by John Arnold - International Snowsport Coach & Off Piste Skiing Leader
Making the transition from piste to powder is the aspiration of many skiers who have spent their fair share of time grooving their skills on the red and black graded slopes. This article looks at the ways we approach the adventure of venturing ‘off the limits’ of graded and groomed slopes.
We can think of attitude as the context of our thinking, it shapes our perspective about ourselves and the mountain. It’s a bit like a flavouring put into a drink, it pervades the entire experience of the drink and how we approach it and influences our preferences. Our attitude will translate itself and influence how we make movements, execute the techniques and which tactics we choose to apply. An attitude which is overly cautious, for example, will cause limbs to stiffen and will reduce our commitment to letting go of the turn. Optimal flow is crucial in the off piste context and fear based attitudes will cause you to hold on to the arc leading to a reduction of speed putting more requirement on the physical element of performance. You will become fatigued quickly.
Fear based attitudes are very common in off piste skiers, certainly in the early period of transition from piste to powder. This is understandable, the environment is more complex and there are more unknowns, conditions are often continually changing overhead and underfoot, it’s become a much more ‘open skill’ where many variables exist. The skier is often on tenterhooks in the early days. Overcoming the over-cautious attitude is a huge hurdle to many. One key solution is to choose your ‘battles’ wisely. Gradient, aspect and snow type influence performance heavily. Take on slopes well within your gradient range where a consistent flow can be achieved without frightening yourself. Choose a slope which you can see in its entirety, fear of the unknown is common. Allow yourself to run into the first arcs, starting by pointing your skis down the hill rather than across. This will provide you with immediate flow from which to base your performance - choice of slope is crucial. Snow type and condition is often the decider to the quality of your performance. An attitude of ‘noticing’ works well here. Be open to the changing conditions remaining aware of the environment, look, see, notice before you set off. If the snow conditions look like they could be beyond your capabilities choose another slope. Keep the groomed piste in sight, your just off the side so there is usually a lot of choice. Once on the go and in the flow, keep looking and feeling, the information you receive back from your feet and legs, particularly in the domain of pressure control is important. Feeling the forces generated by speed, snow consistency and physical movements provide crucial information. Be open to receiving this. A big downfall of many skiers in the transition from piste to powder is the expectation that the snow condition is going to be ‘powder’ and with this comes the assumption that there will be a foot or so of fresh light snow on a firm base. More often than not this is not the reality. Our adversaries are constantly present. The wind and temperature, along with the aspect of the slope (which direction it faces) will shape the snow, rendering it heaven or hell, often somewhere in between. Here an attitude of non-judgement really helps. Let go of the delusion of fine, champagne powder snow and instead engender an attitude which keeps you open to the expectation of changing snow conditions. The consistency, amount of air in the snow, the temperature fluctuation, wind speed and direction, there are many environmental factors which influence the snow pack. Try not to judge the snow good or bad. It’s likely that if you do, your judgement will be shaped by the quality of your performance. You ski a pitch well; the snow is good. You ski it poorly; the snow is bad. Get all of this subjective relative thinking out of your head. Instead the attitude of non-judgement opens us up to greater enjoyment, less expectations and ultimately quicker improvements in your skiing. Whilst on the topic of a non-judging attitude, go easy on yourself and your performance. It’s likely that you will not ski as ‘tidy’ as you do on the groomed piste. Heavily judging and assessing your off piste skiing, especially in the early days will have negative impact. If you apply the same rigour of self-analysis, self-criticism and standards of skiing from piste to powder you will likely to, in your eyes only, fail. This is not helpful and not much fun. Don’t give yourself a hard time get out of head ‘analysis’ and into your body ‘feeling’. Acceptance is another key attitude. Direct this onto yourself and your performance, do not expect to be in centered balance all of the time. Look at the conditions and environment, it’s a jungle out there! Do not expect yourself to be the supreme hunter and gatherer that you are on piste. An attitude of acceptance embraces the notion that when skiing off piste you will feel, at first, less balanced. Be ok with this, it’s usual, normal and a consequence of the conditions. In fact, when you get used to moving fore and aft over the length of skis you realise what the length is for. We use it to help us stabilise rather than lean on. With an accepting attitude you will remain more positive, confident, physically loose and mentally alert because you have let go of the idea, the holy grail, of a perfect turn, posture or technique. The maxim applies; ‘if it works do it’ and we know when it works because our feet are below us and we are upright. This is slightly tongue in cheek, however grasping the attitude of acceptance has such a big impact on your skiing, for the better. I’ll end with the big one, the ‘Attitude of Awareness’. Broadly speaking this is about where your attention is directed. Attention comes in many forms and not just the mental, we attend with our physical faculties, feeling and sensing our body parts and the use of the muscles. This is often referred to as kinesiology and kinaesthetic awareness. What it’s called is not as important as practicing it when your skiing, in real time, not in review or reflection. In fact, it’s not possible to practice body awareness in reflection, it’s the most direct way to attend to the here and now, through the body. Off piste skiing lends itself perfectly to attending to the here and now, feeling the forces, pressures, movements as they are happening. Developing the faculty of noticing with, and through the body, will play an important part in improving your off piste skiing. Awareness underpins quality performance, without awareness performance becomes accidental, with awareness performance becomes on-purpose. I know which one I would rather, go for it. When venturing off piste always do so with the guidance of a qualified ski teacher or guide. Always be equipped with safety kit and know how to use it. Check the off piste conditions for safety and avalanche predictions beforehand.
From December 1st, 2017 to April 15th, 2018 the Monterosa Ski is open - http://www.visitmonterosa.com/en/
To book John for piste to powder go to his web site - www.mindfulmountains.com
For accommodation and transfers in Champoluc see here - www.ski-2.com
Copyright John Arnold November 2017