I hate how old this makes me sound: We didn’t even have terrain parks when I was a kid.
I’m comfortable skiing tight tree lines, hucking off drops, and ripping steep bumps, but I arrived late to the terrain park game. Sliding on boxes and rails, catching big air, and (most terrifying of all) skiing backwards—all of these things scared me. Still, truth be told, I harbored secret freestyle ambitions. I saw pros in ski flicks sliding stairway railings, back-flipping over giant gap jumps, and skiing switch as comfortably (and as fast) as I ski regular, and I wondered: Why are those tricks not in my repertoire?
“People tend to put ‘park’ in a different category than general skiing,” says Peter Novom, training manager at Vermont’s Okemo Mountain Resort and Professional Ski Instructors of America examiner who serves on PSIA’s National Freestyle Task Force. But this mindset is misguided, he says. After all, how do top skiers get good at skiing in the trees, bumps, and steeps? By practicing on greens and blues first, then taking on more challenging terrain.
The same concept applies to terrain parks, says Novom. A popular freestyle training progression is called “Outside-In,” and the idea is to hone skills outside the park before taking them in. It works because–newsflash!–the very same fundamental skills and movements critical to sliding on snow figure prominently in hitting park features and freeskiing. Here are some examples, along with some activities to practice outside the park.
Boxes and Rails
Necessary Skills: Edging and rotary movements
Rotary movements are those movements used to actually turn or pivot your skis. Simply put, if you don’t turn ‘em sideways, there is no grind. Meanwhile, with your skis at a 90-degree angle to a box or rail, the degree of edge angle to the feature becomes crucial: If your skis aren’t practically flat, they will slide out from under you on the slippery—and solid—feature, and you’ll eat it.
Outside-In Tactic: Practice pivot slips on a green, blue, or easy black run.
Typically, pivot slips involve pointing your skis straight downhill and then turning them across the fall line under a quiet and stable upper body as you slide sideways downhill. In preparation for the park, think about eliminating upper and lower body separation so that your torso and shoulders face the same direction as your feet and legs. Then rotate your skis back down the fall line. Practice in both directions.
Note: A tendency in pivot slips is to drift left or right when your skis are sideways. Instead, focus on slipping straight down the fall line. This way, when you take it to a real box, you won’t slide off the feature.
Once you have mastered pivot slips, hone your edging movements by keeping your skis as flat as possible. Note that if your skis are at a 0-degree angle (i.e. flat) on the snow, you risk catching your downhill edges (can you say “wipeout”?). On a box or rail, however, anything more than a degree or two of uphill edge angle on the feature will result in your skis sliding out from under you and a bruise on the side of your rear end. Learning to flatten your skis on the snow outside the park will serve you well when you go inside the park.
Essential Skill: Pressure-control movements
At the moment of takeoff when you catch air, you need to “pop” off the lip of the jump. When you touch down on the back end of your air, you need to absorb the impact of the landing. You execute these up-and-down pressure-control movements by flexing and extending your hip, knee, and ankle joints.
Outside-In Tactic: Practice hopping off the snow in a straight run.
This one’s simple: On your way to the park, practice hopping off the snow. To achieve lift-off from the snow surface in a straight run, extend your hip, knee, and ankle, advises Novom. (For an exaggerated image of hip and knee extension, imagine Olympic ski jumpers the moment they leave the 70-meter ramp to fly hundreds of feet.) When you come down, flex (bend) your hips, knees, and ankles to soften the impact of your landing much like the shock absorber of a truck.
When you’ve mastered a basic straight hop, play with popping higher off the ground. When you see a roller or a bump on the trail, hit it. Just make sure to pop at the takeoff and to absorb the landing. Voilà! You’re ready for straight airs in the park.
Essential Skill: Balancing movements
First off, why do you need to learn how ski backwards? So you’ll be ready to come off a box backwards after executing your first 180-degree spin.
Normally when you’re skiing, you want your center of mass balanced over your feet (also known as your base of support) so you can evenly distribute pressure over the length of your skis. The subtle adjustments that affect balance come from the ankle joints—tiny opening and closing movements that result in moving your center of mass either forward (when you flex or close your ankle joint) or backward (when you extend or open your ankle joint).
In freestyle, says Novom, it helps to imagine your body being perpendicular to the slope. If you are skiing backwards, this means opening your ankle joints so that you’re in the back seat, which is not a comfortable feeling for most traditional skiers.
Outside-In Tactic: Ski shuffle
Outside of the park, the best ankle flexion and extension exercise known to humankind is shuffling. Alternate one foot forward and the other back. You will feel the back of your boot cuff on your front calf (whose ankle joint is open) and the front of your boot cuff on your back shin (whose ankle joint is closed). Shuffling your feet makes you open and close the ankle joints.
After shuffling, practice opening and closing your ankle joints simultaneously in a straight run by shifting your center of mass backward and forward. Finally, point ‘em uphill, and ski backwards (realizing, of course, if you ever want to fit into freestyle social circles, you’ll start saying “switch” instead of “backwards”). If you find yourself leaning up the hill—that is, you’re skiing in the “front seat”—open your ankle joints to move your center of mass over your feet and get perpendicular to the hill.
Finally, consider your turn shape while skiing switch. Are you checking your speed by making a reverse wedge? If yes, think French fries, not pizzas! Just like when you rip GS turns, control speed by turning your skis.
Although I was an accomplished skier when I began dabbling in parks, I was apprehensive at first. My breakthrough happened when I realized that skiing in the terrain parks was just that—skiing. Many skiers, says Novom, learn to ski and never experience that special “I-learned-something-new” feeling again. “In freestyle, you get it all the time,” he says. “There’s always something new.”
Mark Aiken is a freelance writer from Richmond, Vermont. As a longtime instructor at Stowe, Vt., he proudly sports an official PSIA-AASI “Freestyle Specialist” pin on his instructor jacket. His favorite terrain park buddies are his 6-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.