Jimmy's Ski Tips and Tricks

Tips and tricks for skiing by Jimmy Brokaw, certified Level II PSIA Instructor. Generally I'll write weekly during the season about something new or interesting that I learned, or taught, over the week, and less frequently during summer months.

Mounting Your Own Skis

Tuesday January 16, 2018

Just as your car drives you around town, your skis drive you around the mountain. And like your car, sometimes they need a little loving care to stay in shape. Some tasks are trivial, akin to changing the oil, while others will normally require the assistance of a professional.

Waxing and edging your skis is certainly something that an average skier can perform quickly and easily at home. Some resorts will offer a quick machine wax for a few dollars, although those provide sub-optimal performance, and should be considered a last resort when you were unable to wax your skis before your trip. A good hand wax should last about ten days on snow, or one season, whichever comes first — but costs anywhere from $40 to $80. You can do that at home easily in thirty minutes to an hour, saving considerable money. A base grind, on the other hand, requires expensive equipment that you probably don't have access to.

You may recall that I snapped a ski while teaching two weeks ago. While I have many pairs laying around, those were my favorite skis to teach in — nimble, short turning radius, light, and still able to rip at high speeds to catch escaping children. I wanted a replacement, and I reached out to Line Skis, who were kind enough to provide me with a pair of Sick Day 88's for a small fee. As an aside, Line calls these "East Coast skis", but I believe they are beautifully suited for the Pacific Northwest, with about a 80% piste / 20% off-piste mix. They're playful and responsive, and one of the most fun skis I've had the pleasure to use.

The skis arrived at my house "flat", meaning no bindings whatsoever. Some skis have integrated binding systems, but with the majority the bindings are separate, screwed into the ski itself by the shop selling them. Fortunately for me, I had the bindings from the old broken skis I could just move over. If you buy skis from a shop, they'll usually mount them for free, but if you buy a pair flat online, your local shop may charge around $60-$100 to put the bindings on (not including the cost of the binding itself). But how difficult is it to mount bindings? Well, it's not an oil change, but it's not an engine rebuild, either.

Mounting your own bindings should only be attempted by someone with a moderate collection of tools, and a basic awareness of how to deal with common workshop issues, such as stripped screws. A vice is handy, but for the most part common tools are all that is required. It's not for the complete novice, but it's easy enough that most people can handle it in an hour or two.

The first step, if you did not buy new bindings, will be to remove the old bindings from an older pair. Sometimes the screws will simply unscrew and come out, but more likely glue was applied, and they will not budge. Heat the head of the screw with a soldering iron for 30 to 60 seconds to loosen the glue, and a hand screwdriver will remove 95% of screws easily.

From here one, the carpenter's rule applies — measure twice, cut once. A poor mount can cause a ski to perform poorly, or possibly even destroy the ski. Don't eyeball anything, and even if you measured it, measure it again just to be sure. I also cover the entire ski in paper before mounting. This allows me to work and mark all over the ski freely. Some people just use masking tape, but I find a bunch of white paper works better.

Once you've covered the ski (if you choose to do that), you'll also need to get some paper jigs. The pros use expensive metal jigs to ensure they drill in the right spot, but you can download disposable paper jigs for free. Almost all bindings can be found on this website, just be sure that your printer doesn't scale the image. Double-check they printed at true scale by measuring the ruler on the print-out, and if it doesn't match, adjust your printer settings. The image here shows the paper jigs sitting loose on the ski, but once you have them placed correctly, you'll need to tape them down (then re-measure to make sure they're in the right spot!).

Before you can place the jigs, however, you need to find the centerline of the ski. The easiest and most reliable way is to mark a spot on the ski near the tip and tail, as far apart as possible but close enough that your longest straightedge can reach both points. These marks are important so that you don't move up or down the ski, because the ski gets narrower toward the middle. Take a narrow strip of scrap paper, and press it tightly across the side, from side to side. Where it reaches the edges, press on the paper firmly to crease it with the edge. Remove the strip, and fold it sharply in half, so the creases line up perfectly. The new crease from folding it will be the exact center halfway between the edges. Place the strip on the exact same spot, using the mark you made on the ski and the edge creases to guide it, and mark where your center crease is. Do the same thing on the other edge of the ski, and connect the two marks to draw a centerline.

