Ask most skiers (or boarders) what they do to slow down on the slope, and their answer will be immediate: They turn. Like, "Duh—what could be more obvious?"
Obvious, maybe, but dead wrong. Good skiers and boarders don't turn to slow down—they turn to speed up, in the sense that they never go into a new turn when they're already going too fast. They slow down by steering the previous turn farther into the hill, and they don't start a new turn until they're ready to accelerate.
Most intermediate skiers have the idea too literally in their minds that they should turn to slow down. In many cases, that assumption is the biggest obstacle to improvement. Here's why:
Good skiers make round, S-shaped turns, like those in this diagram:
Between points A and B, the skier making these turns is pointed downhill, and is therefore accelerating. He (or she) is slowing down between points B and A by steering across the hill (or even uphill, if the slope is steep enough). This skier is using gravity to speed up, and gravity to slow down.
By contrast, many intermediate skiers make Z-shaped turns, like the ones shown in a somewhat exaggerated form in this diagram:
The skier making these turns is heading downhill at about a 45-degree angle between turns, accelerating. When he feels he is picking up too much speed, he throws his skis sideways, digging in the edges as brakes to slow down. When he feels he has slowed down enough, he eases his edge grip and heads off toward the next turn, once again accelerating.
This skier is accelerating between points B and A, and slowing down between points A and B—just the opposite of what the expert skier in Diagram 1 is doing. The skier in Diagram 2 is using gravity to speed up, but friction to slow down. It's a tiring, ungraceful way to ski.
The bad news is that making Z-shaped turns is fatal to good skiing. The good news is that it's not hard to fix. A good drill to do that is what I call square turns. Square turns sound like a contradiction to round turns, but they're actually an exaggeration of them. They're intended to break skiers of the impulse to pivot quickly in the fall line to slow down, and instill a habit of allowing the skis to accelerate in the fall line and slow down as they are steered across the hill.
Square turns should first be attempted on a very gentle slope—Lower River Run is a good place. The idea is to make box-shaped tracks like this:
Begin by doing a short traverse, at very slow speed, barely moving. Do half a turn so the skis are pointed straight downhill. Allow the skis to go straight downhill for a couple of seconds. Then do a second half turn so the skis are pointed across the hill until you almost come to a stop. Then repeat.
You want to be going so slowly before the start of each turn that you feel eager to pick up speed. That way, acceleration in the fall line will come as an enjoyable sensation, not as a cause for panic.
As you feel more comfortable doing square turns, you can take the drill to steeper terrain. As you graduate to steeper terrain, maintain your box shape—just make smaller boxes.
I have noticed that as most skiers get the drill, their "square" turns naturally turn into smooth, round turns. If you're one of the few skiers who follows the instructions precisely and makes sharp corners at the beginning and end of the turn, it's easy to smooth those out into round, S-shaped turns once you've got the hang of the drill.
Please note that by advocating acceleration in the fall line and steering across the hill to slow down, I'm not suggesting that you ski faster or traverse farther across the hill. Both S-shaped turns and Z-shaped turns can be done at the same speed and will fit into the same-width corridor down the hill. It's all a matter of where in the turn you're speeding up and where you're slowing down.
Grasping the concept of turning to speed up rather than to slow down is the foundation upon which all other aspects of ski technique are based. Skiers need to learn to use their skis as turning tools, rather than as brakes, before other technique refinements will be of much help. If you're just throwing your skis sideways to slow down, it won't matter much where your hands are or whether you're counter-rotated or whether your ankles are bent enough or anything else, just as long as you're in good enough balance to stay on your feet.
Once you graduate from Z-shaped turns to S-shaped turns, you will begin to experience the exhilaration of swooping through the fall line and the security of gaining control over your speed before you start each turn. It's the key to joyful skiing.
Greg Moore: email@example.com
Greg Moore is a former ski instructor with the Sun Valley Ski and Snowboard School.