Written by Alec Blossom, a “Professor of Skiing” at the Ski Portillo Ski School
As an intermediate skier, you are exploring the mountain with new confidence in your abilities to ski. It’s a great feeling and you should take advantage of it by all means, but keep in mind that the intermediate zone is the easiest time to develop bad habits, so don’t be shy about getting a lesson. As you practice your new skills and improve, it’s important to have an experienced set of eyes to help make sure that all the hard work you’re putting in is helping you and not hurting you. Perfect practice makes perfect!
Here are five common mistakes I see intermediate skiers make, and how to fix those mistakes…
By far, the most common mistake we see on the hill is skiers regularly attacking slopes that are outside their ability level. Though it can be tempting to take your newly earned confidence to the expert slopes, most intermediate skiers will be better suited by sticking to intermediate terrain. A major concern here is, obviously, safety; no one wants to finish their run or their season in a sled behind a ski patroller. That said, there are other benefits to staying in appropriate terrain that make it a good idea even if your mindset is more Evil Knievel than Nervous Nellie.
By sticking to familiar terrain, you give yourself the opportunity to practice new skills in an environment where you have the opportunity to experiment. It’s a lot easier to play with your balance and technique on easy terrain than it is when you’re fighting for your life in an icy chute. When skiing in terrain that takes you out of your comfort zone, you are more likely to revert to old, often bad habits simply because they feel safe. On an easy pitch, on the other hand, you will find it much easier to try new things, practice new skills, and make mistakes without hurting yourself.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try new things. Ultimately, the only way to improve is to venture outside your comfort zone from time to time. The key is to make it a balance, with the majority of your skiing taking place on familiar terrain, peppering in a few adventurous forays outside the comfort zone.
2.) Skiing in the Backseat
Skiing in the backseat essentially means leaning too far back as you go down the hill. Virtually every skier on the planet is guilty of this error at some point in their day, and it’s something that you will be working on throughout your progression, but the earlier you start, the easier it will be in the long run. Learning to put pressure on the front of your skis will help you control speed on steeps, maintain control through jumps and drops, and, most importantly, help avoid knee injury, the most common type of ski-related injury.
You can tell that you are skiing int he backseat if:
– You are experiencing shin-bang in variable conditions (shin bang feels a lot like shin splints and results from too much pressure on your calf from the back of your boot).
– You frequently fall backwards.
– You find it difficult to slide your skis through a turn or you pick up your inside ski to change edges.
Achieving a good, aggressive stance on your skis is a goal you will be working on for a while, but here are some tips and drills to get you started. First, practice putting pressure on the front of your boot. Think of it as if you were trying to push your knee downwards towards your toes by flexing your ankle muscles. You know you’re doing it right when you can actually see your boot bend at the ankle hinge. Next, go for a run or two on an easier pitch and try to leap into the air. For the first few jumps, just go straight up and down to get used to the sensation. Then crank the difficulty up a notch by “ollie-ing,” or leaping off the back of your ski, and landing on the front. If you are doing it correctly, the tail of your ski is the last thing to leave the snow, and the tip is the first to land.
3.) Too Much Inside Ski Pressure
As an intermediate skier, you are likely done using the wedge in most skiing scenarios, but the muscle memory from those early turns is probably still present in your skiing. Many intermediate skiers demonstrate what is called “A-frame” skiing. In other words, putting an even amount of weight on both skis.
You may feel as though you are skiing parallel, but until you can eliminate this common error, you will likely still have a little wedge somewhere in your turn. For an expert skier, every turn features a major shift in pressure from one ski to the other. At the widest part of the curve, an expert will likely have more than 90% of their weight on just the outside ski, maintaining just enough pressure on the inside to keep it tracking parallel with the outside. Only for a split second in the transition between turns will they have even pressure on both skis. This skill has a bit to do with technique, and a lot to do with confidence, so the solution is practice practice practice! Learning to balance on the outside ski can be tough, but practicing the following simple drill is guaranteed to make a difference.
As I mentioned earlier, the key to progress is to practice skills on easier-than-usual pitches, and then take those skills to the steeps once you have them down. So, head to a beginner slope and start making turns down. In every turn, try to pick up the inside ski from the snow as many times as you can. Start with one lift, then two, and work your way up from there. Ultimately your goal is to be able to ski every turn with one ski in the snow and the other in the air. To take this drill one step further, try keeping the tip of your inside ski in contact with the snow while you lift the back end into the air.
4.) Turning Shoulders with Skis
One thing you may notice when watching a truly experienced skier navigate a steep pitch is their laser-focused attention downhill. Whether you’re watching Ted Ligety crush gates or Ingrid Backstrom dive down a steep Alaskan face, anyone skiing at a high level will keep their upper body almost vertical, with their shoulders perpendicular to the fall-line of the slope while their legs and hips dance back and forth through the turns. To most, this would appear to be purely a function of optics: they need to see where they are going. In reality, this skill benefits far more than just line planning. The skill we are dealing with here is called upper body-lower body separation, and it can be one of the most beneficial skills to improve at the intermediate level. By separating your movements at the hips, you will be able to keep your legs traveling across and back, arcing tight turns through tricky terrain or long cruising curves over a wider area. You should notice improvements in your traction and control, all while easily maintaining downhill focus.
Many intermediate skiers will find that their shoulders tend to follow their hips, ending each turn facing the side of the piste. To correct this, grab your poles upside down and make a cross. Then, find a spot at the bottom of the pitch you are skiing (the mountain base or lift line work well) and try to keep the crosshairs of your poles pointed at that same spot as you make some careful, low-speed turns across the pitch. You should feel your hips working to keep your upper body pointed downhill while your legs go left and right across the snow. Caution: While doing this drill you still need to be aware of your surroundings, so make sure you don’t succumb to tunnel vision!
5.) Avoiding your Ski School
It can be tempting to imagine that you’ve graduated from Ski School once you can successfully navigate blue and sometimes black terrain without disaster. You’re full of confidence, skiing fast, and having a great time doing it. Why on earth would you need to spend more on classes if you can get by on your own? In truth, practice is important so there’s no need to spend every hour on hill with an instructor, but that doesn’t mean you should steer clear entirely. The intermediate level is the easiest time to develop bad habits that will hurt you later on in your progression. All the skills mentioned above are certainly things you can (and should) practice on your own, but having a second set of eyes once in a while, particularly those of a trained professional, will be invaluable in evaluating your progress, providing feedback, and, most essentially, coaching you through the inevitable frustrations. Rest assured, going from an intermediate to advanced skier takes work, but with an experienced instructor you can ensure that the work you put in will directly impact your goals.