Now take your boot, and place the centermark of the boot directly above the centermark of the ski. This is usually a line across the ski near the middle. You can move the boot slightly forward to easy spins in the park, or slightly back to increase float in powder, but most people will align both marks. Put your toe piece on the ski, engaged with the boot, and adjust the toe piece template underneath until it matches perfectly. Ensure the paper jig is aligned with the binding and the centerline you drew on the ski, and tape it down.

Now you're ready to drill. You don't want to drill too deep and risk poking through the bottom of the ski! Each ski should have printed on it how deep to drill, but as a general rule it's normally 3.6 x 9mm for wood skis, 4.1 x 9mm for skis with metal plates, and 3.5 x 7mm for kids' skis. You can buy very affordable drill bits from Tognar that will ensure you drill to the exact depth needed for each ski, so there's no need to eyeball or guess here.

Once you've drilled the holes, remove the paper from that part of the ski, and blow out any sawdust to get the hole as clean as possible. Place a small dob of ordinary wood glue in the holes to lubricate the screws, and screw the toe piece into place. The screws should be torqued fairly hard by hand, but don't go overboard and strip the screw or create a "spinner". I don't use a drill, but you do want to get them in hard.

Now the toe piece is done, and you're almost there. Place the boot in the toe piece, and slide the heel piece into the correct position relative to the boot. Follow the same steps again, ensuring the paper jig is aligned with the heel piece, and also the line you drew down the center of the ski, and mount the heel binding.

Double check your placement by putting the boot in. You can adjust the position of the heel slightly to correct minor errors, but if your two skis have the toe bindings mounted in different positions, you're not going to be able to ski well, so ensure any error is only on the heel pieces. Wait at least 24 hours for the glue to dry before ripping it up, and enjoy your new skis!

Skid More to Skid Less

Thursday January 11, 2018

A typical intermediate skier will carve through the middle of a turn gaining speed, then as they come across the hill, they will skid and slow down. This results in a cycle of speeding up and slowing down, with brief moments of skidding where they have little to no control over their skis. Breaking that cycle is difficult, but ultimately results in a round turn shape with constant speed throughout the entire turn. How can we start the process of moving there?

The most visible signs of an intermediate turn are at the end of the turn, when the skis skid across the snow. But this skidding is caused by poor form earlier in the turn. The best way to ensure you are able to finish a turn properly is to start a turn properly, and I'm going to talk a little about starting a turn. Without a doubt, starting a turn is the hardest part!

When you finish a turn, you're engaged on your uphill (old inside) edges. These edges prevent the skis from turning easily. Beginners and early intermediate skiers may create a wedge shape, releasing the uphill ski's edge. Stronger skiers may force the skis to rotate with muscle power, but that can be exhausting and doesn't properly set the new edges into the snow. How can we get the skis to quickly shift to the new edges at the start of the turn?

Let's begin with a simple sideslipping drill, preferably on a relatively steep section of slope. Stopped, your uphill leg will be more bent than your downhill leg, keeping you upright on the slope. You can now perform a sideslip with one of two techniques: you can roll your knees downhill, or you can straighten the uphill leg. Try the latter method — keeping both skis on the ground, lengthen the uphill leg and let the edges release, initiating a sideslip. Practice this a few times on each side, especially if you've done sideslipping in the past by rolling the knees.

Once you feel comfortable, it's time to try this in motion. Begin with a simple traverse, and lengthen your uphill leg. You should begin sliding sideways while continuing your forward motion, creating a diagonal sliding effect. We call this edgeless state "buttering", because the skis run across the snow like a knife spreading butter. Play with extending and bending your uphill leg, feeling the ski edges engage and release from the snow. Practice in both directions to ensure it feels natural and comfortable.


Now we can try turning with this. Remember, the ultimate goal is to reduce skidding at the end of the turn, but we're working with the start of the turn first. Begin with a traverse, and extend the uphill leg. Wait for the skis to begin buttering, then use rotary motion to turn both skis down toward the fall line. As you turn, centrifugal force will bring you inside of the skis, engaging the new inside edges naturally. The result should be a smoother, more natural turn, as you no longer need to do anything awkward to release the old edges.

