The McClean Turn

| September 28, 2009 | 34 Comments

STOKAGE! Scot Schmidt has the Schmear Turn, the Eagen Brothers are credited with the “1-2-3 Turn” and Sylvan Sudan is synonymous with the Pedal Hop Turn, but until recently, all I had was a stupid website with a hard to spell url.  But no more.  In a bit of a backhanded compliment, the McClean Turn is now defined not by what it is, but what it is not.  From the original context:

Jer and I wanted to ride this with a unique touch. As much as I love the guy and respect everything he’s done, we did not want this to be an McClean 168cm hopped turned descent. We wanted to flash this thing. Edge to edge, continually and fast.

In terms of what it actually is, the McClean turn can be described as:  “A tight series of ultra conservative backcountry turns made at less than one-half of the skiers rated output and in a manner where every turn is fully brought under control before the next one is started.”  In other-words, oLd sKOOl and boring.

Exhibit A - McClean turns at their worst.  photo by Carl Skoog

Exhibit A - McClean turns at their worst. Photo by Carl Skoog.

The McClean* Turn has its roots in the backcountry school of hard knocks.  Like many people, I learned how to ski at the resorts and brought my resort attitude into the backcountry where I spent my first year jumping cornices, center-punching slopes, skiing on the biggest boots and longest skis I could find, and going as fast as possible as often as possible.  I wasn’t there to munch granola and hug trees.  But, after a few too many close calls and being involved in a fatality, I started to ski much more cautiously in the backcountry with the idea being that I wanted fresh legs and plenty of power in reserve if a slope fractured under my feet or if I hit a patch of ice, a rock or snagged a tree.  As I continued backcountry skiing, the actual turns and descent became less important than the overall game of route finding, avalanche assessment, efficient movement and the backcountry experience as a whole. In short, my actual skiing skills started to deteriorate at roughly the same level as my overall backcountry skills appreciated.  Nowadays, one of the reasons I hardly ever go to the resorts is that my skiing skills have diminished to the point that I always feel like I am skiing like a complete hack, which I am.

I felt a little conflicted about this until I saw Pierre Tardivel skiing in La Grave one day.  I was seated on the patio at P2 when someone pointed to the Y Couloir (pronounced “egrete” or something like that) and said it was Tradivel skiing it.  From below (and even from above), it is a strikingly steep, no-fall line and he was skiing it in smooth, steady, cautious turns.  When he dipped out of sight, I put my skis on and waited for him to funnel back to the lift so I could say hello.  In that area, a cat track brings everyone back to the lift, and as he merged with the other skier traffic, it was hard to tell him from any of the other moderate skiers as he has a blocky, conservative, nondescript style of turns that comes from years of skiing steep lines without falling, and this style doesn’t necessarily translate into flashy cat track skiing.  More than anything, I thought it was cool that he had just fired one of the steepest lines at La Grave, then melted into the scenery when he rejoined the rest of the skier traffic.  I decided I wanted to ski like that, and pretty much have ever since.

* The name is unintentionally misspelled, perhaps to protect the guilty.

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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.

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  1. George says:

    I’ve always wondered about this – whether it makes a difference in how aggressively or conservatively you ski a line and the difference in impact upon a slope. For example, in sketchy conditions, does it make a difference between slow and smooth, and fast and smooth?

    Good thought-provoking post!

  2. albert says:

    What’s next? Climbing your lines to know what to expect on the way down? Nice to see someone’s style that is about sustainability, not speed.

  3. doubleA says:

    I agree with you on this one. I make 35 turns where the new school kids make 4. 20 years ago I was involved in a big slide due to a lax attitude- “all about the down”. Now I’m simply happy to move through the mountains efficiently with a high degree of safety.

  4. Shelby says:

    I laughed when I read that statement in Cody’s blog this weekend…..and again when I viewed the his giant green goober suit.

    I agree wholeheartedly with your approach especially since it affords me ski ‘light is right’ stuff.

  5. randosteve says:

    I feel like I do both styles of skiing (lotsa jump turns…and fast, big turns)…depending on conditions and terrain.

    Wouldn’t speed sometimes be your friend when it comes to avalanches…as speed might be able to carry you out of a danger zone rather than being engulfed by it? One could also maybe argue that 10 turns puts less stress on a slope that 100…right? Granted, all it takes is one turn in the ‘sweet spot’ to trigger an avalanche, but…

    Either way…hiking in the green garbage bag thing that Cody had on sure looks…uncomfortable…to say the least.

  6. Ralph S. says:

    Well, I don’t think he wanted to “McClean Turn” anymore than you would wear a lime green onesie, a hat pulled over your ears and call everyone Bro, Bra or Brau. To each their own.

