Words and photographs by Rob Coppolillo
If you haven’t watched films of the steep-skiing pioneers, give yourself an early holiday present and search online for Anselme Baud, Sylvain Saudan, or Patrick Valleçant. Saudan, the “Skieur de l’impossible,” is considered one of, if not the, father of steep skiing. Riding 205-centimeter skis with leather boots in the late ’60s, local guides in Chamonix couldn’t believe the slopes he’d ridden. Over time, he pioneered the art and madness of skiing extremely steep terrain. His skiing is timeless: When Chamonix locals watch footage of him skiing steep routes it still merits a “Wow” from the locals. Today, even entry-level backcountry gear offers superior performance to what Monsieur Saudan and his contemporaries employed. But steep terrain is no less consequential. To ski steep terrain like the Gervasutti Couloir on Mont Blanc du Tacul, or the North Face of Mount Buckner in the Cascades, we need to develop near-perfect technique. Luckily, steep skiing skills have evolved with the gear. In skiing there are always new skills to learn, but here’s an overview of the modern steep skiing technique. Train these skills—and many more—before you head out to ski a steep line this spring.
Joe Vallone comes from a background in freestyle in the ’80s. After cutting his teeth in the “Aspen Extreme” days, he pursued mountain guiding and earned the highest certification possible, his IFMGA “pin.” He now lives in La Grave and guides steep terrain.
Rob Coppolillo was among the first 100 Americans to earn international certification in mountain guiding. He co-authored The Mountain Guide Manual and has published hundreds of magazine articles in Climbing, Skiing, and Elevation Outdoors. Rob guides throughout North America and Europe, on skis, on rock, and in the high mountains.
Doug Coombs would be proud: Joe Vallone during a series of balanced, controlled turns on the ìPan de Rideauî above La Grave. He has turned around his pole, traveling down the slope rather than across. That pole has now folded forward. In the photo, itís his uphill hand. His downhill pole is already reaching for the next turn. Upper body mechanics like this keep his shoulders square to the fall line and his head looking downhill. His lower body moves separately. As his skis come around, he angles his lower legs to engage his edges and control his downhill momentum. After several controlled turns to demo the technique and feel the snow, he has the confidence to open it up and link larger, aggressive turns to just above the bergschrund.
As you ease into steeper and steeper terrain, you’ll want to commit to some basic techniques and tactics. First, do not find yourself leaning into the slope. You need to be balanced in the center of your skis, out over your feet and bindings. On the steepest slopes this will feel as if you are leaning into the abyss. If you find yourself unable to commit to this position, you simply aren’t ready for that steep of a slope. No shame—we’ve all been there, most of all me! With that balanced position, keep your shoulders squared to the fall line so that they’re generally facing downhill, with your skis across the slope, perpendicular to the fall line. You’ll see and probably already know this requires fantastic upper and lower body separation. If you aren’t familiar with this term, then pursue some coaching, watch some videos, practice on-piste, and get it done. Keeping your shoulders facing (mostly) downhill, with your skis across the slope, sets you up to reach downslope for your next pole plant and provides dynamic tension between your trunk and legs. You’ll use this tension to initiate and execute a fast, fluid, powerful turn.
If you watch footage of our steep-skiing pioneers, you’ll see them performing wild turns on 200-centimeter-long skis, perched on slopes many would be psyched to climb with ice tools. Indeed, reading Saudan’s descriptions of his early techniques gives us a glimpse of how different these brave riders approached steep terrain. He describes adapting his alpine technique by leaning back to load the tails of his skis then whipping them around like a windshield wiper. He did this in leather boots. Eventually steep skiers like Patrick Valleçant and Anselme Baud evolved the technique, modernizing it to something more familiar to us. For a modern turn, we want to maintain our balanced, centered position, staying in the “sweet spot” of our skis.
Remember, because our skis might be slightly shorter than our inbounds freeriding boards, our sweet spot will be even smaller, so a balanced, controlled stance is critical. We separate our upper and lower bodies too. We don’t let our pole planting disrupt the turning of our legs. Watch a slalom skier and note how she mows down gates with her arms while her legs go edge-to-edge. If you couldn’t see her lower half, it would be difficult to imagine how dynamic her turns are, given how controlled her upper body is. We’re striving for that same separation. Modern steep turns leave the shovels of our skis in as much contact with the snow surface as possible as they come around. Our upper body is quiet and we don’t travel across the slope, rather down the fall line, setting edges to control our speed after each turn.
This positions us for the next turn. We prep for the next turn by planting our downhill pole firmly, approximately in line with the heel of our downhill ski. Our uphill pole also plants firmly, but slightly forward of our uphill foot. We use the poles to push into the snow, helping us to unweight the skis and initiate the turn. The skis now come around, the shovels maintaining light contact with the slope, our tails pivoting around us. We lift the uphill arm to reach forward and become the downhill arm. (More on this in a moment.) The skis end the turn with solid, committed edge pressure to stop or control our downhill momentum. Any flailing of our upper body threatens to complicate our balance. Channel your inner Mikaela Shiffrin and keep your torso, shoulders, and arms quiet! If we can link these turns fluidly, we’re sending. On the steepest terrain, you might make a single turn and come to a complete stop, controlling your downhill momentum.
Mid-turn, with the skis in the fall line, this is when skiers sometimes lose their nerve and lean back. No! Recognize how Vallone keeps his eyes and shoulders facing downhill, attacking the slope, and fully committed. Heíll fold his left arm forward and finish the turn around it.
Finishing a turn, Valloneís uphill (left) arm is folding the pole forward, while his right arm is already forward and reaching for the next pole plant. His lower body has turned his skis perpendicular to the fall line, controlling his speed. On a slope like this, with good edge penetration for positive turns, Vallone would normally begin linking longer, GS turns, but I asked nicely and he demoed the Coombs folding pole for us.
THE DOUG COOMBS “FOLDING POLE”
Now we’ll address the subtlety of the pole plant. In alpine skiing, the pole plant often derails the new skier’s turn. You see this from the chairlift, a newer skier over-rotating his shoulders and exaggerating the pole plant from side to side. This is why expert ski instructors sometimes give skiers “drills” to do without the poles, which in turn helps them perfect their lower body movements before integrating them with their upper body/pole plants. Steep skiing has its own particular technique, the “folding pole plant.” “Invented by the one and only Doug Coombs,” says Vallone. “You turn around your downhill pole, not across the fall line. This is not a jump turn. The downhill/planted pole folds forward to allow you to come around. The new downhill arm is already reaching, or it’s ready to reach for the next turn.”
“The steeper it gets, the more people lean back to ‘sit’ on the snow,” cautions Vallone. “Minimize the jump and keep your shovels in contact with the snow. You don’t want to go too far down the fall line.” Another aspect of the folding pole is that it forces you to keep your hand pointing downhill. As you turn around the pole and fold it, you must keep your now-uphill shoulder square to the fall line, hands facing downhill, to keep a controlled, balanced, and aggressive position. You can find video of Coombs skiing online. Search and watch his technique, paying particular attention to the upper-lower body separation as well as the folding pole.
Excerpted from: THE SKI GUIDE MANUAL ADVANCED TECHNIQUES FOR THE BACKCOUNTRY, by Rob Coppolillo; Foreword by Colin Zacharias. Falcon Guides, November, 2020. Paperback $32.95.