Carved to Pieces

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In its simplest form, skiing is a fusion of body movements-twisting, flexing, balancing, pressuring one foot and two-that would be unremarkable if performed in a gym. Performed as you move rapidly on snow...In its simplest form, skiing is a fusion of body movements-twisting, flexing, balancing, pressuring one foot and two-that would be unremarkable if performed in a gym. Performed as you move rapidly on snow under an open sky, it's magical-full of freedom and inventiveness.

How in Ullr's name then, you might ask, did the teaching of the sport become a kind of ideological prison? Why do ski instruction mavens often insist there's only one way to make a turn, to the exclusion of all others?

Today, we're insistently told to carve every turn. It was different for your grandparents. In the correct approved technique of their day, they were taught to stem and rotate. Later, your parents followed a prescribed progression from stem to wedeln, the American Ski Technique, and God help them if they took lessons in instant parallel or by starting on short skis. Alternative learning approaches were scorned by ski instruction's governing body, the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA).

"The history of the sport has been plagued by trumped-up 'right ways' to ski," observes veteran ski teacher Bill Briggs, 68, of Jackson Hole, Wyo. And, Briggs might add, plagued by criticism of "wrong" ways.

My view of why and how ski instruction got this way may be questionable, but letting loose a stink could attract explanations better than mine. I believe that the continuing insistence of a unified technique, with suppression of dissent, has its origins in the Germanic domination of early American ski schools. Organized ski instruction has also taken on the earnest, vaporous theorizing that has wrecked much of public education. In ski-instructor certification, no special weight is given to a talent for joyfully motivating students. The measure of how good a skier you are has come to depend on some authority's conceived model of correct skiing, codified in a manual.

PSIA, which writes the manual, claims the national organization is open to new ideas and new teaching techniques. Yet examiners continue to nit-pick certification candidates whose thoughts or style of skiing stray from the catechism known as Center Line. The suggestion of organized religion may not be farfetched. If Galileo had taught skiing, he'd have had difficulty becoming a certified instructor.

Right now, ski technique's new orthodoxy is carving. This time, you can't totally blame it on the instruction establishment. Ski manufacturers and many of my magazine-editing colleagues have led the way in decreeing the correct turn du jour. It's one that produces an arc similar to the line sliced on the snow by a snowboard. Manufacturers have created ski side curvatures to perform this way. The manufacturers say shaped skis make turning easier. They do, but not solely because of their shape. Try this simple test. On any Saturday this winter, stop for a moment and train your eyes on the people coming down the hill. If I'm not mistaken, you'll observe that most continue to get along with the basic up-and-down, windshield-wiper turn they've employed for years, pivoting their skis to initiate a change of direction. Thanks to today's shorter (once again) skis, it's easier to pivot.

Carving? For millions of long-time, occasional skiers, carving is limited to what they feel when the edges pressure the snow during the turn's completion.

If you want to carve a turn from beginning to end, you need to revamp the way you ski. Stay in a slightly lowered stance and project legs outward; skis go up on edge and their shaped sides induce the turn. It's different, and you need to take lessons to learn it. Somewhere in the "shaped ski revolution," however, marketers forgot that almost 90 percent of skiers don't take lessons. Perhaps that's why the much ballyhooed "shaped revolution" failed to reverse the slide in alpine ski sales.

Criticizing the carved turn is about as popular as knocking Mom's apple strudel, I know, but someone has to speak out, and more and more I find myself in thhe company of like minds.

Charlie Lusk, a lean professorial type with a fringe of blondish hair, a part-time arborist (nine out of 10 instructors have another job to support their teaching habit) with a Yale education, teaches skiing at Stowe, Vt. He has been observing skiers and their tracks for 22 years.

"The culture of skiing," wrote Lusk recently to the publication Ski Tracks, "should be pure play. . .stressing the kinesthetic pleasure of the sport. Instead we are told to carve turns as World Cup racers do. A carved turn is one in which the tail follows the tip through the turn. There is no displacement of snow to the outside of the track. A clean, well-defined line is visible.

"The number of skiers whose turns meet this definition is miniscule!" cries Lusk. He says that most recreational skiers, rather than learning a turn that sends them down the hill as fast as possible, need to control their speed with a deliberate skid.

"Is it possible," Lusk asks, "that the impulse to model recreational skiing after World Cup racing has led to a colossal disconnect of ski manufacturers, writers, sports marketers and others in the business of skiing, from the public?"

Briggs' problems with the exclusively carved turn go beyond Lusk's. Briggs, who made the first ski descent of the 13,772-foot Grand Teton, has taught thousands of skiers at his Snow King Ski School in Wyoming. Lean, bespectacled, he has often served as a gadfly to organized ski instruction.

"There's no one correct way to ski, no superior style of skiing," he says. Racers seek the fastest possible line down the mountain. Instructors want spectacularly graceful turns. Bump skiers want precise control. Deep-snow skiers employ rhythmic porpoise-like movements.

Briggs has catalogued dozens of different turns. In the edge-set rebound, you bounce the tails uphill to change direction. In the wide track swivel, you skid hockey stop-turns. In a turn called the slight tele-stem-useful in heavy spring snow-you slightly advance the tip of the uphill or outside ski in a gliding wedge or stem turn.

He offers dozens of variations of carving-wide-track carving, carve-rebounding and the rollover carve. "The point is to use different techniques for different circumstances," he says.

Carving is a fantastic sensation, like casting a dry fly precisely to where you want it to drop. The ability to carve on a groomed slope, however, doesn't necessarily mean the person is a great all-around skier. For that you need a repertoire of turns, currently neglected in the noisy propaganda for carving.

Meanwhile, most of us are looking for an insightful teacher who can spot a flaw in our skiing and offer a tip to cure it, leading us over different terrain and snow . . . all the way down to the hot chocolate bar at the bottom. Hundreds of unsung instructors quietly go about teaching in this manner, while the flashy dogma authors hog the headlines.

John Fry, overcoming the skepticism of his staff, once ran a cover story headlined "It's okay to skid your turns." It turned out to be a best-seller. For further dissension, contact jfry@skimag.com.