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From Schussing to Shredding

From schussing to shreddingOpen any ski magazine and once you skip over the advertisements for equipment, ski holiday packages, and clothing, there usually is a ski pointer. An instructor offers the pointers on everything from skiing down boiler-plate ice to carrying your skis correctly. From the beginning, skiers have looked to instructors to help them improve their technique – how they get down the hill safely while looking good.

Early manuals and ski clubs emphasized the basics: the best way to recover from a fall, the best way to walk up the hill on skis (the herringbone), the easiest way to come down the hill slowly (the snowplow). Explaining what each part of your body should be doing as you are hurtling down a steep slope is difficult; “follow me” does not always help. The task of the instructor is to break down the action, so the student can understand it. Downhill ski, counter rotation, unweighting all are terms that take time and feel to comprehend. Hannes Schneider in 1924 recognized that and set about teaching alpine skiing with a systematic approach.

Everyone got in on the action then. Between 1930 and 1980, thousands of books appeared on the best method, the latest technique used by the latest gold medal winner, and other hypes to assure you could ski like Jean-Claude Killy, Billy Kidd, or Stein Eriksen. In ski magazines, Jean-Claude, Billy, and Stein were diagramming what they did.

The advent of the movie camera and sequential photography helped to visualize the beauty of skiing and analyze a skier’s body position. Ski racers and coaches slowed down moving pictures to see how the most successful racers approached their turns and where their weight and arms were as they sped down a slalom course.

But let’s face it, for most of us skiing is recreation. Cruising down groomed slopes on our easy-to-turn short, shaped skis is a far cry from the anxiety you feel watching the great skiers of the 1930s hurtling down ungroomed trails on their ancient equipment. Better equipment, faster ski lifts, warmer clothes, more grooming and easier terrain give us all hope that we can ski, and look good doing it.

The Teachers and the Racers

From the late 1930 until the 1980s many countries, buoyed by their ski team successes, proclaimed their leadership in modern ski technique development. There was the Swiss Method, the French Technique (1948 Olympics winners: Couttet and Oreiller), the new Austrian method (1950-52 Olympic winners: Hans Nogler and Franz Gabl). Depending on the nationality of a winning racer, the method of the day prevailed.

In the US, Billy Kidd and Jimmy Heuga won Olympic medals in 1964, and the American Ski Technique was born. In 1979 The ATM: The Official Book of the Professional Ski Instructors of America was established.

From schussing to shreddingHannes Schneider: Creator of the ”Alberg” method, 1924

Along with Sir Arnold Lunn, Schneider brought downhill and slalom racing into the forefront. The now famous Arlberg-Kandahar races were developed distinctly from Nordic racing.

Schneider developed the crouch, which lowers the skier’s center of gravity without putting him back on his heels. From stem christiania through the progression to parallel skis, he organized the various movements into a logical system in which the pupil advanced from one maneuver to the next. He preferred to teach groups not private lessons, because he felt we learn by watching one another.

Dick Durrance, an American brought up in Germany, outskied all his American competition using the Alberg Technique of Hannes Schneider first at Dartmouth College and in the Olympics. In his iconic low crouch, forward lean with legs slightly apart, he flung himself rotating his upper body into a turn. His equipment was long wooden stiff hickory skis, soft leather low boots and the loose bindings. Photos of other Arlberg teachers feature the same look.

From schussing to shreddingEmile Allais: A Frenchman who was both an innovator of technique and equipment. He skied under an Austrian coach Anton (Toni) Seelos, who taught him the elements. Toni Seelos is credited by all as the “real founder of the parallel school,” whose motto was “no swing without a counter swing.” In 1936 Allais began working with Rossignol on new skis for racers. He asked: Is turning power best generated by rotation or counter rotation? He advocated twisting the torso, which is different from the Arlberg method’s approach to turns through the progression of the stem. Some of these issues divided the ski instructors for generations. What Allais pointed out was that much was learned from successful ski racers –the technique of a winner is something to be analyzed and copied.

Others had more innovated schemes to get people on skis.

In 1948 Walter Foegger established the NATUR-TEKNIK. He promised to teach a skier enough in 7 lessons for that skier to become an advanced skier. The goal was to get the average skier to turn quickly: to turn the way the good racer turns. Skis of normal length are used and instead of stems and snowplows, the pupils learn to hop and counter rotate. When your left leg comes forward, your right arm goes to reverse shoulder, so the pupil hops instead of turns.

In 1958, Clif Taylor at Hogback Mountain outside of Manchester, Vermont started his pupils on short skis. He began the GLM or graduated length method. Other instructors took over the concept, which gave shorter skis to beginners and as they learned the basics they got longer skis. This was incorporated into the American Teaching Method.

