8 Why Snowplough?
Why do we Snowplough?
Or teach it?
When asked this question, a student or even an inexperienced ski instructor will answer “to stop/control my speed/slow down” (This isn’t wrong, you may know now I hate that word!). The true answer can be said to be primary and secondary reasons; I believe that speed control and stopping are the by–products of the real (primary) reasons we use or I teach a plough. Most people can and will find these secondary uses out later for themselves or from their friends, so I feel it my duty to help them see it from another point of view.
There might be understandable reasons for using/teaching it as a brake in certain instances or resort, like the steepness or limits of the terrain. To my mind however, it always seems an unfair aspect of snowsports that Snowploughing for speed control only seems to work; for youngsters with agile, flexible hip joints, people that can already ski and/or on terrain that is really quite flat – as soon as beginners try it on slightly steeper terrain it fails them – creating panic.
Stiff wide legs interfering with Balancing skills and blocking recovery movements too. In many cases like this the skis are also fighting each other; the right ski (left in the pic) is being edged more than the other – and trying to go toward the camera – but the other one has pressure on it due to the leaning upper body so they are cancelling each other out!
The action of making a plough – widening the feet and rotating the legs – tilts the skis very slightly onto the edges. Imagine Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man; the legs and body resemble an upside down Y and the skis edge because in this instance he would be wearing ski boots. Without ski boots on he would be able to articulate his ankles and therefore flatten his feet (skis). This then creates friction; scraping or brushing, flat skis create little or no friction by comparison.
So one of the primary reasons for making a plough is to get the skis on their edges, the by-products or secondary reasons may be friction/slowing down or stopping.
- I use WEDGE as the word to describe plough as it contains a reason, Wedge, we wedge for edge
As in a wedge of cake, don’t be greedy!! Keep the size of the wedge modest you’re not using it to stop you (unless there’s no other way or there’s no flat terrain to use).
- The action of wedging gives us a slightly wider but beneficial base of support (as will wide track parallel)
A narrow vase can topple over with only one flower in it, whereas one with wider base can carry many flowers.
- These edges, even slight, enable us to create steering in time through adding other inputs; guiding/rotation and pressure changes. (See Blending the inputs in How we Turn)
We now have more primary reasons;
- To find the edges almost without trying
- An ever so slightly wider base of support to aid balance
- A gateway to steering/turning, the true means of speed control
These should be considered as more important than the secondary reasons unless all else fails and we need to go back to the drawing board.
(Tip) Think of the wedge a bit like the balancer wheels on a learner’s pushbike: they provide help with balancing at slow speed whilst the learner is still unsure and wobbly but the rider still has to steer the bike, pedal and do everything else a normal rider would do. Soon with practice and confidence to go faster you can remove the stabilisers (go parallel).
It works for others
As stated above it seems to me a little unfair that it appears to work for people that can already ski. They may not rely on it but many parallel skiers break into a plough now and again, even if just in a lift line and it does slow them down and stop them! However they are not nervous or totally reliant on it as they have other ways. If a beginner is told that it WILL slow them down and stop them and it doesn’t….PANIC ensues.
Most children plough much better than adults because they are flexible, weigh less and it works for them and it can be hard to break their reliance of it. We all must’ve seen kids flying down a steep red or black run in what is known as a racing wedge, no worries whether bumpy, icy or powdery.
Focus on the primary reasons as the plough is not a very effective way to stop or even slow down on steeper terrain off the nursery slope. It is not a natural way to stand (unless you need a pee or are pigeon toed), or very comfortable, if large, unless you’re under 12 or very flexible in the hip joints. Take your expectations of its effectiveness down as far as you need, to even to thinking it WON’T work at all in the secondary bunch of reasons and then you won’t be disappointed and it may allay fears and panic.
Note, lots of people look down on snowploughing as a very low end technique; this may be a short-sighted attitude. It can be used as a fine tuning drill for all levels of skier. If wanting to isolate one of the Steering inputs then using a wedge is a great way of doing this, you can then concentrate on them one at a time:
- Pressing on the edges
- Increasing the edges angle
- Guiding (gently twisting) the skis where you want to go
Building to doing them all simultaneously and inventively – multi-tasking!
Most people’s goal is to ski parallel but parallel turns can be a bit of an oxymoron (See Width in Stance and Balancing). Because as hard as we try to stay parallel our skis are constantly being buffeted by the terrain and to think that we are only a good or great skier if parallel then there are very few people who can maintain this all the time. Watch the racers in slow motion or your ski instructor for that matter and check if they are parallel all the time, sometimes they will be in a reverse wedge! Remember don’t try to be perfect, instead be functional, efficient and effective.