After practicing these turns a few times, try to minimize the time between releasing edges and beginning the turn. Ultimately, the skis will begin turning as soon as the edges release from the snow. The end result will be a more stable turn, rounder with less falling down. Enjoy your butter with your snow!

Boogie-Woogie One Ski

Thursday January 4, 2018

You invented snowboarding? - I called it "boogie-woogie one-ski." (Frostbite, 2005)

Can you ski on one ski? Chance are, you can — and you can't. Almost everyone can do some skiing on one ski, to the point where I usually incorporate it as a drill for first-day skiers. But very few of us can work our way down a mountain with only one ski under us. For most people, losing a ski at the top of a mountain means walking down to the bottom. For Pawel Babicki, it means finishing a race on one leg:


I had my own Babicki moment this weekend, while teaching a group of new instructors some intermediate balance drills to use with students. Right at the top of the mountain, with nothing but blue and black terrain below me, I snapped a wooden ski right in half. As an aside, I design skis, and I find a pure wood ski to provide the best progressive flex and feel through a turn. The downside is they aren't durable, and I often break them after only three or four years, but the upside is they cost a fraction of modern skis to make. So I wasn't particularly upset to break the ski, but I wish it hadn't broken at the top of a slope while I was teaching a lesson. At least I can now honestly say I've taught a lesson with only one ski!

So, other than getting down after breaking a ski, why would you want to learn to ski on one ski? Skiing on a single ski requires finely tuned skills, because you can't rely on the other ski as a crutch. You have to be able to use one ski to do everything that you need, and not cheat by using the other ski to keep you in balance. This is no easy task, so I'm going to list a few drills in increasing difficulty, and you can judge your own ability to complete them.

The simplest task is to ski on one ski on very easy green terrain, down the fall line. I usually ask people to do this drill on their first day, even before we put a second ski on. If you get your balance too far back, you'll instinctively put your other foot down, so this is a good drill to ensure that your balance is roughly centered.

Next on the difficulty scale would be to traverse across the hill, and pick up your uphill ski. You should be able to do so without slipping sideways down the hill. Have a friend check the ski you lifted, and if you are in balance, the ski should be level with the ground. Again, this is a fairly easy drill that most beginners can accomplish, but having good fore-aft balance will help you succeed.

To raise the difficulty somewhat, try lifting the downhill ski in a traverse. Now we can determine if you are engaging both skis in a traverse, or only your downhill ski. Remember, the uphill edge of both skis should be engaged in a traverse, and any slipping here means that the uphill ski is not engaged. Try bending your uphill leg to get the ski engaged if you have any troubles here.

Next up you can attempt to turn with only one ski. Keep both skis on, and as you enter a turn lift the inside ski up off the snow. If your balance is good, this won't prove as difficult as it sounds. The reality is we normally get almost all of our turning force from the outside ski, so as long as you can handle the reduced based of support, you should be able to turn fine. Focus on fore-aft balance, and that will keep your lateral balance issues in check.

If most of the turning force comes from the outside ski, then you have probably realized that turning to the inside is where the difficulty lies. If you've never attempted this before, move to extremely easy terrain... The easiest green you have, preferably very short. Take your poles, but leave a ski behind. You'll want to just lift one foot, but it's a lot easier to ski on one ski without the extra weight dragging down your unused foot, so go ahead and leave it behind. Start slow, and ski down the slope.

The keys to accomplishing this are having your weight forward, and not letting the lack of a ski go to your head. Use pole touches, even on green terrain. Both legs should have a lot of flexion and extension, even the leg that never touches the snow. Extend it on the inside turn, and flex it on the outside turn. This will help you get the edge of the remaining ski fully engaged into the snow. Stay calm and confident, and do everything the same way you would if you were skiing perfectly on two skis. If you can use either ski to turn either direction, you're truly skiing efficiently!

The Trees Have Eyes

Monday December 18, 2017

What do tree skiers, first-day beginners, and car drivers have in common?

If the blog post title didn't clue you in, it's the eyes.

I had the pleasure of exploring some new terrain recently added to a ski resort this weekend. There were no trails and no signs, just trees and snow. It's a great feeling to go through the trees, especially when there are few if any tracks ahead of you. As I was enjoying the peace and quiet exploration of the mountain, I thought about what really makes the difference between having fun in the trees, and slamming on the brakes to skid to a stop just shy of the bark each time. As they say on the East Coast, "Ski good or eat wood!"

