Sunday, 4 January 2015

Ski Performance for Mountaineers - Verbier


I learnt to ski on a dry slope in the UK in Dec 2013 and soon after, in Jan 2014, headed off to Austria for my first holiday. 2 months later I was in Chamonix following friends off piste and 'getting by'. With the ambition of becoming a BMG and an impressive list of ski descents I want to do, I needed to get serious. Alison is a fantastic instructor with a wealth of knowledge and this course has given me the confidence to venture into more challenging terrain and hopefully onto some of those ski descents in the near future. I'll be back again for a top up!

As mentioned previously, I gained a place on a Ski performance for mountaineers course, run by Alison Culshaw, via the Chris Walker memorial trust. The course was supposed to run in Chamonix, however due to the poor early season snow conditions, it was moved to Verbier. And so, on the morning of Monday 15th Dec, Alison and another course student, Dan, picked me up and off we went on the hour drive to Verbier.

The day began at the bottom lift station where I met the rest of my group: Pete, Rachel, Pete and Janine. We got acquainted and headed off up the mountain. To begin with, Alison assessed our current skiing ability and went from there. Obviously, the focal point of the course is to improve our off piste ability, yet in order to do this, we must first improve our technique on piste. After all, we learn best in an environment we are comfortable in.

(Now before I go on, a lot of this information is for my own future reference. If I don't write things down, I'll forget little, possibly important, info. But by putting it here, I hope others will benefit from it too, If you can bothered to read it...)

A lot of the focus throughout the course was on body position and weight transfer and how they work as a partnership. We did drills to emphasise this and exaggerated them greatly. To begin with, we started off with basic drills on easy terrain such as lifting one ski clear off the snow and progressed on to 'marching' where you basically simulate marching on the spot whilst skiing. These drills simulate the ever changing body position whilst skiing off piste, throwing you off balance and having to compensate for this by shifting your weight over the dominant ski via the use of your hips, for example. Another drill, and for me the one that I define as the most helpful in improving my skiing, was the 'C' position...

In a nutshell, it is the shape in which your body forms during a turn to transfer a majority of your weight over the down hill ski i.e. as the turn is initiated, by shifting your weight over the down hill ski and leaning down the slope, you form a 'C' shape. This helps at the end of the turn to then initiate the new turn and creates a stable position in which to start it.  To help with this, we did a series of drills. In no particular order (I can't remember which way round we did this) we focused on pole plants, no pole skiing and pairs skiing. I found the pole plant very useful as before, I just viewed poles as an 'Accessory' having had no real instruction on how to use them properly. The pole plant helps to create the 'C' position by leaving the pole planted on the uphill, after you have turned around it, to force your body to lean down the slope and place your weight over that down hill ski, if that makes sense? No pole skiing is something that I was used to as I didn't learn with poles in the first place and make a habit of not skiing with poles during my time on the slopes. But in this instance, we either put our poles across our body or gave them to our partner. The 'C' position was emphasised more by us reaching down our down hill leg to force this position. Imagine scratching the outside of your knee whilst skiing and you get the picture. I paired up with Janine for the next part where we skied as a pair. Like the slalom in the winter paralympic where the guide skis behind the partially sighted athlete, the downhill skier can only turn when the 'guide' behind is happy that they are in the correct 'C' position and calls TURN. At first, we were quite generous with the downhill skier, but the second time round we got a little more strict. If you didn't have the signal to turn, you had to adjust your position to form that 'C' until it was given. It was a great exercise in which it gave you the chance to see AND feel for what Alison was aiming for.

And what better way to practice all these new found skills than on the bumps. Bumps are a great way to improve your off piste by simulating the ever changing terrain and body positions you'll experience when skiing powder, steeps and narrow couloirs. Putting all our new drills to the test and learning to ski the bumps properly really helped. Putting all the drills together; the pole plant, the 'C' position, transferring of weight, made me so much more confident when it came to skiing steeper lines. At one point, I accidentally demonstrated the 'perfect' technique by being on a collision course with Alison and narrowly avoiding her by turning at the last minute. It all works!

And then we got onto what I've been looking forward to the most. How to ski steeps! I posed the question about jump turns, which in turn, led us to the top of a small, relatively (ish) steep couloir (it was probably no more than 35 - 40 degrees to be fair). Alison explained and demonstrated the difference, pros and cons of actually doing a jump turn in a steep and confined 'corridor' and turning within the same confined space whilst still keeping your skis in contact with the snow (the latter basically limits the force being applied to a possibly unstable snow pack than if you 'jumped' onto it). And the drill for this? Commands and talking to yourself...

But to start with, the first turn is always going to be the most intimidating and committing. Stood at the top of a steep couloir, you try and psyche yourself to commit to that first turn, after all, you only get one shot at getting it right first time. But to cut a long story slightly shorter, as you stand stationary across the slope, ready to commit to the first turn, extend the uphill leg (don't just lift your downhill ski off the snow), shift your body weight over the uphill ski using your hips then plant your pole slightly behind you. As the turn is initiated, and you begin to point down the fall line, leave the pole planted and the weight over the downhill ski, turning around the pole. These 2 actions combined will then force your body into that faithful 'C' position, with your body leaning down the slope at the end of the turn and all the weight on that downhill ski. That is your first turn, now facing the opposite way. Every time, on our first run down the couloir, we came to a halt after every turn to simulate that 'first turn' all the way down. The idea here was to try and not 'stem' turn as your first turn (or at all) as this can create problems by forcing the turn and possibly catching an edge or the back of your skis or crossing skis (all of which happened to me on a few occasions).

In doing the above, I found I had a weaker side when initiating the first turn. Starting off facing skiers right. I was far more confident when facing skiers left to start the turn from stationary and this showed in my technique on the way down. I would end up 'stemming' the first turn when facing skiers right and catching the back of my skis or crossing them, then ending up spending too much time in the fall line, picking up speed and panicking. All the drills forgotten and the consequence, falling over. So this is where the commands and talking to yourself comes into play. We each gave ourselves commands to say to ourselves whilst skiing on steep ground (and it works on piste too) to remind us of the sequence of movements that are required to ski in control. For me, it was "Extend, Plant, Down": Extend the uphill leg, Plant the pole, Force hand Down (to create that 'C' position). And repeat. I found that if I initiated the first turn facing skiers left and used the momentum coming out of each turn then I could compensate for having that 'weaker' side. And even if I do say so myself, I skied that couloir in relatively good style ;-) And all whilst muttering the commands under my breath.

All in all, the 2 days I spent on the course were of a huge help in improving my skiing both on and off piste. If you've read this far, then I hope that you realise that I have gotten a lot out of this course and have taken away with me a huge amount of information. No amount of reading or watching videos on YouTube can substitute for proper tuition from a professional.  If you are serious about improving your skiing and am as ambitious as I am with tick lists of ski descents, then I wouldn't hesitate in recommending this course or Alison herself :) Thank you Alison.

And finally, I once again thank the Chris Walker Memorial trust for this opportunity. It has been greatly appreciated and extremely beneficial. Thank You.

Here's Alison's blog post for our course for those interested (I'm in green in the middle)

And the link to the full website:

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