    I like the styles of Baud, Vallencant, Saudan, Boivin, McClean, Saari, and Lowe. For as much as the level of difficulty has been pushed, I believe that the deaths of four of the greats were out of their control. And that is what it condenses to… control. If Cody is comfortable with the level of control he has, good on him.

    Are we seeing sport climbing attitude in the realm of BC skiing? Maybe Alex’s quote can be morphed from climbing and applied; “The best skier is the one having the most fun!”

  7. Andy_L says:

    I am thinking the careers of “Flash” skiers will be much shorter than those of “McClean” turners. :)

  8. Nathan B says:

    Spent the first 4 or 5 years of my steep(ish) skiing career on BD Ethics. After all, hey they worked fine for guys like MildSnow and McClean. Then got a pair of Manaslus last year. Whoa nelly. Realized that all my steep skiing up to that point had been linked recoveries. I could jump turn the BD’s but more often, I tried to link regular turns and that’s where the trouble started. Can much more easily make any type of turn on the Manaslus: long, short, jump turns or keep the skis on the snow. It feels better, safer, less like jumping and pounding the snowpack into submission, to be able to keep the skis on the snow more often and just pivot them around.

  9. Brad says:

    Man, you guys sound old. “Those damn kids these days and their clothes.” The nerve and disrespect of Andy_L to predict the length of somebody’s career, especially when many of the sports pioneers have succumbed to the mountains with or without FLASH turns.

    I agree with Rando Steve, “flashing” a slope, while in control, puts less stress on the snowpack than many high impact jump turns.

  10. Cliff Huckstable says:

    The Lil’C Turn – A pride-swallowing act of desperate course change in the face of certain death, or at least, guaranteed embarrassment. Sometimes, this turn is executed in a powder cloud of shameless slope defacement, in which case the graceless contortions of balance that yield the “turn” are invisible to onlookers. Other times, the turn is executed in firmer snow conditions that lay bare every nuance of the hacker’s poor technique. The Lil’C-turner skis firm snow only with trusted partners that have signed non-discloser agreements. Typically, the Lil’C practitioner would turn more often if they could, if for for no purpose other than checking speed, but in fact, turns less because the more Lil’C turns that are executed, the greater the likelihood of stacking it up in an ignominious mid-slope bomb blast which sends goggle sponsors running for the phone to limit distribution of the incriminating photographs.

  11. CodyT says:

    Love the article Andrew and sorry for the misspelling. Perhaps it was a sub-conscious misstep that directed an image not at a man, but at a legendary turn. As far as turns go, I agree with RandoSteve’s application of the quote from Alex Lowe. It’s one of the reasons I find skiing so magical. Every single skier out there has their own, deeply personal and deeply individual way of making themselves happy while sliding on snow and flying through the air.

    As far as the fart-bag hiking goes, it’s not so bad. And hey, what doesn’t kill ya makes ya stronger right?

  12. CodyT says:

    edit- whoops, Ralph S.’s application of Lowe’s quote.

  13. Mark H says:

    If Cody tried to “flash” all of the lines Andrew has skied I doubt he would survive.

    One day I met a TGR camerman on the Obelisk. He was about to film Jamie Pierre skiing the Needle. Pierre had been dreaming of the line for years and he planned to only put about 3 turns in the chute. Uh yea…..it was more like 10 turns (although he seriously opened it up on the bottom 2/3, fun to watch!) I think Pierre also said he’s not going to huck anything over 50 feet from now on. Seems like a significant attitude change for him.

    It’s interesting to see how the backcountry gradually molds someone’s “resort attitude” toward a McLean attitude.

  14. David says:

    I thought the McClean Turn was already trademarked over at mildsnow…

  15. ptor says:

    I’d have to agree with Rando Steve. Milking a zillion “safe” turns maximixes your exposure, makes tons more pressure points on the slope and leaves you with nearly zero kinetic energy to help actively deal with an avalanche. I sure can’t figure out how increasing the frequency of turns and fighting gravity keeps your legs fresh.
    Of course on exposed firm steeps were all reduced to McClean turns, but aside from that, what’s the point of skiing if one never evolves the way they ski. Nothing to do with being wreckless or out of control or diminishing the rest of the wonderfull aspects and necessary awarenesses of backcountry skiing, but personally I’ll say thanks universe for snowboarders (for showing us how to ride mountains properly) and fat skis (for the tools to do it right), otherwise skiing would be very Austrian (ya, boring and trapped in ze fall-line).

    Actually learning to snowboard was a big step in evolving my own skiing and I recommend it to every skier.

    Then there’s the notion of the pursuit of skiing things in good conditions to avoid being forced into McLean turns. My favourite run down the ygrek in La Grave was in sweet pow when only 7 turns were necessary.

  16. TC says:

    Sarcasm meter check……..hello, is this thing on?