There are 2 ways to think about skiing, only 2 Joe? Are you sure there’s not 3 ways? I’ll see if I can find another:
- What drives you or what is important to YOU? Looking good or being functional?
There’s no right or wrong answer. Some people are driven by what their style is like; close stance, swishy serpentine short turns. If this style is what makes you smile then that is great and your choice. Others may be driven by a different style; park rats – all gnarly and wild or may prefer to have performance/function then they may not have that classic close stance that so many skiers desire and may look gangly or more like a racer. There is a 3rd option, you could work on both and get the best of both worlds; the performance of one and the style of the other. (See Quasimodo turns below).
(Tip) There are 2 main ways of making a wedge/plough:
- Brushing/guiding the skis outward (gently rotating the femurs in the hip joints) so the tips stay roughly where they are while the tails go wider apart, watch the size!
- Pointing the tips inwards, this may cause the skis cross. Some people try to close the knees together to create more grip, this creates a very weak stance and doesn’t work at all
You must’ve guessed there’s another better way!
- A bit of a combination of the upper 2, have an open; hip/shoulder width stance so that you can guide the feet so that the tips of either ski go toward each other a little bit and the heels go away from each other
Have the pivot point near or toward the feet or front binding. As opposed to having it toward the tips or even further forward as your feet will have to go much wider. This ensures your stance will have to be open in the first place (wide track) rather than close (narrow track). Too narrow and the skis will have to cross. It is also a good reason for keeping it as small as you can, minimal input, maximum comfort.
Of course there are ways and means to learn to ski without a plough at all, this will depend on the individual/student. For instance; a young (in mind and spirit as well as age) fit ex roller-blader/ice skater/surfer dude/moto GP rider, could and have gone straight in at the deep end, so to speak. If you’re nervous and going down the wedge route, choice of terrain is of paramount importance, to enable the person to use as small a plough as possible.
Never miss a chance to teach or learn something
Tip; never underestimate how much you can learn on the way up, on a lift chatting for sure but I’m talking of climbing up the slope on foot; most people use side stepping on the edges to get up a hill. Try using a reverse snowplough, pointing the feet toes outward climbing with your body facing directly up the slope – called herringboning, describing the pattern left behind or “marche au Canard” Duck walk in French. This is a great way to ascend and or get across flat terrain but watch how steep you do it to begin with as you could end up going backwards down the hill. With time and practice it will turn into skating – building form the ugly duckling into the graceful swan.
Wedge/parallel change ups, start in one stance say parallel then skilfully change into wedge (you choose the size) and back again. Remember that in this instance, size does matter, don’t make the wedge too big as you’re not using it to try to stop you but to “feel” or listen to the edges as they brush or scrape across the snow. You can also look at the tracks in the snow. (See VAK Learning Curves).
- Go to Telemark stance when parallel or close to
- Try it backwards or switch, this can be very useful as many times people end up going backwards by mistake, if practised you know what to do (useful if Dealing with Fear)
Carved wedge, choose the terrain well as if too steep you may have to make a very large plough instead of a comfortable wedge. While in the wedge tilt one of the skis onto the edge a little bit more and see if you can make it leave a track (carved traverse) across the slope and then try it on the other ski. (See big toe, little toe lifts). Develop a smaller and smaller wedge to parallel.
If you can make a big plough without discomfort the very act of placing your feet well outside the width of your hips puts the skis onto more edge but it won’t feel or look nice, this is why I call these “Quasimodo ploughs” but they can be a very useful exercise for experimenting with edge values. While playing with this stance, use VAK and look, listen and feel your tracks; has the width made any difference to them? The same can be said of wide track or Quasimodo or John Wayne (cowboy) parallels
If you can find a good size of wedge that suits you and enables you to start to change direction then you’ve found the opposite which I call “Esmerelda wedges”. Attempt to get the same result in your tracks as Quasimodo without the discomfort.
Remember if you have to use a big plough to control your speed because of fear, no problem, use whatever you feel works for you.
(Tip) Here’s a great thing for Telemarkers; if in a gliding or straight line wedge and balancing well the very act of Lead Changing, pulling one foot back or pushing one foot forward or a combination, will create a change of direction! (See Lead Change/drills). Be very careful with the size of the wedge as stated elsewhere, the bigger the plough the more chance of discomfort, crossed skis and getting the edges locked onto the snow.
So how do I stop then?
There are many ways of stopping! Turning is obviously the main way these are various different ways within themselves (See How we Turn). Once you have the skill to decide how you can use blends of the Steering inputs to produce the ones that work best for a given moment, until then…
I put these into, you’ve guessed it, 3 categories; brute force and ignorance, perfect technique and using your “noodle”.
