How to stop the slide?

...with British IFMGA mountain guide Martin Chester

A skier in yellow and orange has fallen and is sliding down a steep hill, equipment akimbo

Whoa there! Rocketing down a slope on your backside is less than ideal, so here’s how to stay on the up and up

We’ve all watched on in horror (or hopefully in humour, if all ends well) as some poor skier has slid at rocket-speed down the slope on their arse. But do this in the wrong place and even the most benign slide can have hefty consequences at the bottom, depending on where you end up, or how quickly you come to rest. 

The reality is that there is a lot you can do to stop yourself sliding or, at the very least, seriously reduce the consequences. Like any set of skills, they require practice to master. 

Before we get bogged down in the details – don’t dawdle! We accelerate pretty quick, so the sooner you can chop on and do something, the better! Many ski schools and steep ski clinics will teach the aikido roll: if you’re going, then embrace the tumble and go full roll – to land back on your feet before you even begin to slide. 

But on firm snow, or an icy piste, we may be whooshing downhill before we can get past the what of WTF!? Good news is that the basic principles are very simple… 

Basic principles

1) Stop the spin 

Flick flak’s might look cool in the movies? And if you have a 1km Alaskan spine buried under the softest pow, by all means fill your jacket. But if you’re flipping down at rocks, ice or trees, it ain’t so funny. Make like a starfish with rigor mortis and get back in control. Throw your limbs out wide to stop the tumble. If we are still sliding, then it’s time to get our feet downhill and squeeze the brakes on. 

2) Get your head uphill of your feet 

Throw your hands and arms up the slope. Sure, you can try to get a grip with your fingers or drag a pole if you still have one. The ideal is a combination of the two: throw and grip! 

Let’s pause to chat poles and leashes. Personally, I rarely (if ever) wear ski pole leashes. Truth is, with leashes on you will keep your poles on your wrists, but likely get tangled up with them buried beneath you. It’s pretty tricky to use them however you wish. Sure, without your leashes, there is a risk of losing the poles, but you also maintain the choice to jettison or not when things get messy. You also get the choice to grab the pole however you like; slide your hands to one end or another, and get a grip of the slope with spike or handle. 

Reality is, pole or not, if you throw your arms uphill with enough determination and vigour (urgency) it’s like a diver throwing a tumble; or a park rat pre-rotating and initiating a spin. Wherever you throw your head and shoulders, the rest of your body will follow.  

Now is the time to capitalise on the slide to aid the spin. Keep those feet (boots or skis) up and off the slope. If they drag, they will just stay uphill and leave you hurtling head first! Fight like mad to keep your head up the slope because, whatever happens next, it’s better to absorb any impact on your feet (and absorb with your legs) than hit with your head and absorb with your spine! 

3) Coming to a stop 

Now your feet are downhill we need to squeeze the brakes on. I say squeeze, not stamp, because doing anything too sudden risks another cartwheel and going back to stage one – repeatedly. Like an emergency stop in the car you need to balance braking with traction. Take it slow(ish) but determined. At best, we want to stop completely but, at worst, this is going to slow things down and reduce any impact. So hang on in there for as long as it takes. 

How best to brake depends on how you have ended up: If you still have your skis on, it’s crazy tricky trying to get the edges to grip. Go and try it for practice. Your only real chance is to push away from the slope with your hands. You need to get your hips high enough to enable your ski edges to contact the snow (see image). 

Ironically, things are easier without skis. In your ski boots, try and flip over onto your front (it’s easier than it sounds if you do it with gusto) and get into a press-up position. With feet shoulder width apart, slowly push up into a plank, and keep pressing your hips up towards a downward dog. You won’t get that far, but the steady pressure will roll you up on your toes and slowly force the toes of your boots to grip more and more as you come to rest. By this stage it’ll look more ‘cat on a hot tin roof’ than downward dog – but who cares how it looks if it works! 

Stay covered… And practice

It is worth noting that all that dragging of your palms or fingertips in spring snow (or especially icy terrain) will take its toll. Anyone who has been there will know that an icy-piste has the sharp granular texture of tarmac. Never again will you want to ski (nor let any of your loved one’s ski) in short sleeves or without gloves. If you don’t get it – then you are the lucky ones: heed this advice, stay covered up, and we can spare you the pain! 

Finally, knowledge is the first step to success – the rest only comes with practice. Go and find a suitably steep and slippery slope, with a friendly and benign runout. The idea is a bowl of firm or spring snow, rising steeply at the top, but flattening out at the bottom before too long. That way you can throw a few laps, starting with the braking process: feet first on your front; then a simple slide on your bum before you flip. Then throw a few different shapes: headfirst on your front; headfirst on your back; skis on; skis off in any combination. 

It won’t take you long. It will make you giggle like a kid. And, one day, it might just save your bacon!

Good luck…