How to Safely Ski a Black Diamond Slope?

by Simon Knott | Posted On: February 23rd, 2022
ski downhill

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You can always know when you come across a difficult slope. The tell-tale sign is a huddle of skiers peering into the abyss. So, you inch forward to find what all the fuss is about and discover you must be right on the lip just to see the run trailing away below. So, how do you ski a black diamond slope (black piste in Europe)?

To ski a black diamond slope efficiently and safely it is best to do some research and prepare beforehand. You should be an experienced and confident skier, able to parallel ski and control your speed with ease. Making sure you have a clear plan, are physically fit, and have appropriate equipment will make your day more enjoyable. On the slopes using tight turns and your edges to the fullest will help you to maintain good control.

In the US, slopes were first graded and signed in the mid-1960s, as skiing tourism became more mainstream. The National Ski Area’s Association (NSAA) took responsibility for the project to provide skiers with slope information, in the form of colored signs, about the runs, so skiers could make better-informed decisions before heading down the run.

Before this initiative, skiers had to rely only on word-of-mouth information from fellow skiers, no doubt a few of which had a good sense of humor, even though they were more innocent times.

Although all runs throughout the US are categorized using the same NSAA notification system, there is still considerable variation between resorts as to what qualifies as a black diamond run.

In physical terms, a black diamond run should include slopes of 40% or 22° or more. Additionally, the width of the trail, the sharpness of the turns, the roughness of the terrain, and how often the run is likely to be groomed are all factors in determining its status as a black diamond run.

Generally, black diamond runs are not groomed as frequently as intermediate and beginner slopes, meaning they are more likely to be heavily tracked and have moguls. As well as being steep black diamond runs will often be icy and contain more hazards, which can include trees, high winds, cliffs, and rocky outcrops.

The demands on skiers to negotiate all these difficulties and hazards are extreme, so they will test the skier’s mental ability, control skills, and balance.

Which Skills and Aptitudes are most useful in Tackling a Black Run?

1. Research and Personal Ability Assessment

As the saying goes ‘forewarned is forearmed’. So, if you plan to tackle any hazardous activity, it’s always a good idea to familiarise yourself with exactly what you are getting into and how your abilities stack up to deal with the situation.

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For skiing black runs you can, for example, check out trail maps, YouTube videos, and local ski chat rooms to get the lowdown on what you can expect to come up against.

Some resorts now even offer drone footage of the slopes, to really get a clear perspective of the layout and hazards you will encounter. As well as the plan of the resort runs it’s worth evaluating your own personal characteristics and skillset at the same time.

Finally, by combining all this new knowledge you will establish some sound pointers from which you will be able to summarise a personal plan. The plan should express what you will find achievable now and, more importantly, what is best left to another day when you have more experience.

The overall aim is to enjoy yourself, push yourself to your limits, and know when to back off to avoid accidents and injuries. Confidence in skiing is hard-won and easily lost; it’s much better to make several small gains rather than biting off more than you can chew.

What is the Best Equipment for Black Runs?

If you are going to be skiing black runs regularly you will be putting your equipment under extra strain, as you negotiate tight turns on steep and narrow slopes. With this in mind, it’s worthwhile checking over your skis, poles, and boots before you head out. Finding an edge that has worked loose halfway down a black isn’t the best time to discover it.

Keeping your equipment in good condition is paramount. You can service your own skis with a non-expensive kit, which will enable you to sharpen your ski edges and wax the bases. Alternatively, any good ski shop will carry out the same work at a cost.

Sharpening your edges pays dividends on black runs, where the combination of steep slopes, tight corners, and ice can be more effectively tackled if you have sharp edges on your skis. Sharp edges will grip and hold better on ice and hardpack snow, as well as make turning easier, which gives you much better control overall.

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On the slope setting up a higher edge angle is achieved by firstly increasing the pressure on the outer ski and leaning the body towards the slope, so the ankles, knees, and hips are closer. Power from the legs can then be used to direct more pressure on the edges to achieve a good bite.

