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.

Punch Your Way Down The Slope

Thursday March 22, 2018

I took some time to free ski this weekend, before an annual ski instructor party. It was a wonderful day of hard charging down some wonderfully steep and gnarly slopes, in very questionable heavy snow conditions. Exactly the sort of skiing that would have most people running for the lodge and a nice cup of hot cocoa. But then again, I've never been accused of sanity.

So when faced with a slope like this, it's absolutely critical that you keep your body facing down the hill. You're going to want to turn quickly, and not spend any time with your skis facing directly down the fall line. To turn quickly, you need to turn the legs under the body, rather than rotating the entire body with each turn. Remember, roughly 35% of your body mass is in the legs and feet, so turning the entire body takes about three times as much energy and just turning the legs!

So you know to keep your body facing down the hill, and you know to use your poles to make blocking pole plants, but you have a problem. As soon as you start the turn, you quickly pass the pole basket in the snow, which draws your arm back, and causing you to rotate the upper body across the hill. What to do? The answer, as you might have guessed from the title, is to punch!

Next time you're on steep gnarly terrain, make a pole plant as usual. As soon as the pole enters the snow, immediately punch that fist downhill, in the direction of travel. The pole basket remains on the snow, and the pole itself now angles against the surface. This punch will draw the upper body forward and down the hill, helping keep your balance forward, while also preventing excessive rotation of the upper body.

To the right is a photo I took this weekend of Adrenaline, a ski run at Alpental, and one of the steepest marked inbounds ski runs in North America. (Yes, there are many steeper places to ski, but not many marked on trail maps as runs) It's a wonderfully fun run, but you've absolutely got to keep your upper body still to make those turns, especially this late in the season as rocks start poking through in places. Do you think you're up to the challenge? Punch it and find out!

Be Safe, Stay Alive

Tuesday March 13, 2018

La Nina has been good to the Pacific Northwest, blessing us with 390 inches so far at Snoqualmie Pass! The next storm to pass through will take us past our totals for the last two years, making this a good season by any measure. (We don't discuss the 2014-2015 season in polite company)

But all this snow comes with a downside, and it's a major one at that. It's only mid-March, and Washington State is already tied with the 2013-2014 season for the most avalanche deaths in the state in a single year. Washington is only behind Colorado for most average deaths in a year, and we've surpassed them two out of the last four years, and may again this year. The North Cascades are dangerous mountains in the winter, and there's no denying it.


A few years ago, some friends and I tried to summit Mount Stuart over Memorial Day weekend. We didn't make it; when we reached the spot marked with the red arrow, I insisted we turn back to camp. An argument ensured, but before we could reach a conclusion, a cornice fell and triggered an avalanche that filled the entire couloir. We were lucky to play on the mountain that day without any injuries. We saw another large avalanche the next day, and when we were heading out, we ran into a group that said they barely avoided getting buried. All in all, it was a dangerous weekend as the temperature had unpredictably risen much higher than expected, triggering wet slides on normally safe north-facing slopes.

Avalanches can occur any time of year, on any slope, but that doesn't mean that there aren't times more dangerous than others. Visit https://www.nwac.us/" class="wiki wikinew text-danger tips">NWAC before you go, and know what the avalanche risks are before you set foot on the snow. Recognize that most large avalanches occur within 48 hours of new snowfall, and that's always the most risky time to be out. Also watch out when the temperature starts rising, saturating older snow with water.

Not all slopes are equal, either. Watch for signs of avalanches in the past. Beware of passing under cornices. Recognize that most deaths occur on slopes that would be rated steep blue to mid black diamond runs in a resort. Minimize time in exposed areas, and travel one at a time in them. Group up above rollovers, or in places where the terrain rises up.

Any time you travel in avalanche terrain, carry the right gear and know how to use it. A beacon, shovel, and probe are essential, although they only work if you have a partner. Airbags and Avalungs are nice extra safety features, but they can't replace the beacon, shovel, and probe! Don't just take the equipment with you, but test and practice with them regularly. There's a free beacon practice area near Alpental where you can attempt to locate a number of randomly placed buried transmitters.

But the best and final advice I can give you is to get educated. Get yourself AIARE qualified in avalanche prediction, avoidance, and rescue. It's the best investment you can make in your own life.

Power To The Powder!

Wednesday February 28, 2018

I admit, I've been a little behind on updating this blog. It's not that I've stopped skiing — far from it! The fact is we've received over five feet of snow since my last update, and I've been spending a little more time outside, and a little less time on the computer, as a result. Also, I own three cars, and all three simultaneously died, to the point that one engine had to be replaced, and the other two engines had to be removed for repairs. So when I wasn't skiing, I was elbow-deep in grease. But let's talk about the snow for a few minutes.

We all learn to ski on groomed snow. It's hard, and Newton's Laws of Motion provide clear and predictable results. You push against the snow, and it pushes you back. A turn results. But what happens when you get into the powder? Suddenly there's this strange snow that sucks you in. You sink, you stall, and you fall. Why do expert skiers all rave about how great powder is, when it's clearly an evil pollution that must be groomed to ski on?