  17. SS says:

    he can get away with “flashing” on that chute because its not as steep as he thinks….Cody says its 45-50 degrees, but from what i’ve heard from folks i know are reputable the angle is in the high 30’s…i thought it’s kind of amusing he hikes and doesn’t seem to have Dynafits nor skins – i guess that’s the new(bie) generation

  18. Andrew says:

    This wasn’t meant to harsh on anyone, but more an explanation of why I turn the way I do. As far as one-piecers go, I would still be skiing in one if Mountain Hardwear made them as they are super warm, require almost no underlayers and you can fully batten down the hatches if you want.

    I still like to go fast, but mainly at the resorts.

    As far as going fast in an effort to maintain speed so you can get out of an avalanche, uhmmm, that may be, but I’d put it at about 1% level of anti-burial effectiveness. Avalanches have been clocked at 80+ mph, which is going to be pretty hard to out ski.

    But, fully and completely, to each his/her own. I didn’t mean to imply any hurt feelings on my part.

  19. Nathan B says:

    Andrew (prepare to be fanboyed here, oh well) the McClean Turn is actually evidence of what a good skier you are. It ssems like not many folks these days have the coordination, strength and/or smoothness required to link such compact turns on the skinny & short planks you seem to prefer, especially on mid-angle slopes like the one pictured. All that jumping is hard work, you’re sinking deeper with every move and pushing more snow around, and your skis are a lot wobblier.

  20. Andrew says:

    But Ptor, from the photo of Robson in Wildsnow (the book), it appears you were skiing slowly and cautiously. Perhaps there is a time and place for knowing when to hit the gas and when to hit the brakes?

  21. ptor says:

    Oh yeah, I agree 100% to be in total control, adjusting turns for conditions and descent. I also believe in making nice turns regardless of speed. Personally, I’m super cautious in many circumstances but I ski like a scared rabbit when there is avalanche hazard. The speed idea is not about outrunning avalanches, it’s about having the potential to ski off the slab or get ahead of it when you trigger it or is triggered (not to mention reducing the amount of exposure time). I’ll even go so far as to say, why not try to outrun an avalanche if you have to. Not all ‘dangerous’ avalanches get going that fast and destroy an acre of forest. Many burials happen in smaller innocuous terrain and terrain traps.

    Proper ski cuts are always made with the momentum to both weight the slope and continue to a safe zone. In that sense, a timid start puts you in way more danger. I try to ski like I’m making ski cuts the whole way down.
    If one is able to controll large radius turns, as well as short ones, then they can avoid potential trigger zones and ski strategically.
    I never had any inkling of endorsing out of controll skiing but I’ll still say speed can be your friend and with modern fat skis there’s a whole new world of dynamic energy skiing to be had (that has to be learned and mastered as well). Also I’d say the burial percentage thing could be way more significant between skiers with fat and conventional skis. I’ll take an extra percent anyways even though I don’t indulge figures in my safety approach.

  22. Chuteski says:

    Now if you could just learn to do a 360… do they still call it that?

  23. OMR says:

    Free the mind and the turn will shorten.

  24. You are way less likely to get injured making noodle, wiggle, mclean or whatever turn that is really small. You can probably get away with ripping it in the BC but gunning it through blower pow at full speed in terrain that your not sure what is below that fluffy white snow is a BAD idea. Most of us have been or have helped get other injured people out of the mountains and it sucks. Out of the years touring with small circle of partners all of the injures we’ve had have been from skiing too fast. A blown knee or worse sucks out there. If your skiing perfect corn down Avy Gulch let er rip!!! If its your first trip to a new area in blower pow and you have no local knowledge, chill out rocks and sticks hurt at fast or slow speeds. Just know that if you or your friends messes up then somebodys gotta getcha outa there.

  25. Dave Hubbell says:

    From my own observations in and around the powder circuit, I always thought the term “McLeaning” refered to skiing down (not-so-fast) at almost the same speed that you climbed up (pretty damn fast) and going back occasionally to see when everyone behind you was going to catch up ;)

  26. d3 says:

    yeah 360!–or helicopter. or why not try a backscratcher, bruh?

    i seriously thought mira had started the season already with the new snow yesterday, given the title.

  27. M.M. says:

    I think Delores LaChapelle nailed it. The turn is a balance of all things………including raging testosterone.

  28. Mike Kaz says:

    I agree with the “make-the-appropriate-turns-for-the-terrain/conditons” crowd above. That was a mouthful. What makes a strong skier is the ability to adapt to terrain, pitch and conditions and make it look like they are skiing mellow terrain.

