Skiing efficiently, beautifully and safely in the backcountry requires experience. That’s why we reached out to Jessica Baker—a former freesking world champion and Lead Exum Guide—to learn about her helpful techniques for improving on the slopes. Baker grew up on skis, and her wealth of knowledge is apparent when she dives into the fundamentals of making great turns in Part 2 of the Exum Files.
For Part 2 of the Exum Files, we turn to Lead Exum Guide Jessica Baker, a former North American and World Tour Freeskiing Champion, who also happens to be an Intermountain West PSIA examiner/trainer. Jessica has spent a majority of her waking life on skis, learning to read and adapt to the ever-changing medium of snow. Here she helps us get a handle on how to apply proper techniques so we can better thrive in the wild mountains.
What can novice and experienced backcountry skiers alike work on to improve their game?
Whether you’re experienced or novice, the ability to read your snow conditions can have a big impact on the technique you apply to the snow condition. For example, if you are about to ski perfect knee-deep powder, then you can be confident that you will be able to float and use a very light, bouncy, fluid, and less completed turn in order to take advantage of this condition. That’s the easy part. So let’s flip the script. If you detect intermittent breakable crust, then you know that you need to soften your edge angles, and apply pressure more evenly to both of your skis simultaneously, without making any abrupt or exaggerated moves.
So you don’t break through the crust?
Exactly. Or, if you know that you’ll be experiencing firm, re-frozen snow in the spring, or windswept, packed snow, then you need to bring more pressure to your game, applying more force along the length of the skis, more edge angle, and applying a more shaped turn in order to control your speed on that firm surface.
We often think that good balance is everything in skiing, but it’s just a piece of the pie. Why?
Balance is your foundation, but it will not make you a good skier alone. You won’t get too far without the remaining technical elements in skiing. If you picture balance as the center focal point for all skiing technique, then you must have the ability to turn the skis, to speed up, to slow down, to adjust the pressure you apply to the skis, the ability to control the skis through a variety of terrain and conditions.
What are the three core elements in good “steering” technique, and can you break them down?
Steering really is the symbiotic combination of your rotational movements, pressure control, and edge control:
- Rotation of the lower body: along with your muscles it’s the use of your feet, ankles, and hip joints to apply a twisting or rotational movement into and out of the direction of the turn.
- Pressure control: the ability to apply more or less pressure deliberately in a specific part of your turn is key in your steering ability. The average skier tends to apply too much pressure at the bottom of his or her turn, and therefore doesn’t have the versatility to mix up their turn shape, or speed control, especially in steeper and tighter terrain. Pressure control generally comes from flexion and extension movements in your ankles, knees and waist, as well as where you direct the pressure (down the hill, out to the side, above you, below you, etc.).
- Edge engagement and release: The ability to steer also greatly relies on what you do with the edges of your skis. You cannot begin to steer a new turn without releasing your edge angles from the previous turn. Likewise, if you don’t engage your edges as you apply rotational movements to the turn, then you won’t be able to hold the turn shape, wash out, or send yourself much further down the hill than you may want to go.
How can knowing the mechanical nuances of edge engagement, center of mass control and pressure, make you a better technical skier?
An expert skier can weave these technical elements in a way that creates the best combination for the conditions and terrain at the time. In all honesty, it takes time to develop the sensitivity to know which combinations you will need at any given moment, but knowing these nuances can help you adjust accordingly when the conditions and terrain call for a different combination.
How do skiers apply that knowledge and pair it with the mental game when skiing more technical or consequential terrain?
If you’re about to ski a tight, steep couloir that demands your attention, then having your technique dialed will help you focus more on the mental and tactical task at hand. You know you need a tighter turn radius, that the rate and timing of all movements will need to be quicker in order to complete each turn within the corridor. You need to apply pressure into the front of the skis earlier in the turn, and then succinctly, release the pressure earlier in order to initiate the next turn. Your edges need to help facilitate the shape of the turn you want, and will help keep you in the precise location you want to be in, and greatly help with direction changes, and speed control.
So, when I have all of that in place, I can then focus on the mental aspect, working confidently through each turn, navigating my next move, discerning conditions as I descend, and staying focused on the task, rather than fear or doubt.
How do terrain variations determine what you’re doing?
While there are inherent techniques to accomplish good skiing no matter what the terrain, there are also distinct technical adjustments needed to tackle different types of terrain and snow conditions.
Can you give examples?
In general, if you are skiing a wide-open slope that is less than 35 degrees in pitch, then you have a lot more room to maneuver, adjust, and choose which type of turn shape, how much speed control, and what style you want to tackle the slope. But when you start to ramp up the pitch of a slope (greater than 35 degrees), or you start to narrow the corridor that you are skiing, then your adjustments need to match what your terrain demands.
What about couloirs or chutes?
You need a more rapid rate of the movements in order to make the move in time. Turn shape needs to be shorter with a tighter radius, pressure control needs to be fluid and timed early, and released early in order to make the next turn. (Getting stuck in the bottom of one turn, with too much pressure built up at the bottom of the turn will result in a difficult transition to your next turn, and possibly even missing that next turn).
Tree skiing is like a series of random tight corridors that you continually reassess. Look ahead for your windows (not at the trees). Be ready to adjust the rate and timing of your movements at random, as the corridors vary in length and width. You may need to soften your edge angle at times and throw in a stronger pivot/rotational move with the lower body in order to scrub speed and adjust direction at the same time.
Does avalanche hazard play into technique?
If you are going to ski on a higher hazard day, then you shouldn’t be in avalanche terrain. If you are concerned about a slope avalanching on you and you cannot avoid skiing that slope, then other than avoidance, your next best tactic is to ski one at a time, and ski it lightly.
What do you mean by that?
Pressure control. If you are applying all the pressure at the end of your turn, or building up most of the pressure to the end of the turn, then you’re inevitably going to put more force on the slope at that point. Whereas, if you can apply pressure more evenly throughout the turn, without a big push at the end of the turn, then you will spread out some of that force, and won’t be applying as much into one spot on the slope. All that said, it’s still best to avoid avalanche terrain on higher hazard days.
Does this apply to my edge angles as well?
Yes. Lessening your edge angles will avoid higher pressure along those edges and will help spread the pressure along the whole surface of the base of your skis. While this idea is a last resort tactic—it is important to understand the more fluid and light you are on your skis, the less likely you will be to affect a weak layer in the snow pack.
—Interview by Jeff Burke
Jessica Baker hosts a women’s only backcountry ski clinic in early February. You can find more info here.
Exum Guides hosts the ultimate 3-day Ski Mountaineering clinic in the Tetons every winter. For more information visit:http://exumguides.com/ublminxportfolios/ski-mountaineering-clinic/