Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Learn to Ski: Beginners' Tips, Advice & Techniques

Ever Wanted to fly? Get on the slopes for the greatest high...

The boots are stiff and tight, the skis are heavy and awkward to carry, you can't see with your helmet and goggles on, and you're burning up in all your snow gear - sweating in the middle of the rental shop before you can even struggle up towards the nursery lifts which feel so far away in such heavy, unhelpful footwear... Still want to learn to ski? Well you should - that equipment is not designed for walking, numpty! It is designed for flying down a snowy mountainside. It is designed for the stuff of dreams...

Skiing is a great way to combine exercise, dramatic scenery, the great outdoors, and a fantastic social life. Apres-ski culture - often more sought-after than the sport itself - can be a real buzz, especially after an exhilarating day on the slopes, and of course winter sports really can't be beaten for its family-friendly feel, camaraderie, and unique gaudy winter fashion - only acceptable if you're partial to an abundance of snow and adrenaline.


Before Skiing

Your muscles will ache to high heaven after your first day on the slopes, using about 50 new muscles you never knew you had. However there are some stretches you can do beforehand (when warmed up) to minimise aching and also limit injury if you fall:
  • Glutinous maximus (your behind): Stand on one leg pulling your free foot up to your crotch, letting the inside of your leg face the ceiling (knee pointing away to the side). Pull your foot upwards towards the ceiling. You should feel the muscles in your backside stretching. 
  • Hamstrings: With straight legs when standing, try to touch your toes. 
  • Calf muscles: Sitting with legs stretched out and toes pointing to the ceiling. Lean towards your toes and bring your toes towards you.
  • Hips: stand with feet a shoulder's width apart and move your hips in a circle and side to side (keeping your shoulders straight and your upper body still).

Ski Equipment Tips

The rental shop staff will help you with equipment - just say you're a beginner, however here are some tips to get you started:
  • Boots should be tight so that you can't move your foot independently of your leg (your ankle should be stiff and secure). Your toes should just about reach the end of the boot.
  • Give your correct weight so that the skis are setup to come away from the boots if you fall awkwardly (if they stay on, you can twist your leg/hip/knee etc).
  • Wear a helmet - especially if you are a total beginner, if it is a busy resort, or if there are rocks and other hazards on/near the slopes.
  • Make sure you have goggles or sunglasses (sunlit snow is blinding, and falling snow/sleet/rain affects visibility when spattering in your eyes).
  • Use poles if you want to get used to them straight away, but avoidthem if you can - get usedto your balance first. Remember poles are not for stopping, they are only for balance. Keep them behind you at all times. Hold the handles down by your hipbones and angle the ends out behind you at about a 45 degree angle - don't hunch up with them and don't point them in the direction of your travel.
If you happen to fall, aim to fall with your head uphill and your feet downhill. Try and keep your skis together if you fall. 

Controlling the Skis

The skis work by gripping/ploughing the snow and sliding in it, using the edges, and your distribution of weight. When the long edge is angled so it digs into the snow, the ski glides in a straight line forwards or backwards in the groove it has made, and when flat, it slips about on the surface in any direction.

The ski which is gripping the snow and holding most of your weight is the one further down the mountain, unless you're facing straight down, in which case both skis grip equally.

Stance & Posture for Skiing

As a beginner you will ski in the 'snowplough' (skis in a 'V' shape with the backs of the skis wide apart and the fronts together (but not touching). The lengths of the skis' inside edges should dig into the snow. The more they are angled into the snow, and the wider your snowplough, the more you can control your speed or stay still on a slope.

To get into the correct stance for the snowplough:
  • Spread your legs wide (about two shoulder widths if you can) 
  • Bend your knees and keep them bent at all times
  • Angle your toes (and tips of skis) towards each other, and your heels (backs of skis) away from each another
  • Lean your knees towards each other and your feet will automatically tilt with your legs if your boots are tight enough, allowing you to use the inside edges of the skis to dig into the snow.
  • 'Sit' back into the stance, looking straight ahead, and leaning your weight on the inside of your feet and in the fronts of the boots for an even centre of gravity across the length of the skis. Avoid hunching forwards (no matter how much you want to).
  • Keep the skis apart

Beginner Skiing: Getting Moving

Practice on a flat slope and get a friend to pull you along with ski poles - one in each hand. 'Push' or plough the snow away with the backs of the skis - widening your snowplough at the back and using the inside edges of the skis to dig into the snow - this is how you control your speed. The faster you go, the harder you need to push outwards with the skis. Remember to sit back and tilt your knees together, and angle your heels apart, keeping your legs wide.

Give it a go on a gentle slope. Do not try to turn yet, just get used to stopping by making your 'V' wider and leaning on the long inside edges of the skis. Lean back and trust the skis.

Beginner Skiing: Turning

To turn, shift your weight so that the ski you're leaning on does the steering. It can be difficult to co-ordinate this to begin with, but with practice you will be able to do it without consciously thinking.