    I don’t think it’s ever a question of the “best” skier, I think we could all agree there is no such thing…unless someone wants to discuss La Bomba. ; )

    Success in the mountains requires a myriad of skills, luck and good judgement…all challenging descents should be celebrated as that regardless of type of turns. I think that’s where the morphed quote from Alex Lowe would apply…enjoy your time in the snow, play safe and ski well.

    I also think I have heard the McClean turn referred to as a “Guide-Turn”.

  29. Darrell says:

    If it works it’s technique.
    My fave is to try to get all of my extremities pointed in different directions at the apex of the turn and then at the last possible moment, line every thing up and then drop my knee so it looks cool.
    I also enjoy short turns to a rock and then transitioning to crampons.

  30. Christopher3000 says:

    Skiing without turning is like sex without thrusting, or “soaking.” For me, and i think for most people who do a large portion of their skiing in untrakced powder, the best moment of any turn is at the end of the turn, when the skis are unweighted; that moment when skis are floating through snow as they cross the fall-line, hands come back to center, knees tuck upward toward the chest, the skier emerges from a cloud momentarily….When I’m skiing slopes like those most common in Utah’s Northern Powder Circuit–fairly short, about 38 degrees, lots and lots of snow–I like to make a bunch of little turns so that I have more of those moments. When I’m out skiing in upper Days Fork in BCC, for example, and I see someone in a fart bag on K2 Hellbents make three turns down a short slope, shrug their shoulders in boredom, and then hike back up to ski out to Alta on sloppy south facing junk, I wonder why they bothered to make the hike in the first place. Blasting Dancehall Reggae from the back of your Jeep Wrangler on the side of 210 having just flashed Two Dogs must feel pretty good.

    There are other places in the Wasatch where skiing really fast and making fewer turns makes sense. But, more and more I find myself enjoying those moments of weightlessness between turns, and on the rare occasion when I find myself amidst an uninterrupted, 3000 foot fall-line, I still make more turns than I might have planned.

  31. Dick says:

    Aaahh here’s the rub – let’s be current and call it Brain Entrainment. By way of background: my affair with off-piste powder began around 1974 on fischer cut 70s, reached some refinement on 205 cm dynamic VR27s in the 80s, and is now expressed on a pair of fritschis and lovely red volkl mountains. Old school stuff indeed.

    Here’s my take on the ingredients:
    Physical rhythm, rhythm, rhythm, in the x,y,z planes;
    Sinking, sinking, sinking, to center;
    Sine wave; and
    Silence.

    Take the above add powder and voila: brainwave change and altered state. I reference dancing dervishes, Buddhist monks, and an assortment of western and traditional science explorations on this subject.

    It’s my experience that it takes approximately 17 – 20 turns before the gate to this state appears. If this turn sequence is to appear it is usuallly well into a run once you have released and are no longer contemplating line, snow conditions, technique, oxygen, pussy, etc, etc.

    The gate appears as mountain, snow, and gravity matrix, and echo; that’s it that is us now. Such a state is elusive. It is a gift and after 35 years more often than not I am closed to its reception.

    For me this condition is both qualitatively and quantitatively different from the rush associated with adrenaline and endorphin releases. The rush is prevalent in a range of human activities and becomes clarified or hypered in those that are life threatening. I like this stuff to, but it is not the same. The concept of the “Zone” as discussed in high performance athletics also shares some characteristics of this state, but only some. My experience of the zone(excluding the high performance part) seems more akin to managing endogenous chemistry combined with muscle memory – Gladwell’s notion of 10,000 hours applied in a physical setting type a thing.

    Metaphysical bumphh you say? Yeah, perhaps. But really just some thoughts from the Alberta Rockies as we await winter. Here are some caveats and notes, hope they are of value.

    Caveat 1: The above state does not require, and indeed may be hindered by, the consumption of psycho-active materials both natural and man-made.

    Caveat 2: The intake of psycho-active materials while attempting this state is conducive to realizing Caveat 1. I recommend natural only.

    Note 1: See OMR’s comments preceding for a proper inversed synthesis of this subject.

    Note 2: Yes it is the Guides turn and it lends itself to longevity. Mr. McClean appears to represent it well.

  32. Jim P. says:

    This will be, for me, year 50 of pursuing those fleeting, rare moments of existential bliss, when snow, companions, place, technique, and focus combine to produce the experience Dick is talking about. The optimum turn is the one that best creates that moment of transcendance. For me, that turn is usually like the McLean turn described. But not always. It is a result of my own sking background. Schooled on 1958 210cm Hart standards, Raichle leather doubleboots, and Marker explodomat front throw cables. Lots of years racing before shaped skis, 30 some years telemarking. Now I ski Dynafits, rockered mid-fats, and those new orange Scarpas. The gear just makes the moment of transcendance easier to get to. Why blast in 20 seconds an altered state that otherwise lasts a minute? They come too rarely anyway.

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