Tips for the Uninitiated to Powder Skiing

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Skiing powder can be an incredibly sublime experience.
Rider: Micky Crawford. Photo by Alex Stumpf

Skiing fresh untracked powder is one the most sublime experiences a skier can enjoy. Yet it can also be a daunting experience that can be frustrating for an experienced intermediate skier who has yet to attempt powder. I’ve seen and spoken to many a skier new to powder coming away from their experience either fearing powder or even hating it. So here are a few ideas of how to get into powder and really start enjoying it. I have tried to place them in order of importance, the first being the most important.

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Fat skis, in any shape and form, make skiing powder a lot easier.

1)      Get fat skis – Thanks to the invention of the snowboard, skiers borrowed a concept from it and created fat skis. Anything between 80 mm and 110 mm underfoot of a fat ski will help the uninitiated to powder enjoy their first experience much more. Essentially, fat skis helps you ‘float’ more in powder. The more your skis ‘sink’ into the powder, the harder you have to work to get it back up so that you can turn it. Obviously the fatter your skis are, the more they float. So why wouldn’t one just get the fattest skis available? Because the fatter the skis are, the less responsive the ski becomes with regards to edge contact with the snow. Not usually a problem in deep powder but very rarely are we always skiing in deep powder, even on deep powder days.

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Leaning back causes you to lose balance in powder.

2)      DO NOT lean back – If you ever hear anybody tell you to lean back when skiing powder, you should continue to nod politely but definitely stop listening. Ok that was a bit harsh but really, please don’t ever lean back. Leaning back is a sure fire way for you to lose your balance, subsequently lose control of your skis, build up uncontrolled speed, get really tired in the thighs, then stack and hurt yourself or at the very very least, start hating powder as you retreat to the familiar comfort of groomed runs. Most people are preoccupied with the idea that their ski tips will dive in the powder and consequently cause them to flip forward, hence they lean back to get their ski tips out of the snow. But leaning back creates a whole chain of events described above that will soon have you losing control of your skis. Although most fat skis these days have some form of rocker to aid with the tips coming out of the snow there is also a much better way to get* the tips out of the snow.

* Technically correct powder skiing is like mogul skiing where ski tips dive into the trough/ powder and then come out of it. Only in powder there isn’t a mogul that brings our ski tips up. We have to rely on the build up-and rebound effect of compressed powder pushing back against our skis. But that’s another post for another day.

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It can be unnerving at first, not being able to see your skis.

3)      Use your ankles to maintain balance – When you’re next on a chair lift, try lifting your toes towards your head. That was you flexing your ankle in your boot. Now do the opposite: push your toes away from your body. Now you just need to do that movement when you’re skiing. Sounds simple but it actually takes quite a bit of concentration to apply it in your skiing let alone in powder. There’s an earlier post that goes into the movement in more detail but just remember, when in doubt of your balance, pull your toes towards your head.

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Left: Turn shape on a given slope in groomed conditions.
Right: Turn shape on a given slope in powder.

4)      Elongate your turn shape –Powder represents a change in terrain, not in terms of steepness but in snow conditions. Snow conditions, like steepness can change how fast we go on that slope. On a given slope, ice would increase our speed. Powder is the exact opposite, it slows us down. The deeper or heavier it is, the more it slows you down. Depending on depth and heaviness of the powder, you have to adjust your turnshape by staying in the fall line longer and finishing your turn less in powder. Basically, you have to go faster than you normally would and slow down less to maintain your speed for next turn, in conditions that are new and different. Simple but hardly easy. Hence the adage, “Speed is your friend in powder”. Yes, the resistance of powder will slow you down very quickly as you finish your turn but learning to trust this phenomenon can take time and mileage. Yet knowing what you have to achieve is half the battle.

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Using the thighs, and not the shoulders or hips, to twist the skis around.

5)      Learn to use your thighs to twist your ski – What’s wrong with shoulder turning? After all, it turns the skis right? Well shoulder turning can repeatedly put your body in a bad position by throwing your balance to the inside of the turn. Nevertheless, you’ll get away with shoulder turning in fresh untracked powder. You probably won’t when it starts getting chopped up and starts becoming cruddy. Crud (ungroomed snow affected either by changing weather or skiers) constantly tests your balance as your skis constantly and repeatedly go from untracked to tracked snow in every single turn. It’s hard enough maintaining balance even if you’re in the correct position. And if you’re thinking, fine, I’ll just stick to fresh untracked powder then, well…I can only wish you the best of luck keeping to that. Powder leads to crud and often vice versa. Side note: If you turn with your hips instead of your shoulders, you’ll be fine in powder, it isn’t technically pretty but you’ll get away with it. It just hurts the eyes of ski instructors.

To end the post I would like to share a short video of some of the crew this season in Japan. It’s themed on an inside joke shared amongst us. The story goes that there was once a client who on a powder day was specifically told not to go beyond a certain point. However she went so far beyond the allocated point that the instructor had to follow her with the rest of the group. This then resulted in a long walk out for the entire group. When asked why she had continued skiing, she meekly answered, “I heard the pirate bells”. It stuck.

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