There are no specific skis you need for skiing black runs, but certain features of skis can be a bonus in the type of terrain you will encounter on black runs. Short skis may make turning easier, but the smaller footprint won’t offer very much purchase against ice and hardpack snow.

Long skis may give better purchase over ice, but the length will become a hindrance in tight corners. Some skiers turn to tip and tail rockers as a way of optimizing for the conditions of a black run. In corners, the raised ends of the ski make the footprint smaller, which makes turning easier, especially in confined sections.

Getting Fit well before your Vacation is Key

skiing

Even straightforward skiing places extra demands on the body, so skiing on black runs pushes these demands even further. To get in shape, it’s best to start an exercise plan at least 12 weeks before you go away. Trying to cram everything into one week before will achieve very little, except probably a strain!

As you would expect skiing requires most work from the thighs and calves, although the core muscles of the chest and lower abdomen are constantly used for stability in cornering. Similarly, the arms and shoulders are a vital link in movement, when poling and in cornering.

Muscle strength and endurance can easily be built up with repeated weight-bearing exercises at the gym or home gym. While cardiovascular fitness can be improved with aerobic exercises such as running, cycling, and rowing. Core fitness can easily be improved at home using the plank and sit-ups.

Cardiovascular exercise is particularly important as the high altitudes of ski resorts will mean there is less oxygen available for your lungs to extract. Cardiovascular exercise will gradually increase the number of red blood cells in your circulation enabling you to extract more of the available oxygen.

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However, this increase in red blood cells doesn’t happen overnight. They are manufactured in the bone marrow during a lengthy process. So, starting early with any exercise plan will leave you much better prepared for the slopes.

The Best Technique for Controlling Speed

For many skiers, the steepness of black runs causes a lot of anxiety. Most skiers initially fear losing control and hurtling toward oblivion down the slope at an ever-increasing speed. However, concentrate on your technique and you will learn to control your descent on even steeper snow.

The best way to regulate your descent on a black run is to practice short turns, instead of longer sweeping turns. These short turns are particularly advantageous and useful on a steeper slope.

In making a short turn, turn the outer ski so it crosses the fall line as quickly as possible and at the same time apply more pressure to the outer ski, so it turns the corner in a tighter radius.

This keeps you in control and limits the gain of speed during the turn. This method of control is the best defense against the steepness of the run, making progress down the run much more enjoyable.

Five Best Black Diamond Runs in Europe, the US and Canada

1. Harakiri in Mayrhofen, Austria

Harakiri is the steepest run in Austria. It has an average gradient of 78% (38°) and descends 375 m over 1500 m. Encouragingly, Harakiri translates from Japanese as ritual suicide by samurai sword.

2. Grand Couloir in Courchevel, France

Grand Couloir
Grand Couloir in Courchevel, FrancePhoto by benjgibbs licensed under CC BY 2.0

Access to the Grand Couloir is via a terrifying narrow tube, which has been rutted by other skiers and it is almost impossible to snowplough or parallel ski along. Either side falls away into equally steep valleys. The run starts at 35° and is very narrow before opening out further down.

3. “Corbet’s Couloir” in Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Corbet’s Couloir
Corbet’s Couloir in Jackson Hole, WyomingPhoto by Perfect Zero licensed under CC BY 2.0

There is no turning back with Corbet’s Couloir; once committed skiers to fall 10 to 30 feet before plunging onto a 60° slope that continues between 40-60° right to the bottom. The only good news is that it’s short at 490 feet.

4. “Delirium Dive,” in Sunshine Village in Canada

Delirium Dive
Delirium Dive in Sunshine Village in CanadaPhoto by John Johnston licensed under CC BY 2.0

Only skiers in groups, with full avalanche kit and training, are allowed down avalanche-prone Delirium Dive. The double-black-diamond run starts with a jump down a narrow chute and continues over rough terrain down the side of the mountain at 50°.

5. “Christmas Chute” in Girdwood near Anchorage, Alaska

Even experienced skiers fall foul of the icy Christmas Chute, which is icy and has rocks on either side. The run starts at 2800 feet and falls for 1000 feet at a 50° angle.

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