From Schussing to ShreddingNine History Making Skis

Improvements in equipment made it all possible. Wood skis, made out of hickory for strength and resilience with a layer of ash for liveliness, were dominant until the 1950s. The downside of wood is that they lose their camber and spring, they have to be rather thick and do not turn well in soft snow. In 1930, an Austrian Rudolph Lettner put metal edges on his wooden skis for protection and found that they turned much better.

As skiing became more popular, trees were cut and slopes were widened and the skier worried less about short quick turns to keep them on the trails. At the same time, more skiers meant more moguls, so especially on steeper slopes the skier again had to look for quick tight turns. They looked to the slalom racers to copy their style.

Solid hickory ski with a ridgetop which ran in front and in back of the foot. The ridge allowed the ski to bend into a more pronounced arch without breaking. The Dartmouth Cooperative Society sold imported skis such as the famous 1935 Eriksen which Dick Durrance favored.

1940 Splitkein: The 10th Mountain Division Ski. The Army ordered all their skis painted white for camouflage, stamping the skis serial number across the tips. The skis were built by various firms to the Army specifications which included the requirement of “laminated” construction. Splitkein means “split cane” which describes the type of laminated strips used in the construction.

1955 Northland Monarch: Hickory laminated ski covered in clear varnish to show the laminations, sold new for $32.50, and known for its sturdiness and reliability. In 1955 on 225 Northland skis, Ralph Miller was timed at over 100mph on a downhill course in Portillo, Chile.

1956 Kastle: The creation of Anton Kastle of Austria. In the mid to late fifties, the entire American Team was on Kastle, including Buddy Werner and Tom Corcoran. In 1952 Andrea Mead Lawrence was a Kastle skier. Toni Sailer’s triple gold in 1956 was on Kastles. The last of the great wood skis; the softer more responsive Kastles were part of the new style of racing - the wedeln.The tighter set slalom courses demanded quick turns, which required a supple ski.

from schussing to shredding1958 Head Standard: Head was the world’s first successful metal ski - the most radical departure in ski-making at that time. Made of a sandwich of wood, aluminum top and bottom, plastic sides and one piece steep edges, Heads could be turned out on a production line unlike wooden skis that had to be handmade. It turned easily in any condition. The Head Standard became known as “The Cheater” because any novice ski could carve a turn like a pro. The Head Standard was NOT a racing ski. It held poorly on ice, and at high speeds vibrated rapidly making the ski bouncy. The later model 360 addressed these issues.

1962 Kneissl White Star: Made from epoxy/plastic with a wood laminate core and a fiberglass casing. Fiberglass is lighter then wood, absorbs shock better, and lacks the fast vibrations of metal. Karl Schranz won the 1962 World Championship at Chamonix on Whites Stars. From then on practically all skis were made of fiberglass.

1968 Dynamic VR-17: French ski maker Paul Michal started perfecting plastic skis in the 1940s. By 1962 he began working in plastic and developed a soft tip stiff tail high performance ski with the mid section a stiffer “torsion box.” These elements made the ultimate “Avalement” ski that allowed a skier to sit back and accelerate out of the turns, lean forward and carve. Dynamic worked with Jean-Claude Killy who perfected the technique and in 1968 became the second man in history to win three gold medals in one Olympic, all on the Dynamic VR-17s.

1968 Rossignol Strato: Rossignol has been making skis since the 1930s. Emile Allais, the French bronze medal winner in 1936, was hired to help design racing skis. Allais and Rossignol went on to develop successful lines of skis including a metal ski which gave Jean Vuarnet a gold medal in downhill in 1960. The Strato is a fiberglass sandwich with a stiff tail soft-tip pattern and starting in 1966 became the premier women’s racing ski. Nancy Greene of Canada won gold in the GS in the 1968 Olympics. It was a ski that could be used by racers and recreational skiers.

1996 The K2 Four: The first really popular shaped ski that became the best selling ski overnight. It added a gimmick - a piezoelectric ceramic chip under the first layer. When you tapped the ski a red light flickered. “If its Blinkin,’ its Thinkin.” Bode Miller won the Junior Olympics on a pair of K2 Four factory seconds.

The term carving the ski entered the skier’s vocabulary for good with the book How the Racers Ski written in 1972 by Burke Mountain Academy co-founder Warren Witherell. Witherell worked with Burke students to compile information on how to maximize equipment performance and body stance in order to carve the ski.

Carving a turn is the opposite of sliding and skidding into and through turns. Carving is more dynamic, more athletic and more precise. In a pure carve the tip of the ski leads into the turn and the entire rest of the ski’s edge passes through the same groove in the snow. Now all ski equipment, not just racing, is designed to make carving easier.

Shaped skis and improved boots let the skier feel the transfer of weight under their feet as they roll the skis edge to edge. This was nearly impossible for the recreational skier in earlier decades because to initiate a turn on the long straight skis, the whole ski had to be weighted and unweighted.