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Adjusting tactics for all-mountain skiing

This is an excerpt from Total Skiing by Chris Fellows.

The core competencies built in this chapter are based on earlier work in functional movement, fitness, and technique. The chasm between these essentials and the competencies of skiing tactics is not as wide as it may initially seem. The first step is to look beyond your personal space bubble. You must shift your mindset from just moving your body to the challenges that are coming toward you, quickly setting a plan in motion for realistically solving the task. Looking at the situation is different than seeing both the situation and the solution. Reading terrain is the first concept in tactics. Turn shape comes next, providing the options for directional control needed for tight, wide, slow, and fast turns. Speed management follows, which involves the descent skills that provide a three-phase dial for speed control. These phases help you control your intensity, speed, and energy down the slope. Although they all come from the same tactical family, each level of ability has different skill competencies. Finally, line choice comes into play, since it relates to your level of commitment and skill. As you progress, your creativity and inspiration will grow, opening up new challenges and possibilities not yet seen.

The starting point for developing a tactical toolbox is identifying strengths and weaknesses in your skill set. The assessments for reading the terrain, applying turn shapes, managing speed, and choosing your line provide the glue that bonds the other pyramid blocks together. Surveying the fundamentals needed to negotiate various terrain and conditions and reading the tactical abilities described for each creates a total picture of your skiing type.

Although scoring for tactics is even more subjective than for techniques, some key points will help you quantify each score. Certain abilities or faults will increase or lower your score. For example, if you cannot control your speed or lose control quickly, you will lose points in speed management. If you can only perform one type of turn, you will score lower in turn shape. Interpret the scores loosely based on the mountain you are skiing and the difficulty of the conditions on that day. The assessments merely serve as a guide to help you identify your tactical baseline. Use them as a starting point for future development. If you never get off the beaten track, you limit yourself to one stage of the skiing experience. When assessing your tactical ability, you will fall in one of three scoring categories:

  • Score of 3. You have a wide range of experiences off groomed snow already. You can apply appropriate technique to situations as they arise.
  • Score of 2. You have some experience off groomed terrain, but you don’t necessarily own the tactics needed for upper-level terrain challenges.
  • Score of 1.You are beginning to venture out into tougher conditions and terrain. You are also developing basic knowledge of how to adapt your technique to all-terrain skiing.

Reading the Terrain

Groomed and even slopes with a single fall line are the basic playing field in the sport of skiing. If you add in the challenges inherent in off the groomed terrain, you enter the realm of three-dimensional skiing. Ungroomed runs can be slightly uneven with a smattering of small moguls and pitch changes or they can be gauntlets of tight bumps, steep rollovers, narrow passages, double fall lines, and variable conditions. Reading terrain takes practice. A good place to start is by scanning the complete slope from two perspectives:

1. Soft focus. Look at the total parameters of the slope, including the length, width, pitch, and overall condition. These observations will give you a sense of which overall game plan might work best.

2. Hard focus. Look for details, such as spacing between obstacles like bumps, rocks, trees, ridges, and spines. The detailed view provides hints about specific tactics.

If you cannot identify the features of a run that will hurt or help you, your chances of success are less than average. Planning your moves in various conditions and terrain will help your run. Charging into a piece of terrain without noting subtleties hidden in the natural underworld is dangerous and cocky. Taking the time to scope out your descent provides a road map of the tactics needed for a successful run, resulting in a magnificent skiing experience.

Skiers who don’t visualize their runs often start off on the wrong foot, jumping into a run without a second thought. They ski in reaction mode until the speed, terrain, or conditions overwhelm them and they fall or are forced to stop. Skiers who visualize know what they want to do and how to accomplish it. Good visual skills differ from good eyesight. They require the ability to scan the terrain before you, observe it, and process valuable cues to create a plan of attack.

Take a few seconds to scan your run and visualize how you will attack it. Begin your first turns with controlled excitement, and then establish a rhythm you can sustain for the complete run. Finally, finish with strength and balance. As you stand at the top of your chosen run, visualize with detail how a successful run will feel, sound, look, and even smell. This practice run in your mind’s eye prepares you for the real thing.

Applying Turn Shape

One of the first tactical choices after reading the terrain and the contours of the slope is the type, sequence, and shape of turn you will make for a successful and controlled run. Each mountain situation presents its own array of terrain configurations that must be approached like moves in a chess game. Like players with only one game strategy, beginning skiers always turn with the same intensity, speed, shape, and line. Although they feel at home in this arena, it limits their on-mountain experience. As you progress in skill, begin to venture outside the parameters of the basic turn to apply multiple shapes, sizes, speeds, and lines while maintaining proper mechanics. Experienced skiers have a solid command of the various turns. They can utilize their honed skills to create a unique signature on the mountain and to interpret good tactics.

S-Shaped Turns

Varied terrain requires active turning with both legs that is rhythmic and consistent. The most efficient way to accomplish this is by practicing a turn shape that can be repeated, built on, and adapted to a pitch. To seamlessly enter and exit each turn, feather the top of the turn and progressively tip your edges into the snow, beginning a carve. Too much edge will make you pick up speed like a kid on a garbage bag. If you have too much skid, you will never achieve rhythm. The right blend of edge and skid results in a round, S-shaped turn that maintains rhythm and manages speed (see figure 5.1).

J- and Z-Shaped Turns

The J-shaped turn is best described as the path surfers take as they shoot down the face of the wave, fishhook, and pivot the board at the bottom of the wave. This turn looks like the letter J. The fall line is straight and the finish hooks sharply (see figure 5.2). If you apply this tactic in a carve, you will experience a buildup of force at the end of the turn that makes balancing over the outside ski difficult. A steered turn that blends carving and pivoting mutes the forces and facilitates balance in the transition. This ski tactic is important because it elongates the fall line, generating the speed and power needed in variable conditions on steeps. The finish of the J-shaped turn quickly redirects the energy, which is critical for linking the turns together. It is used to navigate tight or narrow lines through obstacles, to lighten the load over dips or bumps, to increase speed in deeper snow, and to avoid bogging out due to twisting the skis across the hill too soon.

The Z-shaped turn, as shown in figure 5.3, is for quickly pivoting across the slope, usually on steep or narrow trails. This turn is overused by beginners, who often overcorrect, twisting the legs or the upper body to move the skis around quickly. On the other hand, if the terrain requires a quick pivot, the Z-shaped turn is a useful tool.

C-Shaped Turns

The C-shaped turn is a fundamental, all-mountain shape that enlists your best leg-steering skills as you guide the skis from the beginning to the end of the turn, controlling speed and direction through a continuous, round contour. Focus on rounding the turn into the shape of the letter C (see figure 5.4 for an example of a C-shaped turn). Practicing this turn shape enhances precision and control and establishes a good foundation for turning tactics. You can easily modify it for several other shapes as your skill level increases.

Each turning shape has its own characteristics that produce different results on the mountain. In the beginning stages, you will feel more comfortable with minimal environmental variables and simple turns that produce a consistent and reliable feeling. As you progress, a wider range of turns will unlock the path to freedom on the mountain.

Read more about Total Skiing.

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