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James Heim wishing he were on belay. Location: Last Frontier Heli-Skiing, BC.
Check out our suggestions for good gear for steep skiing.
The first rule of skiing steeps: Don’t take off your skis. I was 11 years old and I still remember the name of the trail at Big Sky, Montana: Snake Pit. My family was on its first Western ski trip. I wanted to outperform my brothers, so I suggested this steep, rocky glade. Two turns in, panic struck. I inexplicably took off my skis, stacked them across my arms like firewood, stepped downhill, and slipped. I tumbled down hundreds of vertical feet, somersaulted, slammed my knee into a stump, and screamed like a dying rabbit. My parents consoled me by buying me a black-diamond Snake Pit pin from a Big Sky gift shop that I promptly stuck on my school backpack.
The second rule of skiing steeps: Know how to self-arrest. And know that self-arresting is difficult without your skis on. When you fall, you’ll most likely be on your side. If you’re not, twist yourself around so your skis are perpendicular to the fall line. If you fall headfirst, roll over so your skis end up downhill, below your body. Now dig your ski edges into the slope as hard as you can to stop. If you lose your skis midtumble, kick hard with the toes of your boots and claw with your hands until you create enough friction to stop.
The third rule of skiing steeps: In order to prevent a dangerous collision with trees or rocks, scope out your line carefully before you drop in. Note the locations of dangerous features such as cliff bands, trees, and lift towers so you have a clean run-out if you fall. Find your line and follow it to the bottom. And whatever you do, don’t panic the way I did. All you’ll end up with is a banged-up knee and a lousy pin.
Chris Davenport on California’s Mount Whitney.
“On truly steep terrain, stand on your uphill ski without leaning into the hill. Put pressure on that ski to begin your turn. Unlike the jumping turns you see in the movies, this type of turn will give you more edge to work with, keep your speed under control, and keep you light on your feet for transitions.”
—Glen Plake, steep-skiing pioneer
“Practice good slough-management skills. If you’re in the backcountry, climb the line first to get an idea of the snow conditions. Inspect the slope and figure out where the snow you set loose is going to fall—you don’t want it to hit you and knock you over.”
—Hugo Harrisson, pro skier
“Watch your hand position. If you’re reaching too far forward, you’ll be off-balance and fall. If you’re reaching too far behind your downhill foot, your weight will be centered too far back. Keep your hands right out in front of you.”
—Kevin Quinn, Alaskan heli-guide
“The natural reaction of the brain and body on a steep slope is to lean uphill into the slope. But when you lean uphill, you reduce your edge grip and control. Commit your upper body down the fall line and stay over your feet.”
—Erik Roner, pro skier
Reggie Crist in Haines, Alaska.
Jackson Hole Steep and Deep Camp
You can’t beat a four-day camp at the resort that won Best Steeps and Best Backcountry Access in this season’s Resort Awards. You’ll get to load the Tram before the public, learn on both inbounds and backcountry terrain, and work up to dropping into Corbet’s Couloir on the last day. [$1,100; jacksonhole.com]
Doug Coombs Steep Camps
La Grave/Chamonix, France
When ski legend Doug Coombs passed away in 2006, his close friends Miles and Liz Smart took over teaching his weeklong camps. The UIAGM-certified instructors promise to challenge even the most experienced skiers, and the three-to-one student-to-instructor ratio ensures that you’ll get plenty of individual attention. [from $2,995; steepskiingcamps.com]
Mount Washington Steep Skiing Clinic
Mount Washington, New Hampshire
This two-day clinic run by Petra Cliffs guide service takes place in Mount Washington’s Gulf of Slides and Tuckerman Ravine. Learn how to assess risk, read terrain, and broaden your comfort zone in the Northeast’s sketchiest areas. [$385; petracliffs.com]
1. The steepest inbounds run in the United States is Rambo at Colorado’s Crested Butte. It consists of hard-packed bumps on a 56-degree incline.
2. Watch the 2008 documentary Steep to learn a history of steep skiing and watch footage from Alaska, Chamonix, and Wyoming’s Tetons.
3. A jump turn is when you hop and rotate your skis in the opposite direction without moving far down the fall line. Practice this type of turn on mellower terrain.
4. Keep your speed under control. The steeper the slope, the farther you will travel down the fall line with each hop turn.
5. Slopes 60 degrees and steeper are less likely to hold snow.
6. Tuckerman Ravine on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington has some of the steepest skiable terrain on the East Coast. Watch skiers (and, inexplicably, sledders) flail down on spring days.
7. Each winter, Snowmass holds the Colorado Freeride Championships, an entry-level big-mountain competition for those who want to test themselves on steeps. It takes place February 26 to 28.
9. If you lose a ski on a steep face and you’re able to stop it, turn yourself around so you’re clicking into it with your uphill foot.
10. Pole-planting keeps you balenced on steeps. Tap your poles on the snow to initiate the turn and keep yourself steady over your edges.