Why Do Skiers Go From Side To Side?

by Simon Knott | Updated On: January 6th, 2022
Ski Side To Side

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Skiing from side to side down a run is an elementary skill skiers learn from day one, but it is a technique that is continually used by even the best skiers. Why does everyone do this? Why don’t we take a more direct route down the mountain?

By skiing from side to side a skier is much better able to control his descent. However steep the run is it’s possible to break the descent into smaller, more manageable sections by going from side to side. This more controlled descent is safer too; you can quickly slow up or stop and take avoiding action if necessary.

The need to lose speed is a continual problem for skiers. Speed needs to be managed and one of the easiest ways to do this is to zigzag down the run, losing speed with each turn, as the ski edges bite into the snow. Skiing from side to side allows you to avoid obstacles, slow your descent, and ski with more precision.

Traversing the run is a basic technique, used by all skiers crossing a run, in between turns. It is a technique you will use extensively in your skiing life, so it is well worth putting in the time to get the body position right.

In traversing back and forth across the run, the uphill ski is always just ahead of the downhill ski. It is important to remember this, as this stance creates the correct angle for the whole body.

The shoulders should lean out slightly, to keep the weight over the downhill ski. Meanwhile, the knees and hips are pushed in the direction of the uphill side. This helps tilt the skis onto their uphill edges, to prevent skidding.

So, Gravity Makes Us Ski?

When we ski down a run it is the force of gravity, which makes us move. Gravity is always pulling down on us vertically. It always wants to move us to the lowest possible point.

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When you are standing on top of a mountain, gravity will want to get you to the bottom of the mountain. Gravity does not stop exerting a force at the bottom of a mountain, but it is not possible to go any lower, as the ground beneath provides resistance.

The base of skis today is coated with ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene (UHMW-PE), a plastic that creates very little drag on snow. So, with very little resistance between the ski and the snow gravity can exert its full force, enabling Olympic skiers to reach well over 100 mph.

If you compare skiing with a car the force of gravity would be the car’s engine and braking is achieved by skidding the skis against the snow. Naturally, the gradient of the run also affects the speed of the skier.

On a steep slope, gravity exerts a stronger downward force, which explains why you will ski much faster on a steep run compared to a flat run. With this ability to pick up speed very quickly on snow it is important to have several techniques, which the skier can use to lose speed, depending on terrain.

When we make a turn, the snow pushes against the skis to help us change direction or slow down.

When we first start skiing the wedge position (snowplough in the UK) is the simplest and most controllable to teach. With the skis in a V shape in front, the inner edges of the skis constantly push against the snow and allow the skier to control progress easily and build confidence, without any runaway accidents destroying progress.

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With the wedge, position skiers are taught to turn by transferring body weight to the uphill ski, which initiates the turn. In this way the skier can cross the run from side to side, getting used to the feel of the skis and poles.

Where Are The Brakes!

Traversing the run from side-to-side acts as a secondary brake. If we didn’t have much experience and we pointed our skis straight down the run, we would quickly run out of control and crash. However, by zigzagging the run, we are effectively skiing down a run, which is less steep.

Skiing from side to side down a run can be likened to a mountain road with a series of hairpin bends running down the mountainside. For cars coming down the pass, the gradient is less steep thanks to the hairpin bends, so it is safe for drivers to negotiate the mountainside. Imagine what would happen to the car if it was driven straight down the mountainside from the top.

How Many Turns Are There In Skiing?

This process of skiing from side to side on a ski run has evolved into a series of techniques but behind all of them is the importance of maintaining control and adapting to the terrain.

Stem / Wedged Turns

Start off with a wedge turn to give steering and stability. Once you get going, slide the inside ski into a parallel position to create a stem/christie turn.

Chritie / Parallel Turns

The skis are kept parallel throughout the turn giving optimum ease and controllability.

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Skidded Turns

The skis are kept parallel, but also relatively flat at the same time. With this technique, you can negotiate the turns, while braking continuously, if needed.

Carved Turns

Modern skis have a radius along their edges. Using the ankle, the ski edge is dug into the snow, which guides the ski round in an arc making the turn.

All these turns require the skier to go from side to side. As the skier’s technique becomes more advanced there is less necessity for the skier to traverse the whole of the run.

With practice, the skier is able to lose speed simply by skidding the skis in a turn, so that a more direct route down the run is achievable.

skier green pants

Instincts are useful but don’t always need to be followed

It is not unusual, having mastered the correct stance for traversing backward and forwards across the run, for inexperienced skiers to lose their nerve when they try to transfer this skill to a steeper run. Suddenly the steep drop away from them makes them nervous and they turn their body towards the slope.

Not such a crime on its own, but unfortunately this loses the skier the curved body shape and in turn, the skis flatten, and control is lost. While generally in life instincts are very useful sometimes, as in skiing, they have to be challenged.

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