So which is it? Scary nasty surface, or wonderful playground? It all depends on whether you know how to ski in powder. Clearly, powder is more difficult than groomed snow, so you must be a fairly good intermediate skier or better to handle deep powder. But beyond that, you also need to know a few extra tips and tricks to enjoy the powder.

The first thing to consider are your skis. A good skier can handle powder on any skis, but dedicated powder skis will make learning much easier. If you don't own a pair, consider buying or renting a pair just for powder. You'll be looking for something wider underfoot (at least 90mm, over a 100mm for deep powder, and for really deep powder maybe wider). At a minimum, you want tip and tail rocker, but consider going full reverse camber if you don't plan to use the skis on groomed snow at all. These features help keep you from sinking and make the powder easier to ski, while making you less maneuverable on groomed slopes. Again, you can use any ski in the powder, but it will be more difficult with hardpack carving skis.

Now that you're geared up, let's pick a slope. The best powder is often poached early when the resort opens, but that's okay. For learning, powder that's been chopped up can be easier with less risk of sinking. Ultimately, though, you want the clean untouched powder for the best thrills, and that will often require a guide to take you to the right hidden spots. Don't be afraid to look at steeper and scarier terrain than you normally ski — the powder will slow you down significantly, making slopes a lot easier to ski than when they're firm. Also, speed is your friend in powder, so don't try to go too slow. Open up and enjoy it!

Now that you're skiing a little faster, it's important to note that you need to turn slower. Everything you do in powder must be slower and more deliberate. Take your time turning, making a large rounded turn rather than a sharp twist across the slope. Remember, there's no skidding in powder — you'll just faceplant instead! Be patient and enjoy the experience of floating through the snow.


On hard snow, I like to describe turning like riding a bicycle, where one legs gets long and the other gets short through the turn. As you angulate into the turn, you need to do this to keep both skis on the surface. When our skis are floating through the snow rather than riding on it, that entire concept goes away. Instead, both legs flex and extend together. In the middle of the turn, the legs should both be fully extended, pushing the skis out to the side. As they turn under you, you flex to allow them to cross under your body, then extend them out to the other side. This rhythmic flex and extend move keeps your speed under control, and feels amazing.

Generally I like to advise people to keep their feet shoulder width apart. In deep powder, bring them a little closer together. We're not riding on the snow as much as flying through it, and the skis act as a wing. The wider the skis, the less you need to bring them closer, but generally you want them close but not touching to maximize the float they provide.

Wait, what? Did I just say that skiing powder is like flying? It absolutely is! You are moving a wing (skis) through a medium (snow) to generate lift. If you go too slow, you stall, failing to generate enough lift, and you'll sink down into the powder. To generate lift, the leading edge of the ski (wing) must be slightly higher than the trailing edge, relative to the direction of travel, so that snow hits the bottom, not the top, of the ski. If your tips dive down, snow will hit the front top of the ski, and you'll go even further down.

It's important to keep the tips up when skiing powder. You don't need (or want) them to come up out of the snow, but you do want to keep them from dropping. Beginners often overcompensate by leaning back and bringing the tips way too far up, but you just need a little lift. Don't use the back of the boot as a lever to rotate the skis up at the expense of moving your weight back, but rather close the ankle to keep the skis in the correct position with your weight centered.


It's not easy, but it's well worth it. For your first few runs in powder, try finding areas that would normally be an easy blue, where you can straightline in the powder. Going straight down the fallline, practice flexing and extending both feet without turning. Get used to the concept of controlling your depth, then introduce shallow turns. Once you're comfortable, get yourself onto a steeper slope, and enjoy the best skiing of your life!

Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast

Monday February 12, 2018

Slow is smooth, smooth is fast is the mantra at my current ski school. What we mean there is not to rush beginners through the progression. If you move ahead quickly, students don't master each drill, and then struggle on later tasks. If you spend more time on the early tasks, and really master the basic movements, then they'll progress quicker overall as they struggle less later in the lesson. But can that same mantra be applied at all levels of skiing?

Yes, of course. We can all use more time practicing the fundamental movements of skiing. To become really good at skiing, you need to balance skiing near the upper limit of your ability with skiing easy terrain where you can concentrate on making movements properly every time. A perfectly executed run down an easy slope will train you better than a gnarly run where you just barely hold on.

In training, speed is not your friend. Imagine riding a bicycle - the slower you go, the harder it is to maintain balance. Furthermore, at high speeds its more difficult to sense what exactly you're doing. Many skiers will move their legs sequentially, rather than simultaneously, with the outside leg releasing the edge before the inside leg, and thus beginning rotation before the inside leg. At high speeds, there is almost no time between the two movements, and it will feel correct - but at high speeds, even a little flaw that you can't feel will still make a big impact on your skiing. Slow the speed down, and you can sense the little flaws in your skiing and work on them.

