Riding Ice

This is a manual transcription of an article I wrote for The Professional Skier.

I had to fit the tone and topical requirements of the publication, and the audience for which it was written; so this piece may read differently than my other works.


Originally published in the fall 1995 issue of The Professional Skier, the official publication of the Professional Ski Instructors of America.


Help Your Students Shine On the Shine.


How often have you been approached by someone complaining about how hard the snow is, on an otherwise perfect day?  If you ride at an Eastern resort, this is probably commonplace.  Many riders, tired of struggling for little success on ice, may give up the sport in frustration.  What would happen if they miraculously discovered that, with good information and guidance, riding on ice isn’t that difficult?  What if you were their resource?  The aim of this article is to help you refine your students’ existing movements and identify common errors that lead to tentative performance on ice and hard snow.


Riding with confidence on hard snow requires that a rider’s application of the skills concept be both accurate and precise.  In other words, less is more.  On ice, trying harder can actually get a rider in trouble— tight muscles waste energy, blocking finesse and fluidity as well as inhibiting balance.


By making the right movements at the right time and discarding unnecessary elements, a rider can develop a reliable movement pattern for all snow conditions.  When your students are able to grasp an otherwise slippery situation, they’ll ride safer and more often, and be inspired to continue their snowboard education.  They may even look forward to those days when the atmospheric Zamboni has left a clean, shining mirror of temptation.


Assessing your approach

Before launching into a rapid and ego-bruising overhaul of your students’ technique, clearly establish what it is they wish to accomplish and how you plan to help them do so.  Is carving a turn a group goal?  Some riders just want to become more proficient at sliding around willy-nilly.  For now you will want to focus on some aspect of their riding other than what you think they need.


On a hard snow day, you may want to point out that a high-quality carved turn (on ice, or anywhere else) is not the sole domain of the hard-boot rider on a race board.  Many people with soft-boot setups and low stance angles can carve with the best of them, snow density notwithstanding.  Discipline and foot strength count for a lot.


Though popular opinion holds that there is no “right” way to ride, you will need to discard this notion if your students are to succeed.  Riders need to obey the laws of kinematics, which govern aspects of motion other than mass and force, and use their boards accordingly.  Under ideal circumstances, it is possible, through strength and perseverance, to cheat these laws for a short time.  Ice can hardly be called an ideal circumstance.  It represents an absolute situation in which a rider’s movements must align themselves with the unassailable laws of physics.  Failing in this, your students will fall down a lot.


Momentarily put side the notion of style.  For many riders, personal style is a handy catchall for bad habits and an unwillingness to try riding in a slightly (or significantly) different way.  Ice doesn’t care how “stylish” a rider may be, and it won’t hesitate to make commentary.


Many riders have difficulty on hard snow because of their tactics.  Quite often they use a stop-and-go, put-on-the-brakes-when-the-speed-gets-scary approach.  Consistency and fluidity of movement are critical, and when movement flow is constantly interrupted, the board is apt to lose its grip.  Encourage students to refine their sense of touch and increase their awareness of movement flow from turn to turn.

Excelling at Edging


Some people may not be aware that their board’s skidding is at the root of their problems on ice.  Snowboards work best on ice when they move along their long axis all the way through a turn.  “Dull” edges get sharp fast when the board moves forward, not sideways.


Unless there is no other way to stop or drastically reduce speed, the edge should never be set across the board’s direction of travel.  In other words, slice the ice.  When a snowboard slices lengthwise across the snow, its construction allows it to dampen vibration that would otherwise cause the edge to chatter and lose its grip.  A continuously carving edge is stable and predictable, whereas braking and skidding are not.  (This is not to say that you should never employ skidding in the course of a lesson, just that it’s not part of successful ice tactics.  Learning to recover from a skid, however, is important.)


Imagine that you’re driving a car and it begins to skid.  The last thing you would do is apply the brakes (we hope).  Your first priority would be to get all four wheels rolling again to regain traction and control.  To do this, you would have to get al the wheels to follow the same path.  If you steered the front wheels into the direction of the skid, the back wheels would gradually come into line, restoring control.


The same methodology applies to a snowboard.  If a rider has difficulty with the back of the board sliding out and away during a turn, he or she can correct the skid by smoothly pulling the rear foot into line with the front foot.  Once the line has been restored, the rider may begin to roll the board onto edge again and resume turning.


To help your students avoid skidding in the first place, advocate that the rear foot follow the front foot through the exact same arc throughout the entire turn.  If your students skid habitually, find an open, gradual slope on which they can practice making very large, rounded turns with progressively less skid.


When your group has successfully reduced skidding to a minimum, introduce turn shape and line as new means of controlling speed.  Many riders don’t think of speed control as an ongoing process but rather as something to deal with at the last moment, when the whole world starts coming at them way too fast.  As a result, they try to control their speed too late in the turn, usually by throwing the board sideways.  One problem with this type of turn on ice is that it tends to concentrate a lot of pressure at the bottom of the turn, at a high edge angle.  If the rider can shape the turn into more of a C shape and less of a J shape, the area of maximum edge angle and pressure can be redistributed earlier in the turn, avoiding chattering, skidding, and an interruption in movement flow.


