Vail Daily column: Ski safer, ski better |

Vail Daily column: Ski safer, ski better

Butch Mazzuca

On-mountain safety is an issue near and dear to my heart. Every year I write a commentary about skiing safely and offer a few technical ski tips to make your day on Vail Mountain more enjoyable. With spring break upon us, the mountain is becoming more crowded and with increased crowds comes increased chances of injury.

So while my ski-instructing career ended several years ago, I'd like to share some technical and safety tips to make your ski day safer and more enjoyable.


First and foremost — ski sober. It's no secret many skiers and boarders avail themselves of products which cannot be purchased legally in other parts of the country. What you do in your free time is your business, but skiing or riding in an altered state isn't only illegal, it's downright dangerous.

First and foremost

— ski sober. It’s no secret many skiers and boarders avail themselves of products which cannot be purchased legally in other parts of the country. ... Skiing or riding in an altered state isn’t only illegal, it’s downright dangerous. There’s hardly a local in the valley that doesn’t know someone who’s incurred a serious injury by a reckless skier or boarder.

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There's hardly a local in the valley that doesn't know someone who's incurred a serious injury by a reckless skier or boarder. So do everyone a favor, and wait until apres ski to light up the joint.

When on a catwalk, try drawing an imaginary line down the center and then stay on one side or the other. Following that simple technique is not only a courtesy to other skiers and riders, but having a predictable line significantly reduces the likelihood of being struck from behind. (Note: predictable lines are a good idea everywhere on the mountain.)

When the light is flat stay closer to the trees on the sides of the runs. You'll be surprised at how much better the visibility is there.

OK, you're young and speed is fun. But screaming into a lift line at high speed doesn't impress anyone — it's dangerous and immature. So give some thought to slowing it down 60 or 70 yards before reaching the lift line, especially in those wide open areas around Mid-Vail and Chairs 2, 7 and 11.

Beginners and Intermediates

Most beginner to intermediate skiers make only one type of turn. If you're serious about improving your skiing then try this exercise to take you out of your comfort zone: For an entire run try making two short turns followed by a long turn. Then make a second run making two long turns followed by a short turn. Aside from improving your skiing, it's a great way to loosen up when you first get out on the hill.

And speaking of turns, concentrate on making rounded, C-shaped turns. You'll never improve if you continually zig-zag through the snow. Remember, speed control comes from completing (rounded C-shaped) turns, not braking.

Skis turn with pressure differential. Put more pressure on the right ski and you turn left, put more pressure on the left ski and you'll turn right. But putting pressure on a ski takes muscle and energy, so instead of adding pressure, try lightening the inside ski instead (i.e., lighten the left ski when you want to turn left and lighten the right ski when you want to turn right).


Proper balance is critical to effective skiing, so remember to keep your head up and eyes focused downhill. Your skis will not change color during the day — there's no need to look at them while you're cruising down a run.

Hand placement: Your hands should be approximately waist high, about three feet apart and 18 inches in front of you and held in way so the tips of your poles point at the tails of your skis.

When on a catwalk, try lifting one ski off the snow. At first you may only be able to do it for a second or two, but as you practice you'll find you can hold that one ski off the snow for longer periods of time. The purpose of this exercise is to check and improve your balance.

The lifted ski should be parallel to the ground; if the tip is higher than the tail, then you're probably sitting back. If the tail is higher than the tip, then you're likely too far forward. Do this with each leg whenever you're on a catwalk and you'll be amazed how quickly your balance improves.

Don't forget this one …

Watch for lead-change. Because of our anatomy, during a turn one ski tip naturally moves ahead of the other. Turn left and your left ski is forward of the right ski and vice versa. For smoother and/or more rounded turns reduce the differential between skis by drawing your inside ski back a couple of inches. (When turning left, draw your left ski back when turning right, draw your right ski back.)


For this tip I'll paraphrase Bob Barnes, PSIA trainer — If you encounter champagne powder, the ultimate delicacy that sparkles in the sun and sprays your face as you glide through it, then don't forget it can be very dangerous. So when two feet of champagne falls overnight, stay at home, enjoy a leisurely breakfast and don't head out to the mountain until the locals and Ski Patrol have had a chance to ski it to make sure it's safe.

Quote of the Day: "Many advanced skiers are simply very good at very bad techniques."— Bob Barnes, PSIA Trainer

Butch Mazzuca, of Edwards, writes regularly for the Vail Daily. He can be reached at

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