I'm not saying that you should always ski slowly. But any time you're trying to evaluate your own skiing, or trying to work on your own skiing, make sure you slow it way down. I love to take ski instructors onto a green slope, and have them make parallel turns at no more than a walking pace. It allows me to quickly divide a group between the great skiers and and merely good skiers. Even if they all looked good to my eye on the blue, suddenly I can see big differences between those who struggle and those who do well. And when we do drills at that speed, I can see them all improve quickly, as they can see for themselves what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong.

Your Poles Drive Your Legs

Monday February 5, 2018

I haven't posted in a while, mostly because my day job has had me travelling during the week and I simply haven't had the time. But I had a create idea brewing in my head, ready to put down into electrons and post this week. My son and I have been binge watching "Canada's Worst Driver" on Netflix. It's a great show, where contestants are given driving lessons then need to perform various tasks, and the best one is ejected each week until only the worst driver remains. It's especially good for my sixteen year old son to learn some of these driving lessons! In any case, we watched them do an exercise where they had to approach a barrier, and at the last minute a cutout of a pedestrian would appear on one side or the other of the barrier, and they would have to swerve to the other side. One swerved the wrong direction, hitting the cutout pedestrian. The in-car camera showed the driver's eyes, which never left the pedestrian. The presenter talked about "target fixation", where you stare at a danger, and drive right into it. I thought it'd make a great blog post, because the same thing happens in skiing. Then I remembered that I talked about that in December, so I couldn't do it again already. Oh, well, maybe next year.

Let's talk about poles instead. Next time you're at a ski resort, go ahead and watch what other people are doing with their poles. They use them to push themselves along in the lift line, or rest their upper body while stopped, sure. But when they're actually skiing, what do they do with them? Usually you see people just holding them out, not really doing anything particular with the poles. Why carry poles around all day if all you are going to do is use them to make the lift line a little easier to walk in? The answer, of course, is balance:

Tight rope walkers use a long pole to help balance themselves, and skiers instinctively do the same thing. There's no real skill to teach here, because we all already use our hands to balance ourselves. Putting a pole in the hand makes it more effective, but it remains instinctive. In thirteen years of teaching, I've never seen someone fall over because they didn't move their hands to maintain balance. So that's enough about that.

What about the really good skiers? Ever notice they move their poles much more? It turns out there are a number of different things that you can use poles for to help you ski better. The three most common things that I teach are edge release, rhythm, and blocking pole plants. Today I'm going to talk about the first — edge release.

The only thing that matters in skiing is the relationship between the ski and the snow, but sometimes what you do with your upper body can help you draw the ski into the right position. If you've been reading my blog, you'll note that I've already talked about the need to release the edges at turn initiation in order to turn the skis. To release the edges, we need to angle the lower legs to flatten the skis on the snow, something I suggested we do by extending the uphill leg and moving the hips slightly down the hill. That's great. But what if we want to do it even better? What if, instead of releasing the edges and using our muscles to rotate the skis into a new turn, we were to engage the new inside edges at the start of the turn, and let the shape of the skis turn us?

To do that, we'll need to angle those lower legs even further down the hill, and that's a scary proposition. By moving our bodies that far down hill, we will move out of a static balance, and if we don't generate some centrifugal forces, fall to the inside of the turn. It's a fear that we need to overcome to ski better, however. We need to move our center of gravity down the hill in the direction we want to go in order to be able to keep our bodies aligned and still tip the skis onto their new edges. The poles will help us do that.

Next time you're on a moderately steep slope, at least a blue square, come to a stop with your skis across the slope. In a balanced position, reach out and tap the snow lightly with your pole. Aim for a spot in front of the tips of your skis, and about eighteen inches downhill of them. Don't angle the pole with the wrist, but keep the pole as vertical as you can, moving your hand out over the pole basket. This will, of course, require you to straighten your arm, but also move your shoulders and hips in the direction of the pole touch. What happens? If you're paying attention, you'll know before you try it that the skis will release, and begin moving down the hill, turning to seek the fall line. Try it and see.

So by reaching out with the pole right before you turn, you help bring the rest of the body into proper alignment, and release the edges. The keys are to have the hand go out with the pole, rather than flick with the wrist, and to have the pole touch be in front of your skis and slightly downhill. Give it a try and see how it works.

Pole Use
Chances are, you'll find yourself making much smoother turns using the poles to release the edges. But can we do better? Of course we can! Most people don't reach far enough, and thus don't reap the full benefit of the pole touch. You can force yourself to reach further, and in doing so, discover the true power of the ski pole. To do so, grab your poles not by the handle, but in the middle of the pole. When you reach out, make sure the tip touches the snow. Don't bend down to do this, but reach further out. Can you feel a difference? Practice with a half-pole until the sensation becomes familiar, then switch back to your entire pole. Reach out until you feel that same sensation. It can make a world of difference in your skiing!

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