some forward-thinking instructors have begun teaching older children and athletic adults to make parallel turns during their very first day on skis. They accomplish this by starting the students out on very short, super-sidecut skis. With shorter skis and more sophisticated teaching methods, many more people are learning to ski better at a much faster pace.
STANCE AND BALANCE
The best thing a new skier can do is to start with a relaxed and balanced body position similar to a martial arts stance. Generally speaking, the feet are at hip width for men, shoulder width for women. The hands need to be kept forward, always visible in one's peripheral vision. The knees are slightly bent, enough so that there is an awareness of one's shins pressing against the boot tongues. Weight is usually carried on the balls of the feet, and one's awareness needs to include the feet and toes. In this stance, the body's center of mass is carried well forward on the skis, which makes it easier to turn. It is important to have your instructor frequently evaluate your stance and make the necessary corrections before a bad stance becomes habitual.
The key to making a skidded parallel turn is the controlled side-slip. Practice involves releasing the edge of the downhill ski by relaxing the foot, and setting the edge by tightening the foot. Beginning students must next learn how to make a good hockey stop. Skidding to a hockey stop enables students to make parallel turns without going through the stem christie phase. The hockey stop requires a fair amount of practice in order to become comfortable with this skill. An instructor will need to demonstrate exactly how to make a precise hockey stop. After hockey stops, edge control can be refined with the falling-leaf exercise. Because a skidded parallel turn involves moving one's center of mass toward the skis' tips and skidding their tails around, good edge control is required before going on to the next skills.
It may be confusing to new skier to think in terms of the inside and outside of a turn. What this simply means is that, in any path that describes an arc on the snow, the ski that is closest to the center of that arc is called the inside ski, and the ski that is farthest from the center of the arc is called the outside ski. When one turn is linked to another, the outside ski of the previous turn becomes the inside ski of the next turn. Descriptions which relate to uphill and downhill edges or skis are relevant only when both skis are pointed across the fall line, that is, the path a ball will take when rolling down the hill. Referring to a ski's edge as being on its big-toe side or little-toe side is more useful when the skis are turning.
TRANSFERRING WEIGHT TO ONE SKI
Intermediate skiers will need to learn to balance on one ski. As an exercise, they can practice transferring their weight from the downhill ski to the uphill ski while traversing. This will result in a parallel turn without stemming. Begin a traverse across a slope, with all the skier's weight carried by the big-toe edge of their downhill ski. Weight is then transferred from the downhill ski to the uphill ski by flexing the downhill leg while extending the uphill leg, and the uphill ski is tilted onto its big-toe edge. As part of this exercise, one may lift the tail of the downhill ski slightly. The skill of weight transfer can be refined with exercises such as thumper turns and the thousand steps. Weight transfer can also be assisted with a correctly timed pole touch, as demonstrated by your instructor. Swing the downhill pole tip forward and slightly downhill using only wrist action, lightly touching the snow at the initiation of the turn.
With modern skis, transferring weight to the uphill ski while tiltling it onto its big-toe edge will make it start turning. Picture in your mind how the uphill ski will become the outside ski of the new turn. If a novice skier allows their center of mass to drift back toward the tails of their skis as commonly happens, it will be impossible to lift the tail of the downhill ski and make a decisive weight transfer to the uphill ski. It is important for your instructor to dramatically demonstrate the weight transfer maneuver a number of times, as it is an essential skill for making parallel turns correctly. Exercises such as doing pedal turns, skating on flat terrain, skiing on one ski on a gentle slope, and doing garlands (pre-turns) on easy runs, will help to establish the ability to transfer weight to the outside ski at the start of a turn.
AN OBSTACLE TO PROGRESS
The biggest obstacle that can hold back a skier's progress from novice to intermediate is a habitual, automatic stem that comes from being taught the stem christie. Despite a skier's good intentions, stemming will happen when the uphill ski doesn't take over its responsibility for supporting the skier's weight, causing the downhill ski to remain weighted and on its uphill edge. The skier will either fall when attempting to turn from the downhill ski, or will try to regain balance by pushing the uphill ski's tail out into a half-wedge. This terrible, insidious habit is called "stemming." Although the stem puts the uphill ski onto its inside edge so it can then begin to turn, the skier will need to lift the inside ski to quickly get it parallel with the outside ski. While this crude, clumsy maneuver does result in changing direction, it is a far cry from the graceful, flowing turns to which we should aspire. Beginning and intermediate skiers will need to have a clear mental picture of what good skiing looks like, and then visualize themselves doing it. Watching slow-motion videos of expert skiers will help with the visualizations.
