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You’re just coming out of a smooth turn and out of nowhere, you feel a vibrating, jolting sensation through your skis. What’s going on? This is called ‘ski chatter’ but what is it and why does it happen?
Ski chatter occurs during the end of a turn when the edge of the downhill ski momentarily disengages from the snow surface and re-engages again and again, repeatedly. This effect creates a chattering sound and vibration, which comes up through your boots and up into your legs.
There are several causes of ski chatter, some connected with the manufacture of the ski and others that are down to your technique. Generally, ski chatter is a mildly annoying symptom, that more proficient skiers experience.
If you hear ski chatter your skiing ability is improving!
Over time as your skiing technique improves you will be skiing faster and tackling steeper runs. In turn, this means you will be exerting greater force down through your skis.
These more extreme forces can lead you to experience ski chatter, which you can actually hear as well as feel through your skis and up into your legs. Ski chatter is most frequently heard when you make fast, powerful turns, where a lot of energy is transferred down into the snow.
What’s happening to make the chatter?
Sometimes during a fast turn, you will hear a rattling or chattering sound coming from your skis. If you look down, you will see the front end of the ski flapping up and down slightly over the surface of the snow. This vibration isn’t connected with the smoothness of the run, for example when the run is icy or uneven or when skiing on a recently groomed corduroy surface.
The vibration is caused purely by the interaction of the ski edge against the run surface, where initially, the ski edge bites the snow surface but that then gives way before the edge bites again. This repeated biting and release is what creates the vibrating ski chatter noise.
During this dynamic, the ski is unable to skid over the snow surface. This inability can be caused by ski edge angles that are too high, edges that are too sharp or particularly grippy snow.
What are the causes of chatter?
1. Ski stiffness
Skis are manufactured for beginners to have extra flexibility. This flexibility helps new skiers to make turns and come out of turns more easily, helping them build their technique. Over time, as the beginner improves, they learn to build up speed and this can eventually lead to ‘ski chatter’ as the beginner ski they are using isn’t designed to go fast.
More experienced skiers prefer to use stiffer skis. Although it is more difficult to make turns with a stiffer ski the skier enjoys better precision, control, and speed. These stiffer skis have less margin for error but the skier, with his experience, can compensate for this.
2. How the ski is manufactured
Although ski technology has come on in leaps and bounds over recent years using a traditional material such as wood remains popular. Wood maintains its flexibility long before it begins to degrade and at the same time it remains very strong and durable. However, new materials are constantly being incorporated into ski design, such as carbon fibre and other composites.
Skis made from carbon fibre are very light, but they are very stiff at the same time, and as such are prone to ski chatter. By their nature, carbon fibre skis don’t absorb much energy created by the skier, so this is consequently turned into ski chatter. Manufacturers consequently develop composite skis, which optimize performance and minimize downsides such as ski chatter.
3. Technique and Pressure
There is still a lot of discussion and disagreement about the best behavioral technique to counter ski chatter. Skier’s different experiences tend to be subjective and so it is difficult to arrive at a definitive solution. That said there is general agreement that ski chatter can be made worse if the centre of mass (ie. your body) is too far back, as there is little weight on the front of the skis allowing them to vibrate easily.
The best technique is to move your centre of mass forward and across the skis, as you make the turn, forcing more weight onto the front of the skis enabling the edge to bite the snow and skid if necessary. This technique doesn’t slow you down as you turn so you will maintain momentum.
If this technique is too complicated it is also possible to reduce the angle of the edge of the outer ski, as you move through the last part of the turn. With a reduced edge angle, the ski will still help you to turn but it will skid over the snow surface at the same time eliminating the likelihood of ski chatter. This gentler approach may be enough to counteract the tendency of the outer ski edge to bite and release repeatedly.
It may be worth speaking to a ski technician who can assess the stiffness of the skis you are using, your ability level and the type of skiing you are undertaking. If your ability has improved, you may well be advised to use a stiffer ski, which won’t flex as much during corners and eliminate ski chatter in the process. If after consultation it seems the skis aren’t the problem, then some coaching in how to move your centre of mass across the skis during a turn may be the better option.