Today started out with blue skies and sunshine – but by midday ended up in dense fog. Fortunately the good weather and visibility was put to constructive use for Alex’s first proper adventure off piste – equipped with avalanche transceiver and hunting for properly transformed Spring snow.
Our warm up run was down the Vert and I suggested for both Alex and Brian to focus on the feet – weight on the front of the heels, feet edged by rocking the subtaler joints, adductors engaged and centre of mass moving in and out of the turns. When Brian focused properly on this it did change his stance –which confirmed my suspicion that when relaxing he comes off the inside edges of his feet. For Alex the aim was to ensure her base of support to help to discourage her tendency to rotate – and to simply bring attention to and revise the “feet” because we hadn’t spent any time on that in the previous few days.
Tour de Charvet – Off Piste
The Tour de Charvet is the classic off piste route in Val, but not from the direction that we took. The main descents would definitely have been trashed due to the recent heat and being skied by people too late in the day – leaving deep trenches to freeze solid. Our entry was by traversing from the top of the Borsat lift and heading for the far end of the valley where nobody would have skied and transformed snow or even powder (in places) would be in good condition. Getting there does involve a bit of work and with Alex being physically tired from the day before I knew this would be relatively hard for her – but the reality is that getting away from the commercial and superficial hoards and pistes sometimes takes an effort and a bit of risk but it is always worthwhile – though we have to learn this too! I had no doubt over her ability to ski provided I managed to find half decent snow – and even then she was asked to learn and practice kick turns in case we had to traverse through impossible snow.
In the event we actually did find some sheltered powder snow in the upper shallow gullies and then fully transformed snow on the south west facing walls of the main valley. I hesitated before deciding to ski the main wall due to being uncertain of the combination of snow and steepness – but after a few turns found that it was safe and ideal for both Alex and Brian so cleared them to ski it. Alex had already proved herself on steeps yesterday – in more difficult conditions due to the slope being hard and slightly icy – never baulking once at turning and never getting into trouble. She had to work hard today but was actually even safer on the softened transformed snow than on the icy pistes. This didn’t stop her from sweating buckets though.
Visibility vanished as we reached the narrow gully out of the valley and this left us to pick our way slowly through invisible bumps with less than ideal lumpy, frozen snow on the surface. All of this however is excellent experience that progressively brings adaptation to the body and skill – in ways that skiing on piste never does. You just slow down and focus on what you feel and on moving your body. If you get dynamics right then the body will cope reflexively with most surprises.
Predictably the pathway out of the Tour had been avalanched yesterday when it had been very hot in the afternoon – so there was a bit of scrambling over some impressive debris to get to the end. Perhaps the most awkward snow of all was in the last 100m descent before reaching the chairlift. The cloud had grown giving some light snow so we had been lucky to get through without that coming down on us earlier. Alex did fine – as I had expected – with no falls or incidents. Later in the day I explained to her that it was because of her confident natural use of dynamics in coming out of turns – over the lower ski – that allowed me to gauge what she would be capable of handling. That’s not a function that’s affected adversely by tiredness either – in fact when tired there’s a tendency to rely on this even more because you can sense that it makes life easier.
After ascending Le Manchet chair we had a snack break at the Lac d’Ouillette and then ventured back out into dense fog. Alex was perturbed by the fog and lack of visibility so I explained that she didn’t need to worry where she was going – but just to stay fairly close to me for reference. The important thing is to stop “looking” and to focus attention on feeling instead – with feet, muscles, accelerations and pressure against the ski boots. Internalising focus in this way calms the anxiety. On the way down Solaise Alex said that she felt the struggle off piste had adversely affected her ski technique – but I didn’t quite agree. The fact was that we were in dense fog on a steep red run even icier than she had previously tackled – but she didn’t know that because she couldn’t see it. She was in fact rotating due to the steepness. In order to counteract the rotation I just asked Alex to re-focus on her hips and work directly to prevent rotation – which she was able to do. We used the exercise where with Alex standing across the hill holding her poles outstretched downhill I pulled her downhill and she had to resist – first of all “rotated” side on and then pulling her hip back and angulating – so she could be more clearly aware of the differences in strength attained by avoiding rotation. Further down the icy slope I introduced the possibility of standing on the front of the foot and against the front of the ski - with good hip angulation and the body “not rotated” so as to grip to the maximum on ice. This can only be achieved by avoiding rotation – and if the front of the foot is used then the ankle must not be allowed to flex and collapse.
Staying down on the valley floor to let the bad weather pass through we started to focus more on technique. I had an intuition that some of the issues with Brain’s skiing were due to a blockage in his turn transitions – which always seem laboured unless he is purely carving. For this reason I explained and demonstrated hanger turns and asked him to try. The result was revealing. Brian was unable to see what I was doing and persistently misinterpreted the exercise and the explanation – making him either attempt to carry out some different exercise (varying between normal outside ski turns – to “Charleston” – inside ski only turns) or argue that I wasn't actually demonstrating what I was explaining . This indicates a perception block in this area. We only see what we understand! This type of issue is compounded by the body’s unconscious habitual actions then taking over and dictating how the conscious mind sees things. What concerned me the most was that I hadn’t spotted this dynamics issue sooner. The fact that Brain was in a muddle over it and finding it very difficult means that it probably is right on the button with being the most important thing for him to work on. Every turn I make is close to being a hanger turn and it’s what makes skiing flow. It has to work this way in all turns – not just fast carving!
Wide Stance Pivots (Independent Legs)
To help Alex improve on her rotation issues we worked on pivoting with the feet wide apart and side by side on the mountain instead of one below the other. This requires effective rotation of the femurs in each hip joint independently without the pelvis swinging around. This is in fact the most effective way to control direct fall line skiing as it eliminates all motion across the hill and creates a powerful braking action. Alex still has a bit of work to do on this as can be seen in the video! We added jumping to this so as to remove the subtle dynamics and edge awareness needed to control the ski on the snow and she managed to separate the actions at the hip joints better this way. Like any skill practice is required.
Brian also tried some short swings – but with the emphasis being to jump downhill over the lower ski – in the same context as the hanger turns. This did improve his dynamics though the whole exercise was a bit frantic and a bit too “edge to edge” and harsh due to heel retraction. Full leg extension and smooth absorption with flexing on landing and some pivot on the snow would soften this a lot.
After a break Alex was asked to attempt the full hanger turn – and to everyone’s surprise (including her's) she managed it on the first attempt! Perhaps it isn’t so surprising because she does move convincingly over her lower ski on the steeps!
Carve – Plough
The session was ended with imposing the hardest exercise of all on Alex – carving on one ski – pulling the leg inwards – while snowplough braking and sidelsipping the weighted inside ski. It’s even a nightmare attempting to explain it here. This exercise combines explicit control of rotation – accurate placement of the centre of mass inside the turn, great awareness of the action of the femur in the hip joint and a feel for the use of the most important muscle groups. This has to be done in slow motion – but the big problem is that people don’t even know how a snowplough really works to start with so it’s a hard exercise to do. We will return to this…