- Perfect technique, this is what we are all striving for and I hope this book will help you get there.
- Using your “noodle”, if moving downhill in a vehicle without any brakes, (foot or hand), no gears for engine braking, how would you avoid hitting something down the hill from you?
Hopefully you didn’t say jump out, you used the steering wheel and guided the vehicle (car, boat, bike etc.) away from where the obstacle was. (Controlling direction to control speed).
Guide the wedge round in a semi or quarter circle until facing across or slightly up the hill, and then the terrain, which may be the thing that was causing the problem, becomes the solution to it. If you or your instructor has chosen the correct terrain and you have drawn/made circles or figure 8’s on one ski at the start of the lesson to give the idea of guiding the ski, this should not take too much time. (See Relating to Other Sports/Activities, How we Turn and Blending inputs).
Note, you can go too far round; if you went until you’re facing uphill once stopped the vehicle or you on skis will go backwards and the same or a worse problem arises. Learn to get the balance right; just enough to slow down or stop, learning to read and use the terrain. It will be useful to learn to turn or wedge backward too.
- Brute force and ignorance, you’d be surprised that some people see throwing themselves onto the floor as a way of stopping! Nothing is wrong but if you have to use these things, they should be a last resort. Others that I put into this category;
- Snowplough breaking
- Hit something/someone
- Sit down
- Throw your upper body and arms about wildly
- Panic and do nothing
- Digging your poles into the snow*
*DANGER, think, you’re moving forward but you pole’s handles are pointing backward and can hit you somewhere you don’t want them to, I’ll leave this to your imagination……
How do I get rid of the wedge?
Let’s look at the differences and I don’t mean that in one your feet are pointing in different directions and in the other the feet are in the same! The real differences that will enable you to stop relying on the wedge are, in no particular order of importance and entirely interlinked: balancing, confidence and speed.
Balancing, when turning using a wedge you’re generally balancing, pressuring or focusing on one ski more than the other, so learn to trust this ski more and more and slowly make the other one lighter and lighter and the wedge will naturally get smaller and smaller.
Drills; whilst turning, tap the light ski-once, twice and so on until you can do 10, 12, 16 times consistently, if you’re turning right you should be able to tap the right ski and visa versa. You should with practice increase the difficulty and be able to lift it for 1, 2, 3, 4, seconds until you can keep it off the snow throughout the turn. Build on any small success! Telemark when in the traverse.
Confidence, it will be easier to balance on one ski if you allow your skis to run a bit faster (remember the bicycle stabiliser analogy before) and the confidence to do this comes with practice. Once you can hold one ski off the snow for any length of time you will hopefully feel more confident in your ability (this should be natural: remember when we are walking in order to take a step we must lift one foot and balance on the other) as above build on those tiny successes. You should feel like a superman or bionic when you leave it lightly on the snow and may help you have the confidence to go faster.
Speed, take a look about you; most plough skiers travel slowly, most parallel skiers are relatively fast. Build Balancing skills and Confidence until you can increase your speed. Just to say go faster is a stupid thing to say but what is faster? In everyday life (off snow) we might use 3 different speeds: walking, jogging and sprinting.
- Walking is roughly 3 miles an hour, skiers at this speed will probably have to plough
- Jogging around 6-10 miles an hour, these skiers will be wedge-y/parallel-ers
- Sprinting, 10 mph +, parallel (unless nervous and not liking the speed)
You can break it down as much as you want; fast walk, slow jog, slow sprint and such but hopefully you get the idea.
(Tip) To go faster you don’t have to move onto a steeper slope, stay where you’re comfortable and just pick up the pace over as many runs as you need.
To get the speed right imagine or get someone to walk or jog down the hill beside you, so you can recalibrate your internal speedometer, you may think you’re going 50 mph but maybe you’re only at 10mph. To help look ahead, you don’t drive looking at the bonnet or your pedals, looking down the road helps you plan your route and makes it seem slower. When you look down, what you are looking at; white lines, snow particles or lumps which are close together, can look as though they’re going past quickly. Whereas signposts, lampposts, chairlift pylons and trees are further away and seem to pass much slower even though you’re going at the same speed! (See Dealing with Fear)
Conclusion: use the wedge to aid your balancing and to help develop the ability to steer the skis (turning), not for stopping and slowing down. Use the terrain positively and choose it well. Strive for gentle inputs to create steering and use brute force and ignorance as a last resort. Keep the wedge as small as you can as it will be closer to parallel. Using the Wedge to find an edge is a positive use, whereas, using it to control your speed may be ineffective and also a waste of input and energy.