TRUST THE SKI TO TURN
With sufficient momentum in the traverse, after the skier's weight is transferred to the uphill ski and its big-toe edge bites into the snow, it will want to start turning all by itself because of the shape of its sidecut. It is very important to be patient and allow the turn to develop naturally, instead of rushing it with twisting movements of the body or feet or forcing the turn around with the outside hand and shoulder. Focus on keeping both skis parallel, without changing their direction, and let the turn happen of its own accord. As soon as weight has been transferred to the uphill ski and it has been tilted onto its big-toe edge, extend the outside leg to put pressure on the outside ski.
Tilting the weighted ski onto its big-toe edge is facilitated by tilting the light ski onto its little-toe edge. This is an extremely important maneuver. Think in terms of the light ski tilting onto its little-toe edge to initiate the turn. To turn left, the left ski is made light and tilted onto its left little-toe edge. To turn right, the right ski is made light and tilted onto its right little-toe edge. The combination of transferring weight and pressuring the outside ski's big-toe edge by extending the outside leg while maintaining strong contact between shin and boot tongue, is what makes the ski carve a turn, rather than skid, provided one has tilted the ski onto a high enough edge angle.
PRESSURE AND EDGE CHANGES
The amount of pressure on the weighted ski's big-toe edge and its edge angle will need to be adjusted continuously throughout the turn, to whatever degree is necessary to counteract the changing centrifugal and gravitational forces, which are typically greatest throughout the middle part of the arc. As the turn begins, sink down and pressure the shin more and more, and as the turn finishes, progressively rise up by extending the legs, while still keeping the body's center of mass forward and toward the outside of the arc. Remember to be aware of your hands, and keep them out front. The light inside ski is actively kept in a close parallel relationship with the outside ski through deliberate movements of the inside foot.
EARLY TURN INITIATION
Begin your turn early with a weight transfer and edge change, before your skis cross the fall line. As previously mentioned, a pole swing and touch with the inside hand helps to initiate the turn. It takes practice to get the timing and positioning of the pole touch dialed-in. The inside hand should move forward following the pole touch, so that the inside hand, shoulder and hip leads throughout the turn. Proper use of the poles can be approached as a playful experiment, rather than as an exacting exercise. Focus upon early turn initiation by shifting weight to what will become the outside ski before your skis cross the fall line. Remember that the light foot plays an active role in keeping the inside ski parallel with the weighted outside ski. If the skier's center of mass remains balanced or slightly forward throughout the turn, it will not be necessary to lift the tail of the light, inside ski to unweight it. The inside ski can be slightly weighted and remain in contact with the snow.
CONTROL SPEED WITH TURN SHAPE
Once a skier feels comfortable making parallel turns on easy intermediate terrain, it is time to practice making very rounded turns and linking them together, without any traverse between the end of one turn and the beginning of the next. Students will discover that rounding the completion of their turn, so that the skis turn slightly uphill, is an excellent way to keep their speed under control. It is also helpful to experiment by varying the turn radius, going from large, to medium, to small radius turns, while maintaining a rounded turn shape. Skis have their own, built-in turn radius, which is determined by their sidecut and length. Bending the ski by putting more pressure on it can shorten up a turn's radius. There is, however, a practical limit on how tight a turn can be made without the edge breaking loose and skidding sideways.
Now you have a general idea of what is involved in moving from the beginning skier to the intermediate level. Of course, reading about it is never a substitute for competent, hands-on instruction. One of the wonderful things about the sport of skiing is that there is always more to learn, with more skills to acquire and refine. Here, we have just skimmed the surface. Beyond intermediate skiing lies the magical world of the pure, carved turn. With modern ski equipment, proper instruction, sufficient motivation and many hours of practicing the basic movement patterns with correct form, carved turns can be achieved in most snow conditions. Welcome to your very own skiing adventure!