Living on the edge
A "Foundations" series article
Edging; it's one of skiing's most important FOUNDATION skills. To descend mountain trails with confidence and precision skiers need to develop the ability to control their direction and speed in any manner and at any moment they choose. It's an empowering feeling to know while ripping high speed arc to arc turns down a pedestrian cluttered groomer, or picking a path down a steep and nasty off piste, that in the blink of an eye one can alter their direction or rate of travel exactly as they desire. Developing top notch edging skills helps provides this type of confidence inspiring ability.
So what is "edging"? In a most basic description, it's the act of tipping a ski sideways so that it's base is no longer flat on the surface of the slope. No effective turn can happen on a completely flat ski. Skis that rest flat on the snow tend to surrender to the whims of gravity. A flat ski, regardless of the direction it's pointing or traveling, will seek to follow the falline. Skis tipped up on edge tend, when pressured to the snow, to want to travel in the direction the skis are currently pointing. As skiers we use this knowledge to our advantage. If we want to change our direction or speed of travel, we do it through the manner in which we engage, or disengage, the edges of our skis to the snow. Obviously, then, this is a rather important skill package to possess.
OK, let's get right to it. There are three skill categories within the edging FOUNDATION. Three distinct ways to use edges to manage direction and speed. Those are: carving, steering, and pivoting. While I will discuss each in some depth, lets start off with general definitions. Carving is the act of exclusively allowing the sidecut of the skis to produce a change of direction. Steering is the act of applying a self created rotary force to redirect a pressured ski and produce a change of direction. Pivoting is the act of applying a self created rotary force to redirect a non-pressured ski. Simple little definitions, but lets discuss them in more detail to ensure those simple definitions are completely understood.
Now here's a technique that in the last 10 years has come flying onto the recreational skiing community's radar screen like an over zealous Eddy The Eagle. Sounds funny, I know, but bear with me, the analogy carries more than comedy.
Skis are built with something called "sidecut". Skis are built wider at the tips and tails than in the middle/foot/binding area. That differential is referred to as a ski's sidecut. The bigger the differential, or in other words, the greater the difference in width between a skis middle and it's tips/tails, the greater the skis sidecut. If a non-pressured ski (no skier weight on it) is tipped up on it's side the wider tip and tail will cause the middle of the ski to lose contact with the snow. If pressure is then applied, the ski will bend perpendicular to the base until the middle of the ski again finds contact with the snow. That bending produces an arc in the ski where its edge engages the snow. As long as the edge is solidly engaged in the snow, and as long as the skier simply balances on that ski and applies no rotary (twisting) force to it, the ski will follow that arc and produce a turn, leaving in its wake a very thin lined track. The track is thin because every nano portion of the entire length of the skis edge has precisely traveled the same track. This is carving.
Prior to 1996 the amount of sidecut built into skis was small. Tipping these skis up on edge would not create much middle of the ski snow separation. As such, the bending these skis had to do to remain in contact with the snow was minimal. The resultant arc these limited sidecut skis had to follow when tipped and bent did not produce very sharp turns. As some of you have probably quickly surmised, carving turns on these skis were not for the low skilled or faint of heart. The radiuses these skis could carve were so large that those who tried to link totally carved turns would quickly find themselves rocketing at mega speed down the slope, with little ability to manage their direction of travel. This was unnerving, not to mention dangerous, for all but the best of skiers, so this technique for edging and turning was not widely practiced or taught. It was pretty much the private playground technique of the race community.
Enter 1996 and a brash kid named Bode Miller. Enhanced sidecut skis were trying to make a push onto the recreational ski market, but had yet to gain much interest. I'm standing on side of a race course in Vermont, the Eastern invitationals, Suddenly a frantic buzz erupts on our coaches radios about a kid who just won the Junior Nationals by multiple seconds on a pair of short, off the rack, recreational parabolic skis. Bode had recognized what no one in the racing world had, not even the guys on the world cup. He recognized the innate superiority of what were to come to be known as "shape" skis, and had the courage to use them in a major event. That one act of courageous insight immediately launched an equipment revolution that in a few short years had made the straight skis of the past virtually obsolete. The world of skiing had changed forever.
Today, with shape skis inhabiting the feet of almost every skier on the slopes, carving has become a technical option for the masses. No longer does carving necessarily entail risking life and limb for the intermediate skier. With one of the many mega sidecut skis available today, skiers of average ability can roll onto an edge on a moderately pitched groomer and experience the joyous smoothness and efficiency of small radius, slow speed carved turn. This can even be done at low edge angles, so those with limited abilities to move their Center of Mass laterally away from their feet and create big edge angles can an obtain their first sensation of carving in a safe and controlled manner.
