Skiing in difficult terrain or snow

  • Direct descent
  • Snowplough
  • Downhill traversing
  • Kick turn
  • Tacking turn
  • Side step
  • Side slip
  • Descending through trees or rocks
  • Herringbone
  • Uphill traverse
  • Ascending steep slopes
  • Ski selection

Once you step out of prepared ski trails and start making your own tracks, you will be faced with many new challenges that are limited only by your enthusiasm and sense of adventure. Basic skills such as traversing, side stepping and side slipping will allow you to leave the groomed trails and start to experience the thrills of back-country skiing. Success at travelling through difficult terrain and in different snow conditions will depend upon an appropriate use of basic skiing techniques, and the knowledge and judgement about when to use them. Errors of judgement are usually obvious when skiing - you will fall! However, falling is always tiring and sometimes very dangerous, so learning appropriate techniques and when to use each is very important.

Off-track skiing

Off-track skiing offers many more possibilities for satisfying tours, away from the noise and congestion of resorts. Generally, undertaking progressively more remote and demanding trips will enhance your skills without exposure to unnecessary or undue risks. Initially planning day or half-day tours allows you to choose the weather and snow conditions you prefer, rather than risking inclement weather and more difficult snow conditions during a multi-day tour. As skills and confidence increase, you can progressively spend more time off-track, and tackle more difficult terrain.

Day tours present less risk by staying closer to resorts and hence provide refuge in the event of emergency or bad weather. Day touring allows you to experience skiing in varying snow conditions and weather for short periods. Also, lighter packs and less equipment allow more freedom of movement and energy to practice your skiing techniques. As you gain confidence and progress to longer trips, you will need to rely on your own judgement and develop some solid skills to ensure that you can handle all snow and weather conditions which you may encounter.

The kick turn, side step, traverse, side slip, herringbone, snowplough and direct descent methods are the basic skills used in ascent and descent. Telemark and parallel turns are often not appropriate when carrying a heavy pack on snow of variable consistency. No matter what your level of skiing skill, you will always be relying on a combination of these basic skills to get you out of a difficult position. The methods described below offer a guide to skiing in difficult conditions, but are not intended as step-by-step instructions.

Direct descent (straight running, schussing)

Rather than attempt a turn or a bail out in deep snow it is often easier to use a direct descent, which is a straight run down the fall line with skis parallel, without any attempt to reduce speed. A flat run out area at the bottom is required, otherwise you may find yourself practising other techniques such as jumps, cartwheels and face plants! It is important to have a relaxed, flexible stance with the knees pushed forward so that the legs are able to absorb any bumps and dips in the terrain which may not be apparent in low light, poor visibility or fresh, deep snow conditions.

Snowplough

Placing your skis in a ‘V’ with the tips together and tails apart (forming a snowplough) and maintaining even pressure on both skis is a stable method of controlling the rate of descent on firm snow. Edging becomes more effective with the legs flexed and the hips low. Using this method on deep or crusty snow should be avoided. Snowploughing becomes a lot more difficult and tiring if used constantly when carrying a heavy pack, and traversing with kick turns (see below) may be a better choice.

Downhill traversing

On a long or steep slope you can descend at a much slower rate by traversing with your skis parallel and at an angle diagonally across the slope. The angle you chose will determine the speed. If you are carrying a heavy pack, or are not confident on a steep slope, a series of traverses is the safest option. A relaxed stance with the upper body leaning slightly outward and down the fall line will help you to roll your knees and ankles inward for edging control. Usually the uphill ski should be ahead of the downhill one. The depth and type of snow will determine how you traverse. If the snow is deep and soft, little or no edging of the skis will be required, but if steep and icy, precise control of the edges is necessary.

Kick turn

After traversing across a steep or icy slope, a kick turn is the safest option. It is an effective method of turning 180° while stationary. With your skis across the slope, face your body downhill, and place both poles behind you for support. Kick the downhill or front ski forward, and rest its tail on the snow next to the tip of the other ski. Then spin the tip of the raised ski out and away from your body, to place it on the snow facing the opposite direction. After putting your weight on this ski, lift and place your other ski parallel with the first. Bring your poles and upper body around to face in the new direction. Make sure your legs are flexed, and do not place too much weight on your poles. It can be done both facing up and down hill, but is more commonly done facing downhill, as described above.

Tacking turn

This is a lesser version of the kick turn, and is used to change direction by up to about 135° while moving diagonally uphill, without altering pace.

Side step

This technique can be used on moderate to steep slopes to ascend or descend safely by moving the skis up or down at 90° to the fall line. Keeping the legs flexed is important. Good control of weight transfer and edge control are vital on icy surfaces. Side stepping can be difficult in deep, fresh snow. A variation of the side step is the forward side step, with a forward and sideways step, at about 45–60° to the slope, which is a good way of ascending steeper slopes safely.

