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Tips on Descending Hills in Control
By:  Tom McCarthy   (2004/01/21)

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There has recently been some conversation on a legendary local triathlon website, TriRudy.com, about the hill in the Gatineau Park known as Penguin. The discussion centred around concerns that the hill is too choked up on the weekends to allow for safe downhill or uphill travel. I think this is an unfortunate situation, as Penguin is a real jewel of the Park's trail network, a hill of great length with a number of twisting corners and steep angles. The solution to the potential danger is to educate skiers on proper uphill and downhill technique. What follows is a quick introduction to travelling downhill fast: the basics of turning, staying in control, and stopping at speed.

It should be noted first that this is meant for skiers with advanced downhill ski technique. Individuals with less experience should stick to the tried and true snowplow- still the safest and best method of getting down uncomfortable terrain. Self-diagnosis can be tricky with downhill technique: to determine your level of skill, think about the number of times you have fallen on skis this winter (including multiple times on one ski), divided by the number of times you have skiied. If this co-efficient is greater than 0.2, you probably need some technique work. As well, this is not meant to replace an instructional session such as the one provided recently in the Park by Tom McGee; it is meant to complement it.

The lane system: Most main trails in the Park have enough room for two skiers travelling in opposite directions to comfortably co-exist. This can happen, if skiers behave like cars and stay to the right of the trail. This is the most important safety tip for any technique, up or down. The rule of thumb is to 'yield to the descending skier'. For ascending skiers who are caught on the wrong side of the trail, it is equally important to STAND STILL if you are being descended upon. Moving to the side of the trail may result in a serious collision (if the descending skier chooses to move to the same side as you.) If you are an ascending skier on the right side, and you see a downhill skier approaching quickly, freeze and make yourself as small as possible.

The tuck: Tucking is a way to minimize drag and maximize speed on a descent. There are several ways to maximize control while tucking. Most importantly, keep your head up!!! Admiring your skis while tucking is a sure way to break them. If it's a long hill, your neck will become sore. This is no excuse to put your head down for a rest. Secondly, keep your knees and feet wider apart than they would be if your skis were in a track. This will give you a better centre of balance. Your elbows should be forward and slightly between your knees. Your elbows should NOT be supported by your knees; you will not be able to absorb bumps if your elbows are on your knees. Ensure your poles, when tucked under your arms, are not sticking straight up or sideways across the trail. This happens!! Ensure your pole tips are behind your body. Finally, when tucking during a turn, it is useful to turn your hips to the inside of the turn, similar to alpine skiers who lean their butts into the turn. Your head can be on the outside of the turn while your hips are on the inside. This will help counteract the massive gravitational forces you generate when speeding around turns, and keep your skis on the snow (the classic example of NOT doing this is Hermann Maier in the Nagano Olympic downhill.)

The turn: There are two ways of turning efficiently on cross-country skis while at speed; the step-turn and the skid-turn. The skid-turn is similar to a downhill style turn: with both skis parallel, put your skis on edge and carve around a corner. The skid-turn can be effectively used to scrub speed if needed. The skid turn has more control than a step-turn, but it is has a larger braking effect. The step-turn involves stepping with the inside ski, followed by the outside ski, on a repeated basis, effectively stepping around the turn. This is a much faster method of cornering, but reduces control, as you stay on a flatter ski. If the corner is less sharp or steep, a step-turn can be very effective, while a more extreme corner might require a skid-turn. In race situations, I often find it is more effective to skid INTO very sharp corners, and step-turn OUT of them. This allows me to maximize speed and control. When turning (assuming there are no people) it is useful to use the entire corner, as race-car drivers do: cut from the outside of the top of the corner to the inside in the middle of the turn, ending up back at the outside. In this manner, you minimize the angle you have to turn.

The stop: Stopping is occasionally needed on Penguin, most often at the top of the saddle when people ahead of you have stopped to negotiate the icy steep portion before the split. Stopping can be accomplished using a skid or a snow-plow method. The skid will stop you faster, but will reduce control, and the snow-plow has a longer stopping distance but maximizes control. To initiate a skid, turn your skis sideways and put them on edge, much like a hockey stop.

The alarm: Particularly on Penguin, but also on any downhill with blind corners, it is useful to let people know that you are coming. This should not be taken as aggressive or insulting to those people who are on their way up, but simply a polite means of notifying them that they will soon be encountering an in-control projectile, so they should be on their side of the trail. The alarm can be raised in two ways: a shout or a yodel. Shouting is sometimes more effective, while yodelling is often more polite. Shouted phrases can be "skier" or "coming down" or "look out" or "excuse me".

The disaster maneuver: This is a last-resort move. Up until now, all techniques have focussed on staying in control, or at least in minimizing out-of-controlness. The need for the disaster maneuver arises when the skier is placed suddenly in a situation where a drastic change of direction or speed is required. Disaster maneuvers usually take three forms: the sit, ski-off-the-trail maneuver, or the jump maneuver. The sit is obvious. Sit down and get off your skis fast. Your bottom will be sore after it's used as a brake. The ski-off-the-trail maneuver should be attempted when there is a large obstacle blocking your descending path, and no way around or over it. It involves simply aiming for the softest piece of snow on the side of the trail, and hitting it with the largest body area possible. Dangers of this maneuver are the possibility of hitting trees, or hitting obstacles concealed within the snow. Equipment damage is also possible during this maneuver. The golden rule for this maneuver is this: ski off the trail only if the imminent danger on the trail exceeds the imminent danger off the trail. The jump maneuver is useful when something arises suddenly in your path (such as a fellow descending skier falling suddenly, or a large branch across the trail). It involves a lunge in a given direction, occasionally with the goal of landing on your feet. Try and jump with your tips up- there is nothing worse than catching your tips on the obstacle you are trying to avoid. It is worth noting that these disaster maneuvers usually take place under conditions of heightened consciousness; instinct rather than thought take over. Ensure that you are prepared for these maneuvers, however, by practicing the jump maneuver occasionally.

I wish you all the best in your descents. I am available for private consultation if needed, and can be reached at tmccarthy@eisa.com.

 
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