While carving in now an option for the masses, the truth is it's an option rarely exercised by that group. I teach and ski mainly in Summit County, Colorado, and it's typical for me to witness during a day on the slopes only a handful of the thousands of skiers I observe actually making high quality carved turns. Few people truly exploit the full mechanical capabilities of the skis they've purchased.
Expert level skiing requires learning to utilize the carving properties built into a ski. Today's skis are designed to carve, and learning to do so allows the skier to extract the shape ski's unique potential. In carving we are able to ski in harmony with the design of our ski, and in doing so experience the joy of descending a slope in the most efficient manner possible in terms of economy of effort and motion. High level carving entails not only ultra clean edge engagements devoid of skier introduced rotary force, it involves the developed ability to employ the skis full range of available turn radiuses.
We spoke earlier of why a ski bends into an arc. Each ski will have a built in amount of sidecut. This is referred to as a ski's radius. A slalom ski has a built in sidecut radius of around 12 meters. A giant slalom ski, around 21. That radius designation describes the size of a circle the sidecut of the ski would create if the arc represented by the sidecut was extended into a full circle. This represents the maximum radius the ski can carve, and it's attained by tipping the ski only the minimum amount needed to cause the edge to engage, and the ski to follow that maximum arc radius. As the skier continues to tip the ski up to higher edge angles, the ski will bend more to remain in contact with the snow, and the arc the ski follows will sharpen. This is the skiers mechanism for managing the shape of their carved turns. The higher they tip, the sharper they turn. High level carvers can precisely use the full range of turn radiuses their skis have available, when and as they desire. Such ability requires not only the development of high level edging skills, it requires the development of high level skill in ALL the FOUNDATIONS areas. This type of skiing truly is one of the top rungs on the skier development ladder.
(Here's an interesting read on the history of the shape ski: http://www.skiinghistory.org/sidecut.html
As great an edging technique as carving is, we don't always want to do it. Carving with shape skis provides a much broader turn radius availability that did our old straight skis, but that availability is not infinite. Every ski, even those of the smallest sidecut radius variety, has a minimum turn radius it can produce. When a skier wants to turn sharper than that minimum radius his ski can deliver, something different must be done. Enter steering.
Steering is the application of a skier created rotary force to the skis. Rather than being slave to the radius availability of the ski's sidecut, this rotary force acts to manually twist the skis into a new direction, thus affording the ability to breach the minimum sidecut barrier. The skier can apply as much rotary force as required to shape the turn into whatever radius is desired. Done at the extreme, a turn can be made so sharply that a 180 degree direction change can be executed in the length of a ski. This is well under what the sidecut of even the most shapely of skis can produce by carving alone.
There are many ways to produce this rotary force, some more efficient and refined than others. Highly skilled skiers will be able to steer their skis, while looking so smooth and subtle as to display little hint of the origin of the rotary force being used. They can create any turn radius they wish, and their turns can appear very consistent in shape from start to finish, or can be modified to any form of inconsistent shape the executioner desires.
Contrast that to the skiing of 90 percent of the sport's recreational community. In that group, rotary is not created subtly and internally, but is generated with gross upper body movements that require much wasted movement and energy. This inefficient method of creating rotary results in a massive tail toss at the start of the turn, and a big downhill slide at the end of the turn. Little actual movement back and forth across the hill takes place. The standard image is of a skier generally following the falline straight down the hill, repeatedly and aggressively tossing the tails into a down the falline breaking slide. If you've observed the masses of skiers descending the slope while riding up the lift, I'm sure this picture I've described is all too familiar to you.
There is a better way. Rotary forces created internally can be created and applied much more precisely, and micro managed much more acutely. They require significantly less wasted effort and movement. Power generated internally from our core can afford that type of fine control and efficiency. The rotary force produced in that manner can be easily reduced or magnified as needed at any point during the turn, and it can be transferred down through the legs to the feet and skis with such movement conservation it makes it almost impossible for the casual observer to see it being done. The skis seem to magically crank into a sharp yet smooth change of direction, with little assistance from the skier.
Steering executed to this level of proficiency provides the highest form of complete speed and turn shape control. Carving, when executed well, affords only one speed for any particular line of travel down a slope. Not only does steering expand the parameters of turn shape available to a skier, but through steering the speed traveled down a given path can be controlled completely by the skier. By only doing the minimal amount of steering needed, the skis can be made to always face very close to the direction of travel, keeping resistance low and thus speed relatively high. By increasing the amount of rotary force applied, the skis can be made to point more away from the direction of travel as the turn is executed, increasing the resistance and thus reducing the speed. This is useful when a more leisurely rate of descent is desired over bombing down the slope at the speeds carving produce. It's important to develop the ability to carve clean turns on various types of pitch and snow, but that doesn't mean one should be restricted from toning it down some when they desire. Well developed steering skills allow a skier to do that with precision and grace. Internal rotary is the road to that level of skill.
