By: Jackson Hogen
Published: February 19, 2019
Before diving headlong into this week’s topic, let me clarify a central point that in a sense renders this Revelation’s irrelevant: technique conquers all. Great skiers can take their game anywhere with no discernable decline in performance. From the point of view of the skier, there may be any number of subtle tweaks he/she applies, but from the viewer’s perspective the great skier appears to possess the same mastery no matter the slope or the snow conditions.
Given the amazing range of ski shapes and constructions available in today’s market, it’s possible to identify an ideal genre for every conceivable definition of “snow.” While it’s also possible to apply a single, unalterable means of making a turn to all circumstances, life will be a lot easier – and you’ll be making better use of the tools attached to your tootsies – if you modify your tactics to suit the situation.
In skiing as in Nature, those who do not adapt risk extinction.
Last week at Mammoth Mountain there occurred a noble attempt at a trade fair, and like so many noble gestures, it was doomed before it started. Two days before the event was such a perfect day that the Ideal Weather Genie took the rest of the week off. The wind that began to move in the day prior to the industry confab would reach 172mph over the top of the mountain when Day Two was cancelled. Day One was relative bliss: the snow was fairly dense and wind affected, but you could always make a fresh track or two in the trees. Then came the rain and the wind got busy.
The following ruminations have been filtered through this recent experience of wildly variable snow conditions while riding a wide variety of skis.
For the purposes of this monograph, we’ll define powder as untracked snow at least a foot deep. This is where the fattest ski shine. There are a couple of technique tweaks that make riding a 115mm waist-width ski through uncut snow easier. First, make your two feet into a single platform. I realize you can’t put your feet together for the skis won’t allow you to, but move them in concert and weight them evenly.
Second, if the snow is heavy or more resistant, the urge to lean back is hard to fight. But you’ll burn your gas tank dry in ten turns from the back seat. Remember, your powder ski is massively rockered and tapered in the tip to it won’t over-react to forward pressure. Even so, if the pitch is steep you don’t want to go over the handlebars, so wanting to relieve some tip pressure is normal.
Notice how Marcus Caston has tweaked his technique for pure powder: low center of gravity, evenly weighted skis, quiet upper body with high hands.
On more moderate slopes, concentrate your force in your arch or center of your stance and get your hips over heels. Set up a fluid, side-to-side rhythm. Maintain a tall enough posture that allows you to absorb sudden shocks and keep your chin up so you’re looking ahead.
If you need to make a short turn on a 118mm ski, don’t even think about making a classic carve. These skis are made to pivot on a dime if you simply foot-steer them, and their super-wide bodies can smear sideways as comfortably as can be. Remember, they’re supposed to make it effortless, so if you’re still struggling, either you’re doing something wrong or the ski isn’t right for you in some way, which can be as simple an issue as length, weight or construction.
Crud is what becomes of powder an hour after the rope drops and its once pristine surface is riven with tracks and dotted with piles of dense drifts. If you don’t manhandle crud it will manhandle you. Against all reason and instinct, to make crud easier you have to ski it as fast as you can while maintaining control. Slightly narrower Big Mountain skis (waists 101mm – 113mm) still sport rockered baselines and tapered tips, so they won’t augur in when you ramp it up.
To manage your speed in crud, use the remaining patches of uncut snow to pump the brakes. It’s going to be a bumpy ride no matter how you slice it, so you have to remain calm, the still center of the hurricane. You can try brute force and jamming into every turn, but you won’t last long fighting condensed snow. Instead, maintain your balance by making smooth, efficient, minimalist movements.
When a prospective ski buyer asks me, “How good is it in the bumps?” I answer, “As good as you are.” To ski bumps well requires two traits: anticipation of what lies ahead and quick feet. It also helps to be on a shorter, narrower ski, but there are ways to make almost any ski at least tolerable when moguls are on the menu.
Mogul savants like John Clendenin and Wayne Wong are somehow able to find seams in the rubble field and when they do confront an impassable junction they flow over it like lava. For mortals, I recommend a more direct approach: point ‘em downhill, be ready to stand on a single ski at a moment’s notice and when you face the inevitable horizontal swell you can’t avoid, swivel suddenly, drift laterally up the face then re-pivot on the crest to find a new line. Zipping along through irregular bumps requires a Zen-like focus, a slightly lower center of gravity and feet that are ready to flick from side to side.
One can ski moguls more passively, of course, but what is living for?
In their own humble way, groomers offer skiers of all skill sets the widest range of self-expression, as the medium itself puts no limits on what will work. You can make any turn shape you want and move at whatever pace floats your boat. On a top-flight Non-FIS Race, Technical or Frontside ski, digging trenches in firm, tilled powder is an epiphany unto itself. No matter what the terrain, the more skilled skier always has the advantage, but the merits of a superior skill set are more starkly evident on hard snow. Because firm snow is both more critical and more consistent, it makes the ideal test surface for all properties except flotation.
In days of yore, the de facto standard length difference was 5cm, although smaller increments weren’t uncommon. Today, size splits of 7cm are normal and length differences of 9mm aren’t unusual. The fewer the sizes, the more it matters which size you get.
If you buy a carving ski that’s a tad too long, the only penalty you’ll endure is a longer natural turn radius. But when you buy an over-sized ski that’s over 100mm underfoot, you’re adding length to a ski that already has a lot of bonus surface area. A Big Mountain ski that’s oversized skis like a barge – the only way to steer it is to smear it. Remember, any off-trail ski has to fit through tight trees and you ought to be able to rip it off the snow on a moment’s notice.
Fat skis have only one purpose: to make it easier to ski powder and crud. Getting on an ultra-wide ski that’s too long for your size and skill set defeats the purpose of having a fat ski in the first place.