Donny Shefchik
Backcountry Turns
Val, CO Colorado

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February 11, 2010
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Vail Backcountry Turns: Ski technique is key to conserving energy

VAIL, Colorado --In the last Vail Daily Backcountry Turns article I talked about an important aspect of staying strong all day when backcountry touring - your physical and mental being. Today I'll talk about another important aspect of staying strong all day: your skiing technique.

Ascents, or just miles on the trail, are a constant energy drain requiring certain skills and keeping a workable pace for yourself and everyone in the group. Here's a classic scenario: faster members of the group shoot off ahead only to find themselves waiting. As a result, they start getting cold or antsy.

Then, when the slower members of the group show up and get in a couple of deep breaths, the faster people say let's go. Although pace may be the No. 1 factor in losing or maintaining your strength throughout the day, there are several other aspects that will ultimately contribute to staying strong all day.

In cross-country skiing there is a term for conserving energy called the "work/relax rotation." That means for every effort there needs to be a moment of no effort. This can be realized through even a slight glide with each stride.

Each stride should have a momentary 'rest step' that allows your leg a moment of relaxation. Begin each stride from the hip, not the thigh muscle. Relaxing your shoulders with each pole plant and allowing your arms to swing by your side will increase efficiency, relax muscles and conserve energy.

Conserving your energy on ascents includes setting a quality up-track. I've spent way too much time drinking beer with buddies exploring the pros and cons of a steep up-track, and they'll be quick to inform you that I'm always stressing how it's not worth squandering one's energy just to set a steep up-track.

Strong legs and lungs will vary within the group, as will climbing skills, snow conditions, climbing skin width, and even bindings. Whatever steepness you choose, don't struggle and don't let your partners struggle behind you. If you or they are struggling even a little, drop the angle of your up-track by a few degrees.

I have had the opportunity and pleasure to follow a few seasoned professionals up the trail and their mindfulness of terrain and sensitivity to their partners always keeps the up-track at a consistent and comfortable angle. Strive for this.

The ascent may also dole out the occasional situation or condition, usually on steep terrain or in deep snow, when a "kick-turn" is needed for a switchback rather than a rounded stepping turn. Even experienced skiers can have difficulty with the "kick-turn" - a maneuver that is often overlooked because, well, everyone can do a "kick-turn", right? Yet, this seemingly easy skill can use up a lot of energy if you struggle, especially if you have to do it over and over. Trust me, the energy scale will begin to tip against you.

Here's how not to struggle: Almost always make the "kick-turn" uphill. There are a few instances when a downhill "kick-turn" is necessary - I find this when the snow is very deep and you may have to pack out a platform to allow room for maneuvering.

When "kick-turning" uphill don't do a giant "V" shaped step turn. Rather, from the angle of the up-track, bring your skis perpendicular to the fall-line (critical if you are waxing) then kick-turn bringing the uphill ski nearly 180 degrees around, then follow through with the second ski moving from the hip.

Of course, touring techniques also apply to your backcountry descent. Poor downhill skills, whether on a powder slope or a trail, can quickly drain your physical and mental energy. If you have trouble controlling your speed or just staying upright, this usually means you're a bit tense and you may strain muscles just to stay on your feet.

Many people hold their breath when struggling and exhaust themselves getting up from numerous falls. This scenario leads to a significant energy drain. When I see this situation playing out on a tour, I look to change something - like adjusting the route, finding better snow, traversing difficult sections or putting on climbing skins. Simply put, I stop the struggle.

Finally, if a rest stop or lunch allows the time, sit down for a few minutes. Hours of standing up is tiring and you don't want to get behind on your calorie intake. Put on your hat, add a layer if you start to chill, sip some tea, eat a snack and enjoy the view. Remember, you have the power to stay strong all day.

Donny Shefchik is a senior guide and field director for Paragon Guides. He has spent nearly 30 years earning his turns in the Vail backcountry and Tenth Mountain hut system.

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The VailDaily Updated Feb 12, 2010 02:01PM Published Feb 11, 2010 03:58PM Copyright 2010 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.