“Sit on the back ski”.
Have you been told this or read it somewhere?
In my experience, this is good advice; yes that’s how it works. But, it’s a gross over-simplification.
To pressure the back ski correctly requires a few other things to be in place. And, to do this in isolation of other factors takes the skier out of the dynamic process that takes advantage of the physics of the turning ski.
The best description of the telemark turn process that I’ve heard so far is in Unparalleled Productions’ telemark instruction video, “Free Time”. Additionally, for those with a more analytical bent, some scientifc analysis has been done on the pressuring techniques of Telemark Demo Team skier, Jimmy Ludlow.
In “Free Time”, pressure is described as moving from front ski to back. It is a “smooth” process, not a sudden jerk, or slam. The timing of the process is dependent upon the type of turn that is intended: quick “check” turns, vs. short-radius, fall-line turns, vs. long radius carvers. Each of these has a different pressure rhythm and gradient to it.
The “Free Time” skiers describe the process as “moving pressure from front ski to back ski”. In fact, one of the points made in the video is that over pressuring the back ski, especially very early in the turn, will result in a side-slip instead of a carve. “Carve” here meaning a controlled arc. This is in line with the following statement:
“Generally, it is desirable to start the pure carving action early in the turn. This will be possible only when the skier can establish “early pressure” with the dominant ski(s)….The skilled skier will do this while maintaining sufficient ankle bend to provide enough tip pressure so as to lead the carving ski(s) into the turn.
~Adapted from the U.S. National Ski Team’s Technical Statement
I was riding a lift at Mount Rose on a cold, overcast, blustery, hard packed day. I chanced to sit next to a professional telemark racer who was also free skiing the mountain. We got to talking and he said something like, “you definitely have to drive with the front foot in this snow.”
Still, even in light of all this sage wisdom, I actually don’t think of the process as starting on my front ski.
I don’t know. Maybe that’s what’s scientifically happening? I don’t have the equipment that was put into Jimmy Ludow’s boots to allow me to analyze my precise patterns. Instead, I have to rely on my senses, on my somatic experience. And my senses don’t scream “front ski” at the start of my turn. I’m feeling for both skis, and specifically, “feeling for edges”.
What I experience is that both skis begin turning in response to the return of my weight after I’ved changed edges and lead ski (up shuffle).
In fact, I used to start my turn entirely with the front ski. The back ski is flopped down behind the front ski after the turn is well along. This manouveur does accomplish a quick change of direction. But I experience turning on the front ski as instability. When I observe other skiers using this technique, I see them slide with the skis across the fall line, an uncontrolled slide. Not at all what I want in my skiing.
So when should one apply pressure to that back ski?
One solution is the “peanut butter spread”. It can be very useful to begin to pressure both skis as they are moving away from each other; timing the pressuring to just after the feet have passed during the lead ski change. This is described in Allen & Mikes Really Cool Telemark Tips book as “spread peanut butter”. This isn’t carving. In fact, it’s a controlled slide that rapidly creates a direction change because the slide is happening to both skis at once. Though each ski is sliding in a different direction (one forward, one backwards), still, both skis are edged together, so they both turn in the same direction. The skis have to be on the “new” edge; that is, the new turn has already started before one can perform a “spread” garland like this.
In soft snow, as in skiing in powder, I find that this a great technique for getting the turn started. Performing a spread may even be sufficient when powder is deep or turn radius is short.
Useful as it may be, the “spread” is not a required part of the turn. It’s a handy technique to apply. I think spreading makes a strong turn beginning, adding an extra oomph to get the skis into the new direction. But it’s not the whole turn. I want to carve. And, I don’t use a spreading garland at all for my big radius, long carved turns.
Even more to the point, I have found using only a spreading motion is entirely insufficient on steeper slopes. There’s just too much sliding for me. I’m not strong enough to absorb that much gravity comfortably (though I’ve seen plenty of stronger skiers who can). I need a more controlled turn. This is even more critical for me when I’m in the trees, where any amount of uncontrolled slide might smack me into something I want to ski around. But then, I’m a very careful tree skier.
The control I seek can be gained through a process of putting more pressure on the back ski as the turn progresses. Let me explain what works for me.
There are two basic forms of the pressure gradient: quick, for short radius turns, and steady for long carvers.
