Imagine this: you’re on vacation at a terrific ski resort. You wake up in the morning, look out the window, and see white, white, and more white dumping down from the sky. It’s a powder day! Do you:
- Say, “Ugh, I can’t ski that. I’ll wait til the mountain’s all groomed,” and crawl back to bed: or do you…
- Shout “WOOHOO,” do a happy dance, and rush out to get first tracks?
If you answered A, well, my friend, you’re missing out. There’s a reason powder days generate so much excitement. Skiing powder can be positively exhilarating. There’s little that compares to the feeling of floating through deep, pillowy piles of snow. Once you do it, you’ll want to do it again…and again…and again.
Granted, skiing powder does have its challenges. It’s very different from skiing groomers. So if you’ve tried skiing powder and been less than successful, don’t despair. There are things you can do to make skiing powder as amazing as people make it out to be.
Wider is better.
Years ago, people skied powder on narrow skis. (Heck, they skied everything on narrow skis.) But narrow skis can turn a powder day into a day of pure frustration. Remember, powder acts more like a liquid than a solid, so you want something with more surface area than you get with a narrow ski. You want something wide, and you want it with rocker.
What’s rocker? Conventional skis have camber, which is a slight arch that curves upward at the middle of the ski. Camber helps you initiate turns and engage the edge of the ski on hard snow conditions. Rocker, otherwise known as reverse camber, has the exact opposite profile, making the ski more U-shaped and causing the tips and tails to curve up and away from the middle. Skis come with a variety of degrees of rocker, ranging from slight to extreme. In recent years there’s been a movement toward skis with rocker in the tips and tails. This makes your ski more maneuverable in powder and gives you the float you’re looking for.
How wide a ski should you go for? It depends largely on where you ski. In general, powder skis are anywhere between 98 mm and 130 mm under foot. Someone who skis in the East may want something on the narrower end of that spectrum, in the West, on the wider side.
The Powder Technique
As I said above, skiing powder is not like skiing groomers. With good reason: there’s no hard surface in which to set an edge.
One of the best ways to learn to ski powder is to take a powder lesson, where an instructor can teach you the proper technique. However, there are some things you can keep in mind for a good powder day:
• Be aggressive. I know it’s challenging to ski in unfamiliar conditions, and you may want to take it slow. But powder is a natural speed reducer. Go too slow, and you’re not going to be able to float, which can make changing directions more difficult. Speed is your friend. Use it to your advantage.
• Stay pointed down the hill. Instead of traveling across the hill when you move from one turn to another, keep your body pointed downhill as much as possible. Be sure to keep your hands forward and don’t let them drag behind you; that’ll affect your balance and could cause you to fall. Take a more direct line down the hill and go for it. You’ll do a lot better, and hey, if you fall, at least you’ll be falling in the soft stuff.
• Keep even pressure on both skis. Think of your feet as a platform and keep your weight evenly and continuously distributed between your legs. Too wide a stance and you could end up with two separate platforms, which could disrupt your balance. Try to keep it fairly narrow. Also, don’t shift your weight from one ski to another, as you would on a groomer; the light ski will be deflected by the snow and you could end up in a face plant.
• Round your turns. Keep your turns rounded but not too big — remember, you want to stay pointed down the hill as much as possible — and don’t make any sharp, abrupt movements. Make all your turns as if you have one big ski.
• Get out of the back seat. This is one of the biggest mistakes people make skiing powder. Instead of keeping their weight forward, they sink back, almost like they’re sitting in a chair. This is going to kill your quads and tire you out quickly. Keeping your arms forward will help, as will keeping your shoulders pointed down the hill. It’s all about finding a balanced center. If you’re too far forward, you’ll tumble forward, and if you are too far back, you’ll go over that way, too.
• Make a retraction. I’ve found that one of the best ways to ski powder is using what’s known as a retraction turn. To start the turn, flex both legs at the same time then extend them out to the side together. Flex again, then extend to the other side. Repeat over and over again, from one side to another. Practice on a groomer so you’re ready for powder when it arrives.
What if You Fall?
You will, and that’s fine. It’s a lot softer to fall in powder than it is on a hard, groomed surface. Getting up, however, can be difficult, especially when you can’t touch bottom. Here’s a tip: Take both of your poles and make an X to create a bit of a platform. Grab the poles at the intersection of the X and push against the snow. This will help bring you upright.
Getting your boot back into the binding can be difficult, too. If your bindings release, don’t try to click in by pushing down onto the ski. This will only push the ski deeper and deeper into the snow. First, pick up the ski and make sure the binding is clear of snow. Put the back of the ski in the snow, support yourself with your poles, and clear the snow from the bottom of your boot. Then put the toe of your boot into the toe piece of the binding, then the heel, and push in. You should be ready to go!
Skiing in powder takes practice, but it can be an amazing, rewarding experience. Trust me, once you learn how, you’re going to love it.