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Skiing the Powder

by Jack Heggie

Skiing in powder, say many skiers, is the ultimate ski experience. The feeling of lightness, ease, and grace is incomparable. But the first time you venture into powder you may feel more like a fly in a spider’s web than a bird on the wing. Powder skiing is vastly different from skiing on hardpack; the techniques that work well on packed snow won’t work in powder. Today, with the almost universal use of snow-grooming equipment, a skier can learn to ski, and become quite proficient, without ever seeing powder. But, when he tries to make the transition from hardpack to powder, he finds himself eating a lot of fresh snow.

The first time I tried to ski in powder was disastrous. I was a good intermediate-level skier who had learned to ski on hardpack. One fine day, after a fresh snowfall, I found an area at the side of the trail that the snowcats had missed; the untracked powder was about six inches deep.

I went into it, not moving very fast, and then tried to turn, using the same technique that I had always used on the hardpack. To my surprise, one ski shot out to the side, I lost my balance and fell.

I got up, tried again, and fell again. A third time; same thing.

I got out of the powder, skied the rest of the way down on the hardpack, and did some thinking on the way back up the lift. It was obvious that my hardpack reflexes were not working in the powder. Each time I fell, the uphill ski had shot out to the side, as if some force had pulled it out. With my skis separated, I had no control and couldn’t remain upright. I’d never had that kind of fall when I was skiing on hardpack.

I decided to experiment a little. When I got off of the lift, I went back to the same place and began to ski slowly, along the edge of the powder. Gradually, I eased over into the powder, so that one ski, the left, was on the hardpack, and the right ski, which was uphill, was in the powder. Keeping most of my weight on the downhill ski, I raised the uphill ski a fraction of an inch and moved the tip a little to the right.

As soon as the tip of the right ski moved to the right, I felt that same force jerk the ski out to the side. But this time, I was moving slowly, and I still had some control from the left ski, still on the hardpack, so I managed to avoid a fall. I repeated this motion several times and gradually began to feel why the ski jerked to the side. When skiing on hardpack, the skis are on the snow, but when skiing in powder, the skis are in the snow.

Every time I lifted the ski that was in the powder and turned the tip out a little, the pressure of the snow against the inside of the ski pushed that ski away from the other, causing me to lose control and fall. This doesn’t happen on hardpack, of course, since there is no snow to push against the ski.

I continued to experiment, skiing with one ski in the powder, and one on the hardpack. Gradually, as I got a better feel for the way the powder was affecting my ski, I was able to control the motion of the ski with less effort. After two or three runs, I began to feel more confident and let both skis go into the powder. Then I skied along slowly, across the hill, without making any turns. As I skied through the powder, I slowly shifted my weight from one ski to the other and back again, over and over. As I did this, I could feel myself becoming more stable and confident. Then I tried leaning forward and back. This move is also different in powder because the snow can grab your ski tips if your weight is too far forward. After an hour or so, I began to get some control.

Curiously enough, I couldn’t tell what I was doing differently to control the skis. It seemed that my body had learned something, though, and I wasn’t falling anymore. I had apparently learned a new set of reflexes.

The next time there was fresh now on the slopes, I went into it and suddenly found that I could turn and stop in the powder almost as well as I could on hardpack.

Looking back, I can see why I had a difficult time getting into the powder. I just went rushing in, expecting the same techniques I used on hardpack snow to work in powder. But with some concentration and practice, I was then able to make the transition and stay right-side up.

If you are an intermediate skier and you want to powder ski, I recommend spending some time letting your body adjust to the new feel of the powder before blithely charging out.

Find an intermediate or even beginner-level hill where the snowplow has left some fresh snow at the side of the trail. Ski along the edge of the powder and slowly let one ski ease over into it. Notice how the snow drags on the ski and boot that are in the powder, and compare the feeling with the ski still on the hardpack.

Lift the ski that is in the powder a little, and wiggle it around. Be prepared for the ski to jump out to the side when the powder grabs it. If you’re moving slowly and are prepared, you won’t have any trouble keeping your balance.

Spend some time with one ski in the powder, and then try the other. When you think that you have a feel for the effect of the snow on each ski, get both skis into the powder. Ski slowly across the hill and shift your weight from one ski to the other and back again. Begin by shifting your weight slightly from one ski to the other, and gradually work up to the point where you can put most of your weight on one ski so that you can lift the other one up and move it around in the snow a little.

Then try shifting your weight forward and back on the skis. Lean forward a little, and feel how the pressure increases on the front part o the foot; the lean back, and feel how the pressure moves back to the heel. As before, start with a small shift of weight, and slowly work up to a big one. If you lean too far forward in deep powder snow, your tips will catch in the snow, and you will fall forward over the tips. But if you are moving slowly, it won’t be much of a fall, and it’s worth it to find out just how far forward you can lean.

If you spend a few runs practicing in this manner, you will find that your powder technique improves almost as if by magic.

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