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BACK 40: Steep Skiing 101

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By Derek Lennon Explore Big Sky Contributor

For many skiers, the challenge of skiing steep terrain and subsequent freefalling sensation drives them to push the limits. Going airborne on a steep slope is a heart-thumping experience that makes you feel alive. Steep skiing can become an obsession that will have you grinning from ear to ear, year after year.

Everyone has a different definition of steep, whether it’s a terrifying black diamond run or a remote backcountry couloir with no-fall zones. This is what makes skiing a unique and magical sport. No one wants to fall, but steep skiing is often more a mental than physical game.

The one thing all skiers can control is their technique. Learning proper technique is a lifelong pursuit. The more you ski the better skier you’ll be.

The next time you’re feeling intimidated on a steep slope, take a deep breath, relax, and focus on these steep skiing tips:

Look two turns ahead. When you look to the bottom of a steep run, it’s overwhelming. Try to focus on looking just two turns ahead, tackling the slope in increments.

Keep your “hands” on the “handlebars.” When you have your hands on the handlebars of a bike you have control. When you’re skiing, relax your ankles and maintain contact between your shins (“hands”) and the tongues of your boots (“handlebars”) at all times. Now you have the ability to steer.

Turn your feet. The fastest way to get your feet across the slope is to turn your feet. This pivoting movement comes from rotating your femur in your hip socket starting when your skis are flat. As you do this, maintain a quiet upper body with your bellybutton pointed downhill.

Hands up. Make sure you can see both of your hands in your peripheral vision at all times. Think about keeping your elbows in front of your spine.

Don’t let your uphill pole drag. When your uphill pole acts more like a rudder than a ski pole, you’ll feel it dragging on the snow surface. Hold your uphill pole parallel to the slope. This will help you to stay stacked and balanced over your outside ski.

Bring your pole plant closer. If you plant your pole far down the hill, the result is a larger turn. Bring your pole plant closer to your ski, because it will shorten the radius of your turn and give you more control.

Take it one turn at a time. Committing to the turn is the most intimidating part of skiing the steeps. Relax, breathe, and make the first turn. Find your rhythm and you’ll flow down the fall line.

Now it’s time to ski. Take time to master the skills and dial in the techniques that you need to survive the steeps. Start on simple terrain and gradually increase the pitch of the slope. Be patient, be confident, and please wear a helmet.

Derek Lennon is a skier and writer who lives, works and plays in the mountains of the world. He chases the endless winter as a ski instructor at Big Sky Resort in Montana and as the lead guide at Ski Arpa in Chile. Follow Derek’s backcountry adventures at

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