First, I find that I cannot easily pressure my back ski unless my posture is quite erect. Posture is my key for my ability to deliver power to my back ski1.
Try standing in a telemark position off-snow. Experiement with where your hips are, front to back until you feel that your weight is evenly distributed between your legs. Move your hips forward and back to feel the weight shift, then come to center.
Now, let your back roll into a little bit of a forward curve, like a very mild slouch. Let your shoulders drop and roll forward a little. The small of your back will be more or less straight, even slightly rolled forward. Let your hips crack so that your chest is a little forward, perhaps above your forward knee. This is actually a fairly typical parallel skiing stance, “soft shoulder, athletic stance” as I’ve heard it described. Doing this, I feel no dramatic shift in my weight distribution, if my hips are centered between my feet. My weight seems to be evenly distributed. I used to telemark like this, and it worked fine, except it was hard to get caving weight on my back ski when gravity forces were stronger.
Now, straighten your spine and shoulders into a very upright posture, as though standing to attention. Don’t change your legs. Do you feel it? Immediately, I can feel extra weight on my back foot. It’s like magic. The upright posture easily allows me to put extra pressure on the rear foot. From this position, I find it trivial and efficient to vary the amount of pressure on my rear foot from “light” to bearing down. I can make this variance without changing the relationship of my hips to my legs. I imagine that this is what “sit on the back foot” means.
Let me explain how I put my posture and weighting to use on skis.
After I’ve changed lead skis, I will start to feel my weight return to both skis. The skis will start to turn. I should have already started to angulate (making the ‘C’ with your body). I shift my attention to my back ski. At all times, I try to keep my posture more erect than I typically might when parallel skiing.
After I’ve shuffled to change lead skis, which involves having the skis light and unweighted, my weight comes back down onto the skis. I concentrate on being centered, front to back. As I feel the skis bite in and start to turn, as they begin to react to the pressure of my weight, I begin to gradually apply more weight to the back ski.
How much weight on the back ski and how quickly?
I believe that each movement on skis should always be a process. Understanding this takes somatic awareness. I’m not saying that it can’t be fast. The pressure can be applied quickly, just not all at once. I ease into it. I first practiced this slowly until I got the feel. Then I could speed it up for faster, fall-line turns.
If I’m going to carve a long turn, I keep the pressure steady at the carving arc that I want to follow until I’m ready to finish the turn. If it’s a short swing, then the back leg weighting gradually increases until the skis bite.
As I experience it, skis don’t bite from pressure alone. At the end of my turn, I’m also steering a tighter turn with my feet. I feel the pressure to the inside of the turn with my feet and ankles. And, of course, I’m edging more through increasing angulation. These 3 activities are happening at the same time, in concert with each other:
- back leg pressure
- tighter steering
- increased edging
The combination of these 3 processes together causes the skis to turn more extremely, which causes a noticiable bite, grip, a slow down of the skis. This bite is the end of the turn, or more precisely, the finish of the turn. This is the “check” that slows my speed and gives me control, even on the steepest slope.
If I want a very fast check turn, then I perform this pressured, steered edge as soon as I feel my new edges in the snow 2. Again, I try not to slam my skis. I let the ski check itself in response to steered, edged pressure.
When I feel the skis bite into the snow, that’s the end of the turn. The skis seem to grip the snow as though of their own volition. It’s a function I believe of effective edging, pressuring, and steering, as I’ve tried to explain, above. Control does not result from slamming down onto the ski. That causes a slide, not the tight finish for which I’m looking. And, of course, the finishing “check” is the beginning of the next turn, as I reach out and down to plant my pole. Which naturally and organically causes me to release my edges in preparation for the next turn.
- I discovered this posture trick quite accidentally after taking a parallel powder lesson (free heel, but parallel turns) with Kami at Mountain Adventure Seminars (MAS). Kami stressed maintaining an upright posture in the powder. She called it, “engaging the small of your back”. 2 months later, I was in some very dense Spring powder in Colorado. Having some trouble, I remembered the upright stance. Suddenly I was able to power through not only the untracked powder, but through the mashed potatoes left behind by the other skiers. I had a serious “aha!” moment where the relationship between posture and my back ski clicked.
- I probably won’t hit the check as hard as I might at the end of a fast, long radius turn, or as I might in a series of fall-line, short radius turns on a steep pitch.