Side slip

A side slip is a controlled descent on steep slopes by keeping the skis in a parallel position across the fall line and rolling the ankles downhill, allowing the skis to flatten out and lose their edge on the snow. This allows the skis to slip down the snow, either straight down the fall line (side slipping) or at an angle (diagonal side slipping). A side slip is better in firm conditions as soft snow tends to pile up and trip the skier over.

Descending through trees or rocks

Many popular touring areas in Australia have partial tree cover or sections with large boulders. A careful traversing descent should enable you to deviate up or down around an obstacle, or allow you to stop and kick turn to a new angle of traverse. On a reasonably open and steep slope a combination of traverse and side slip can be an efficient and enjoyable technique for dodging obstacles.

Herringbone

A herringbone is generally used on slopes that are too steep to diagonal stride up, but not steep enough to require a side step. This method is good on moderate slopes with softer snow, and involves walking up the slope with the skis in a ‘V’ with the tips pointing outward. The knees must be flexed and the weight must be placed over the knee as each step is taken. Rhythm in your stride will help a lot in the transfer of weight from one leg to the other. On steeper or icy snow, edging is vital, and is achieved by rolling your knees and ankles inwards on each step.

Uphill traverse

When a slope becomes too steep for diagonal stride or herringbone, an uphill traverse may be used, involving diagonal stride up and across the slope. A variation of this on steeper or icy slopes is a diagonal side step using more edge. The angle of traverse is dependent upon the type of snow and steepness of the slope. Steeper or icy slopes are tackled using a shallower angle than those with soft and deep snow. Try to make large ascents in a series of manageable angles, particularly if carrying a heavy pack, or breaking a trail in deep or soft snow. A traverse usually ends with a kick turn or tacking turn.

Ascending steep slopes

Sometimes ascending is nearly impossible, e.g. in steep, deep, wet or icy snow. It helps to have some aids on hand for these times, particularly when on a multi day tour. With the advent and refinement of pattern base skis, grip waxes are not used much outside racing circles, but every so often there will be a time when your skis just will not grip on the way up a slope. If your technique, pattern base and fitness are not enough to get you up that hill, you can reach into your bag of tricks and put on some skins, ski ropes or a grip wax.

Skins
Originally skins were a strip of mohair or sealskin strapped or glued to the ski base to provide excellent traction for climbing hills, while still allowing some slip for a downhill run. Nowadays skins are synthetic but are still glued or strapped to the base of skis. They are simple to use and easy to store. Old skins seem to stick better if they are dry, and applied to dry skis, which is often not easy to achieve in practice!

Ski ropes
Ski ropes are a cheap alternative to skins. Using about 4 m of approximately 4–6 mm diameter rope, tie a small loop in the middle, place this over the ski tip and lace the rope under and over the ski from tip to tail. They take a while to put on but cost virtually nothing and are excellent for a difficult ascent.

Grip wax (klister)
Most skiers will not go near klister wax because it is so messy. However, it is the most versatile and useful grip wax that a ski tourer can use in an emergency. Klister is a tacky fluid (unlike most ski waxes which are solid) and will stick to most old snow when the crystals are rounded and wet. Klister comes in squeeze tubes and small cylinders, and is easiest to apply when warm. The best warming spot is usually the armpit or in the hands. Apply it in short diagonal stripes on the base of the skis, then spread out and work it into the ski base with the palm of your hand. It is messy, but because the palm of the hand will be warm (at least by the end) the klister will spread evenly. It greatly improves traction, but does not reduce downhill running speed as much as skins or ski ropes.

Ski selection

Ski selection is a personal choice, although finances often dictate which skis we end up with! A wide range of skis is available, many tailored for specific purposes, and this presents a dilemma for anyone trying to buy the best for their needs. Stronger materials used for ski manufacture today allow for stronger and stiffer skis, enabling pack carrying on shorter skis which are more manoeuvrable. Most off-trail skiers prefer a ski which is wider and stiffer than would normally be used on a packed trail. Metal or non-metal edges are a personal choice, heavily influenced by the type of touring you intend doing. Pattern-based, metal-edged skis are generally the best compromise for most ski touring locations in Australia, but may be too heavy, wide and/or stiff for good performance on prepared trails. Experienced skiers may want a more specific matching of skis for a particular destination and skiing needs, and they usually have several pairs of skis for different uses.

Trial and error as well as pestering ski shop staff and ski friends are the best ways to obtain the information you need prior to buying skis. Many ski shops have on-snow trial days, and hiring skis can provide a cheap introduction to the more common ski types. There is also a variety of secondhand sales, usually run by cross-country skiing organisations.