I was recently asked to write a ski tip for the March issue of a Canadian ski Magazine. I thought that a tip on skiing steep chutes would be appropriate for Spring ski season. A recent Backcountry Hut trip to the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho also allowed me to test my steep skiing skills!!!
Skiing down a steep and narrow chute is the ultimate achievement for expert skiers and can be the most exciting, challenging and rewarding thing you’ll ever do on skis! However, steep skiing presents a few extra challenges and a fall can sometimes have catastrophic consequences… Here are a few things to keep in mind and keep you safe.
ASSESS THE RISKS
Before “chuting” down, I look at my line and always ask myself “What happens if I fall here?”… I try to get an idea of the steepness, type of snow (soft, hard, crusty, icy, unstable), obstacles (rocks, cliffs, stumps, pinch sections) as well as safe zones. Evaluate the risks and decide if you are up for the challenge. If it doesn’t feel right, you can always turn around and come back another day.
To succeed on steeps, you must be confident in your ability to link accurate short turns and execute precise movements on high angle snow and narrow paths. It is as much of a technical game as it is a mental one. As steepness increases, many skiers become defensive and emotions or fear sometimes take over. Slowly gain experience and confidence by practicing in narrow lines and increase the pitch angle gradually. For me, simplicity brings confidence. I try to keep a clear head and focus on simple things like maintaining balance, controlling my speed and visualizing my path down the chute.
My main goal is to maintain a centered upper body over my feet AT ALL TIMES. Keep the amount of upper
body movement to a minimum because a slight bit of inclination or rotation can immediately throw you off balance. Instead, I try to match the slope angle with my hips, hands and shoulders, creating separation and angulation. My pole plant has a crucial role to play, directed straight down the hill, it blocks and stabilizes my upper body. Turn transitions
are very critical on steeps, so emphasize the amount of weight transferred unto your pole and feel more tension in your arm than usual.
CONTROL YOUR SPEED
On very steep lines, sudden acceleration usually means loss of control. The goal is to minimize effort and maximize speed control. Try to limit the time spent facing down the fall line and steer the skis across the chute by delicately smearing your turns. Back in the day, jump turns and pedal-turns were the secret weapon. With modern fat/rocker skis, you can save energy and make more graceful and efficient turns without jumping. It’s all about giving in to gravity and smearing your skis smoothly. Sidesliping and smearing using my legs allows me to immediately slow down, or stop, if I need to. Then, I focus on completing the turn by using very delicate gripping, being as progressive and subtle as possible with my edge sets. Feel the snow texture and adapt accordingly: Edge too hard in steep unpredictable snow and you might be in for a bad surprise… Instead, carefully shave the snow as gradually as you can. If everything feels good, get a rebound to help you initiate the next turn with less effort
and start building a rhythm.
VISUALIZE AND FEEL YOUR PATH
As you flow down the chute, it is critical to look ahead and pinpoint targets that you’ll use for transitions. Look for areas where the snow texture is more predictable and keep a high level of awareness: feel the snow under your feet and try to predict and visualize your next turn. Be ready to improvise on the fly and re-adjust your trajectory in order to hit your targets.
Skiing steep chutes is not for everyone, but it can add a whole new dimension to your ski game. It is an acquired taste and to truly appreciate it, you have to work for it and be ready for a challenge instead of just a simple pleasant experience. Big risks bring big rewards!!!
This article was written by Alex Lemieux