IMG 20171216 153226

Imagine for a moment you're driving down the Interstate. You've probably run across an accident on the side of the road before, maybe even a really bad one. You see a car flipped over, and maybe another car on fire. There will be several police cars, an ambulance or two, and maybe a firetruck. Like most people, you slow down and scan the scene, checking to see if you can see a decapitated body or maybe a limb laying in the road. And then... you hear the thump-thump-thump of the tires on the warning track, letting you know you've drifted out of your lane. Why is that?

We naturally follow our eyes. When you check your mirrors to change lanes, you also find yourself moving slightly in that direction. I use this to great effect when teaching beginners, who are often too scared to turn on their first few short runs. I'll walk backwards behind them, and move from side to side. The learning skiers will naturally turn slightly to head in the direction I'm walking, building confidence and teaching them how to turn.

So how can we apply this to skiing in the trees?

IMG 20171216 153223

When you ski through the trees, where do you look? Are you looking at the tree in front of you, or are you looking at the gap you want to take between trees? If you're focused on the tree, you might find your turns take a little longer to complete, putting you closer to the bark than you were planning to go. This, in turn, means you have less room for your next turn, and very soon speed becomes your enemy and you start making skidded turns to slow down. It's rough and harrowing, and sucks the joy out of the forest.

Next time you dip into the trees, keep your eyes focused on where you want to be. Find the gap, and look at it as you turn toward it. Use your peripheral vision to plan ahead, but the head should focus on the turn you're making now. Once your skis are across the hill, move your eyes to the next gap. You will soon find a rhythm that keeps you turning, without the need to slam on the brakes.

Remember to never ski in the trees alone, and always wear a smile in the forest!

Matching Angles In The Body

Monday December 11, 2017

This weekend several of the staff trainers went out together for a little skiing, and of course an opportunity for us to evaluate each other's skiing. Being the start of a new season, we all had things that had become rusty over the summer, and we needed each other to identify those weak spots. One of the trainers recommended that we all try skiing with our ankles as closed (bent) as possible. By keeping the ankle closed, in theory we should have kept our balance all the way forward.

I tried the exercise, as I have many times before. But when we got to the bottom, I had a comment I needed to make. "I didn't feel more forward; if anything, I felt slightly more in the backseat. Why?" I wasn't the only one who felt this counter-intuitive sensation, so we began to look at each other's stance more closely. Why would bending the ankles, which normally brings the body forward, result in a stance that was further back?

The answer, we found, was in our spines. The angle of the spine should match the angle of the shins. This helps keep the center of mass forward and stacks the body in an efficient manner. See the photograph below of an efficient ski racer, and note how the spine (red line) runs approximately parallel to the lower legs (green lines). Clearly skiing is a dynamic sport, and both your spine and legs are constantly moving and never exactly parallel, but they should remain close, as this photograph demonstrates:

Good Spine

Now, let's compare that visual to a less efficient ski racer, where the spine is more upright than the lower leg. Notice how balance is behind the foot, and the quadriceps need to work to keep her upright. Pay particular attention to how she has done a very good job, better than most skiers, of closing her ankles and getting her knees in front of her toes. Despite that excellent ankle flexation, she still manages to be in the back seat:

Underflexed Spine

That was our problem, and we saw it in each other. Strangely enough, none of us saw it in ourselves. Everyone else had an underflexed spine, but we were perfect. Standing on the side of the run, we paired up and examined each other's stance, and gave feedback ("More flex! More flex!") until the spine angle matched the lower leg angle. To a person, we all felt like the correct alignment was overflexed, and we realized that over the summer we had all gotten out of the habit of flexing our spines properly for skiing.

Of course, you cannot flex the spine without flexing the lower leg; doing so will send your hips backwards and throw off your balance as well. Both angles must match to produce an effective and efficient balanced skiing stance. And, as we discovered, this isn't a sensation that can be easily dialed in alone. Show these two photos to a friend, and have them compare the photos to your stance. Which do you more closely resemble? Could you benefit from bending your spine more to match the angle of your lower leg? Give it a try and see what happens.

For more information about me, check out the About page. All content copyright 2017 James Brokaw.