Lean most of your weight on the ski which is pointing the way you want to turn. Or if it helps, think about it another way: Lean on left ski, turn right; lean on right ski, turn left.

Remember the inside edge of the skis dig into the snow. When you have turned and you're facing across the slope, the ski you're leaning on should be the one lower down on the slope. the inside edge digging into the snow (so that you're literally carving into the snow).

When changing direction, gently transfer your weight to the other ski, making sure it is pointing the right way, both skis still in the 'V' shape. The ski now with the least of your weight on it should follow, but keeping the 'V' shape. Don't lift it up, just let it gently plough/push the snow away. When turning, you will face downhill mid-turn. It can be easy to panic at this point, just remember to trust the edges of the skis and sit back into the stance without leaning forward. Try and keep moving (steadily). The more you stop, the harder it is to get going and feel the momentum.

Using these techniques, try going down the slope in a zig-zag fashion. It is easier to maintain a slow pace and be able to stop if you make full turns and ski almost directly across the slope, just be aware of crossing other skiers' paths.

Ski Slopes and Resorts - What to Expect

Most ski resorts have a free nursery slope with a pull-rope or a conveyor belt ski-lift. If not, use a very gentle slope in an open space. It is tiring trying to get up a slope with skis on but you just invert your 'V' shape so you're ploughing the snow and gripping it in the same way with the point facing downhill.

Slopes are categorised by difficulty using colours. Black is expert/very difficult, followed by red, blue, and green. Most slopes have varying difficulty somewhere along the way, but the categorisation takes into account the overall gradient, width, variety of path directions, and terrain (e.g. bumpy, icy, rocky, natural snow).

Ski slopes are open spaces. Common sense and etiquette is required in the absence of petty rules. To prevent collisions, avoid making sudden unpredictable moves and never stop or sit in busy areas or at the foot of a slope where you cannot be seen. Give way to people crossing your path or stopping ahead of you, watching out for those you can see in front - the people behind you will be doing the same.

Most ski resort slopes are linked by cable cars, chairlifts, and drag lifts. Using them can be a learning curve, most notably:

How to Use a Ski Drag Lift

Attempting to sit on a drag lift however small you are (round seat on a hanging pole) will result in falling to the floor - the cable is not a fixed length supporting all of your weight. To catch one of these lifts, make sure your skis both face forwards, pull it down towards you firmly and place between your legs, still standing. Wait for it to pull you away.

Intermediate/Advanced Skiing

Once you are confident with the snowplough, you can start putting your skis in parallel in between turns. When you are about to turn again, angle your legs apart back into the snowplough (kick your heels out and lean your knees inwards for the snowplough).

Skiing in Parallel

Skiing fully in the parallel stance still involves using the edges of the skis, but this time you're not leaning your knees in towards each other with your legs apart, and therefore you're not leaning on the inside edges of both skis. You are keeping your legs together and using your hips to tilt both skis the same way. The skis grip the snow by using the edges facing uphill- you will know you're doing it right because it will feel right.

When fully skiing in parallel you still lean on your right leg to turn left and vice versa - your lower leg supporting your weight still, however you are not 'ploughing' or pushing the snow away with the other ski, you're letting it follow the same path/angle as the leading ski. Your hips are the pivot as you move, and your upper body should remain upright rather than leaning or twisting it. As always, sit back into the stance with your knees bent

Clear your mind, and concentrate on simply keeping the skis parallel, and pressing down with your left big toe to turn right, and your right big toe to turn left. Try this and just see how easy it is - using your weight and nothing else.  

The sharper your turns the quicker you will slow down or stop. The faster your speed, the sharper you will need to carve or 'turn' to stop.

Skiing or snowboarding?

As a skier, I'm here to tell you about skiing, however both sports equally have pros and cons and if you think snowboarding might be for you instead, below is a brief comparison to skiing. Although the two sports can happily co-exist on the slopes together, they are quite different, and here's how:
  • Falling over on a snowboard is far more common, but not so dangerous or complicated that your feet/legs tangle or cross - they are in fixed positions
  • Building skills and expertise is usually a longer process with skiing, but you can take the sport further and do more with it
  • Ski boots are a great deal more stiff and harder to walk around in than snowboarding boots. This is to lock the ankle in place (you'll understand the need for this when you're carving down that slope at exhilarating speeds).
  • Snowboarding equipment can generally be less expensive
  • Skiing can be easier to pick up from the beginner stage as there is a beginner stance called the snowplough which feels more natural than being stuck to a board and not being able to move your legs, however it gets much more difficult after this stage.
For more info on booking a winter holiday see Fun in the Sun or Winter Wonderland? , How and Where to Find the Northern Lights and Alpine Skiing in Europe - Resort Guide

Text and Images Copyright © Lise Griffiths, 2013
All Rights Reserved

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