Pivoting is interesting, because in isolation it's not actually an edging skill at all. Pivoting is the twisting of the skis into a new direction while the skis are not connected to the snow. This is why I say pivoting is not really an edging skill. For pivoting to work as intended, the skis much first disengage from the snow. Ski to snow pressure must be significantly reduced, if not eliminated. So why do I include it here in EDGING FOUNDATIONS? Read on and you will understand.
How does a skier facilitate this un-weighted twisting of the skis? He does it by again, as when steering, employing a self created rotary force. The difference when pivoting is that as this twisting of the skis is taking place, no actual change of direction of travel happens. Change of direction of travel only begins when the edges of the redirected skis re-engage with the snow. This differs to steering, where a change of travel direction begins the moment the application of a rotary force begins. Many lower level skiers will pivot by aggressively twisting the shoulders and throwing the outside hand into the direction of the new turn, allowing this gross body movement to rotationally pull the skis along with the body. While this does work, it is very imprecise, it gets the bodies state of rotation and flow down the hill all discombobulated, and it causes the tails of the skis to continue to slide out once ski to snow contact has been re-established.
A better method of execution is to create some rotary torque in the body at the end of the prior turn by facing the upper body down the hill as the feet and legs are finishing the turn and traveling across the hill. This rotational misalignment of the upper and lower body causes the feet to aggressively auto align immediately upon edge release during the transition. The body remains facing downhill, and the feet quickly twist downhill to join it. The amount of pivot can be finely controlled by the skier via the amount of rotational misalignment they intentionally create, and the entire process can be done with NO extraneous upper body movement. Upon reconnecting with the snow the skier then quickly and smoothly engages the edges into a carve to finish the turn (a process called feathering). This is what quality pivoting should look like.
So why pivot? What does it provide that steering can not? A couple things. First it allows a skier to reap the radius reducing benefits of steering without the braking affect associated with steering. Steering a ski causes it to slide partially sideways, introducing speed sapping drag. The greater the amount of steering, the more drag is introduced. Pivoting allows one to avoid that drag. Skiers can execute 90 plus degrees of rotary redirection with the only drag occurring being that which takes place as the skier reconnects with the snow and skillfully engages her skis into a new carve. With the changing of how race courses are set, the ever increasing radius restrictions imposed by the FIS, and the modification of racer tactics in their never ending pursuit of more speed, pivoting has become a mainstay turn transition technique in the race community.
In the recreational world, pivoting offers the skier who has refined their carving skills the ability to overcome carving's radius limitations without having to endure the speed dumping characteristics of steering. Turns can be linked and flow from one to the next much more consistently and smoothly. It's an excellent technique for linking carved super short turns of a radius below the limitations of sidecut. Done well, many observers of these rapidly executed carved turns will not even notice a pivot has been included.
And many other situations while freeskiing call for pivots too. They are ideal for steep, narrow slopes that restrict the time one has to turn. Heavy snow, deep snow, and crud is another instance where pivoting comes in handy, as it allows for quick redirections to be done without having to simulate a human snowplow. Catching air off a bump or knoll at the end of a turn can be a handy place to throw in a pivot, as it uses the time and distance off the ground to redirect the skis to get the new turn going.
So I think you can now see why I include pivoting in the edging FOUNDATION family. While separately it's not an actual snow engagement activity, it's an integral part of a movement process that has a major influence in the precise shaping of a turn. It's a technique option that needs to be in the pocket of every advanced skier.
So there you have it: three edging techniques, three methods of skillfully facilitating a change of direction while elegantly descending a slope or course. Each has it's specific usage and benefits. They key to expert skiing is refining to high levels the ability to execute each, as well as the ability to use and blend them precisely, and at will.
And when I say "refine to a high level" I mean just that. There are so many grades of these skills. Most skiers on the slopes steer, but few do it well. Most display external execution that looks more like a fight for life than fluid skiing. Some can carve low edge angle turns on green runs, but the transitions are ragged, the radius range is limited, and when the slope gets steeper what carving did exist disappears. And most can pivot in rough form, in fact for many it's the only way they know to start a turn. They need to ditch the pivot for a while and learn how to shape a turn consistently from start to finish, be they steered or carved. They can then come back and re-introduce a more efficiently executed pivot, and learn how to skillfully feather that pivot into high quality carve finish.
In later articles and discussions we will go into more depth as to how this skill development can be done, and provide progressions and drills that will allow you to pursue that development in your own skiing. Please stay tuned.
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