Steep Skiing 101 – Part II

| March 3, 2009

Regardless of technique, one of the hardest things about steep skiing is committing to the first turn.  Unlike climbing where you start at the bottom and slowly gain more exposure as you go up, with steep skiing, you are looking at the taking the maximum whipper if you blow the first move.  I personally love this aspect of the sport.  :)

The first turn with no warm-up and maximum exposure = no mercy.

There are a bunch of tricks to taking the sting out of the first turn.  My favorite, if it is at all possible, is to find a descent which allows you to make a few warm-up turns before getting down to business.  This is especially important with backcountry skiing as something like a boot left in tour mode or snagging a pole on a pack strap can ruin your day.  Even if it is just a turn or two, try to reef on your gear as much as possible just to make sure everything is buttoned up tight.

Technique-wise, Hilaree O’Neill had a great tip, which was to make a modified Stem Christie turn.  Stem Christies, in case you have forgotten, are snowplow turns, then going back to parallel skis in between.  This technique works as it forces your body out and over your skis in a controlled manner and gets you moving downhill.  It is also a good technique in deep or heavy snow when you might have trouble “clearing” your skis from the snowpack.  Once you get moving, you tend to stay on top, so it is mainly just the first turn that needs to be done this way.

Derek Weiss with a lot on his mind in the Cortex Couloir, Great Basin National Park, NV.

But, more than anything, the first turn is a game of mental warfare, especially if you are staring at a 3,000′ void.  The key is to relax.  Remind yourself that you are here because you want to be (hopefully) and that you have made millions of turns before and this one will be no different (hopefully).  Even though your mind may be firing hard on all cylinders, try to take a breath, relax, clear your mind of everything… and just do it.  If it goes well (hopefully) every turn gets a little bit easier and after you’ve made a dozen or so, the fear has subsided and the skiing becomes a blast.

Help support and keep your head together with a Petzl Ecrin Roc Climbing Helmet on sale now at Click on the photo below…


Category: 06 Downhill

About the Author ()

Andrew McLean lives in Park City, Utah and is a gear designer, writer, photographer, ski mountaineer, climber, Mountain Unicycle rider and father of two very loud little girls.

Comments (18)

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  1. mc says:

    So back to yesterday, what’s the plan AFTER you unweight? (Other than not taking a screamer!)

  2. Alex says:

    The second picture made me soil my trousers.

  3. Andrew_L says:

    I’ve been using a modified stem in my steep turns for a long time. I find it especially effective on poor, crusty, or otherwise grabby snow where it’s hard to get a nice clean release. The only real problem with putting in a stem is it doesn’t look as good in pictures or video. :)

  4. Derek says:

    Good post Andrew…..The first is the worst….but I think in the last photo, the “first turn” never happened;)

  5. Andrew says:

    MC – that’s a good topic for Part III. :)
    Until then, after I unweight, I try to get my skis around (180 degrees) as fast and as smoothly as possible. Nothing fancy.

  6. Andrew says:

    Hi Derek – Yeah, there weren’t a whole lot of turns going on in that chute! Still, it was a good one, eh?

  7. Rob says:

    Jeesh…talk about a gnarly start to your sesh. My trick is always to take my first turn immediately. That is, if, for example, there’s a lip, instead of going straight on the angle over the lip I’ll throw in the first turn over the crest of the lip which isn’t too bad, but gets that first turn out of the way. I’m not sure what I’d do in a situation where you have to basically be on repel just to get your skis on. Maybe stay on repel?
    – R

  8. Derek says:


    Yeah, it was fun, in the dumbest kind of way. Learned a bag of new “passing the tools” tricks.

  9. Sam Reese says:

    I so love the stem christie for starting into steep stuff, mostly because I can’t be bothered to do the kung-fu kick.

    I somewhat disagree with your saying that climbing starts out easy and gains exposure. Sure, mentally, it does, but you are exposed to way more danger 8-20 feet off the deck than you are 3,000 feet off the deck. Ground falls cause most of the injuries, and so long as you place you gear well, it’s not ground fall territory by the time you get high enough to appreciate exposure. Taking a big whipper from the top of a hard (vert or over) route is no biggie, where grinding down a slab or grounding off the second piece are pretty serious.

  10. Christy says:

    When you talk about starting out with a stem christie turn for the first turn… how does this work when it’s really, really steep? I have been finding the first turns to be the most difficult, and I can totally see throwing in if the slope angle is not terrible (40-ish or so), but once you get to 50ish, does that still work? It seems like when it’s that steep you just have to push out and get totally off the snow.

  11. Darrell says:

    One technique I like to use sometimes is to make a sideways hop first before I commit to an actual turn. Basically I just flex into my boots, jump up and sideways just enough to clear the snow and land in a centered balanced position. This gives me a feel for how my edges are reacting to the snow surface and gets me in a nice centered position before I commit to the first real turn.

  12. Andrew says:

    Sam – I was talking more about without a rope as that is basically what steep skiing is – free soloing.

  13. Andrew says:

    Hi Christy – The modified Stem Christie doesn’t work very well on super steep slopes as you have no where to actually move your uphill ski as it is trapped against the wall by your lower leg. On terrain like this, hop turns are your best option as you’d build up way too much speed with a full-on carved turn.

  14. Rob says:

    Speaking of ropes, if one is skiing a glacier (and I’m not talking an in bounds, patrolled glacier, or even a well flagged back country glacier, I’m talking about an ass-end-of-nowhere, first-to-ski-in-a-decade glacier), can you ski roped up? If not is there a good technique for crevasse safety while skiing a glacier?
    – R

  15. Nick L says:

    Hi Rob – yes you can and yes there is! It isn’t really any different from traveling roped over a glacier when not on ski but there are a few extra things to bear in mind. Skinning up is no big deal, but obviously you need to be in sync with your partner for the descent as it can be a major PITA. For glacier travel technique, best to check out the various texts by the likes of Andy Tyson; Martin Volken; Kathy Cosley & Mark Houston; or Andy Selters. Oh, and spend a day with a guide to finesse it all. Enjoy:o)

  16. gringo says:

    first turn indeed…nothing like the feeling of the old skooch, skooch, plant,skooch, plant, plant, TURN! OH GOD YES! breath, turn , rip, huck, etc….

  17. David L says:

    Great stuff Andrew. Age and new body parts have put me out of even thinking about this kind of activity. Your description of fear brought back butterfly memories of even the short Alpental chutes. Keep it up so I can still dream of steep skiing.

  18. Andrew says:

    Hi Dave – There’s nothing quite like the Alpy chutes, eh?

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