There are many myths and stories about how to ski off piste but the first important thing to remember is that you can encounter a huge range of different snow conditions when skiing off piste. So the first point to consider is the most important, adapt to the conditions.
Before reading further, have you read my first post in this mini series: introduction to skiing off piste.
I’m going to give some pointers about skiing in deep powder snow as it is the often the conditions that people first ski off piste. Deep powder occurs after a heavy fall of snow and this is usually considered to be the best time to ski off piste. The snow is deep and it’s fun to try it out. It’s also sometimes possible to find this snow just at the side of a marked ski run and therefore it’s easy to access. In a separate edition of the series I will go into techniques for skiing in other conditions that can be found off piste.
One of the most common myths about skiing off piste that seems to stick is that leaning backwards is a good idea. It is not necessary or in fact helpful to lean back when skiing in powder snow. Below is a list of pointers for skiing in powder that you should practice on a gentle gradient:
1. Centre of the skis. Leaning backwards will mean less control of the skis and make your legs ache very quickly. Leaning too far forwards might drive the ski tips into the snow and cause a fall. Learn to stand on the centre of the skis and support your body weight with your feet. This means not relying on the boots for too much support. One good exercise to see how good you are at supporting yourself is to stay on a gentle ski run (Not off piste) and un-clip your ski boots. Ski down performing parallel turns and try not to fall!
2. More equal pressure. When you ski on a groomed ski run you apply more pressure to one ski when making a turn. This works perfectly well when combined with other technical manoeuvres like edging the skis and leg steering. But stand heavily on one ski in deep snow and you will find that one ski sinks right down into the snow, leaving the other behind. This is a classic mistake and causes a fall due to the heavier ski slowing down rapidly and getting stuck, initiating upper body rotation and loss of balance.
Just practice on your favourite ski run and make turns without pressing too hard on one ski. Get used to the feeling of being light on both feet and steering your skis underneath your upper body.
3. Lower & upper body separation. Control over your upper body is crucial when skiing off piste. Having a good solid pole plant technique is not optional, it’s mandatory! If your pole planting is not up to scratch, go back to the marked runs and get practicing. Pole planting will give you support and control over your timing and upper body position. The legs and feet work independently to your upper body and provide the steering and control over the skis. Too much shoulder rotation and the momentum will throw you over as the skis will want to go one way whilst the body goes another.
A good exercise in rotational control is side slipping. On a fairly steep groomed slope (Red Run) practice side slipping one way and then the other. After that try changing your side slipping direction without stopping, ensuring you are always travelling directly down the slope at all times. Once you can rotate your skis underneath your upper body whilst moving down the hill you will have more idea of upper and lower body separation.
4. Balance. If you are a good skier then you should have pretty good balance anyway. When people first try skiing in deep powder they often fall and don’t understand why. One of the reasons is that when you ski in deep powder, every turn throws you off balance, even if just slightly. If you are not used to this feeling then you simply fall because you expect to fall. But if you have a good solid technique then you will have the confidence to carry on turning. It’s a bit like riding a bike, if you stop, the bike will topple over. The key here again is the upper body and if through every turn you think about staying ‘centred’ on your skis and coming back to the middle every time you will stay upright.
5. Confidence & persistence. Practice on gentle slopes and build up your confidence to stay in balance in deep powder. Remember, it takes time to learn how to cope with deep powder snow and you will certainly fall over at times. This can be tiring so practice little and often to get the most out of it.
To summarise on the some of the key technical points to remember when skiing off piste:
1. Don’t lean back! Or too far forward either. Learn to be centred on your skis.
2. Apply more equal pressure to both skis
3. Steer the skis with your feet and legs and keep the upper body for balance. Pole plant!
4. Get used to being off balance and get good at getting back into balance. Skiing is a dynamic activity!
5. Keep trying and be positive.
In the next part of the series I will talk about mountain safety, including avalanche prevention and rescue.
This post was written by Robert Stewart of The Skiing Department Blog. Robert is a qualified ISIA ski instructor and professional Alpine skier and his blog has the latest information on many different aspects of the sport, from beginners skiing tips to ski clothing reviews. He can also be followed on Twitter @skiing_blog