Using an open, wide trail with a firm, consistent surface, have your students experiment with different turn shapes: deep and shallow, long and short, J and inverted J.  By adopting a rounder turn, they should be able to ride more smoothly, especially at the turn connection/edge change (which should take place earlier than before relative to the fall line).  Your students may also realize that their speed is controlled via the turn shape as it moves them smoothly into and out of the fall line (as opposed to dumping speed at the bottom of the turn by throwing the board sideways and skidding as a means of braking).  Additionally, they may  not feel as “rushed” throughout the turn, as their movements will be more progressive and less hurried.


If your students are successful in adopting a round turn shape, you can begin to have them alter the timing and degree of their edging movement.  Too many riders wait until too late before rolling the board up onto edge.  They usually do this right in the fall line, at a time when the board should already be at its maximum edge angle and gravitational acceleration is taking hold.


As a general rule, the angle that the board’s edge makes relative to the snow should increase and decrease smoothly from turn to turn: rising early, maxing out in mid-turn, and then falling in order to begin the nest turn on the “new” edge.  Between each turn the board should be flat for a short time, not so that it may be pivoted into the new turn but so the movement from one edge to the other is smooth and progressive.


The timing of the rise and fall of the edge is important, especially on ice.  If your students wait too long and try to increase edge angle quickly, their boards will probably chatter.  Or they may lose their balance by moving their body mass into the turn too quickly.  Either way, you can encourage them to time the rise and fall of their edge angle while on flat terrain, by visualizing the apex of the turn fairly close to or at the fall line and working toward maximum edge angle at that part of the turn.


Proper angulation is important as a means of generating edge angle, but remind your class that it is not an end in itself.  Rather, angulation is a means of countering the tendency for a body’s mass to move toward the outside of a turn.  Too much angulation too soon can have the same result as banking:  The rider’s body will fall to the inside of the turn with a resounding thud.  Discourage students from using the typical inside hand drag on the snow, since it’s a bad habit with few redeeming qualities. (Reaching for the snow with the inside hand will bring the shoulders further into the turn and push the hips out, which is essentially reverse angulation).


Pressure Control Pointers


As students become more effective at using edging movements they will need to develop precise pressuring skills to ride well on ice.  As the board is rolled smoothly from edge to edge, it will tend to bend more fully than before, producing a sensation not unlike pushing your feet against the resistance of a trampoline deck.  As you bounce, you put energy into the deck that will then be returned.  The base of support that you push against starts with your body mass and continues with your momentum.  Your balance and ability to add energy to the trampoline is affected by the width of your stance and how well you apply to one or both feet.  By shifting weight from foot to foot, you can influence the area of deflection of the tramp deck.  Additionally, if the deck rebounds against stiff legs, it will send you into the air.  If you allow your legs to flex at a rate consistent with the rebound of the deck, your body will remain essentially in the same place.  Altering the timing of your leg flexion/ extension as the deck deflects and rebounds can have some interesting results, which can be transferred directly to snow.


Your students can think of their snowboards as the deck of a trampoline.  Once on edge, the board’s sidecut allows for deflection, as the rider pushes against the inertia of his or her moving body.  Shifting weight from one foot to the other at various parts of the turn will cause the board to bend excessively at either end.  This type of pressure manipulation can help either keep the board directly under the body or allow it to move out from under the body and into the next turn.  This foot-to-foot pressuring is not leveraging, however, and should not be employed or described as such.  Pure and excessive leveraging will do more harm than good on hard snow.


By controlling the rate and timing of leg flexion and extension throughout a turn, a rider can facilitate turn entry and exit, and maintain edge contact and grip.  If your group of students is large enough, have them pair up and observe each other through a series of turns.  Begin by having the lead rider stand predominantly on the front foot throughout the entire turn, for a series of turns.  Then have him or her switch the emphasis to the rear foot for another series of turns.  Discuss the results and then have students try to move smoothly from the front foot to the rear foot as the turn progresses, beginning each turn on the front foot, finishing on the rear, and then rolling over onto the new edge and back to the front foot.  (The tip of the board always leads in this task.)  The idea is to develop a dynamic, centered stance, from which the rider can move either forward or back as conditions dictate.


Continuing in pairs, have students experiment with the timing of flexion and extension.  Encourage a full range of experience, from total rebound at the turn connection to total absorption at the same location.  Discuss how each method affects stability and balance, and which one enhances edge grip and fluidity.  If you’ve structured the exercise correctly, students should conclude that a small amount of board movement underfoot from front to back, combined with flexion at the turn connection and extension into the middle of the turn, will improve their performance on ice.


Refining Rotary Movement


Most popular sports, such as baseball, football, and basketball, tend to focus on the upper body.  It’s no surprise then that most snowboarders (and skiers) try to turn their boards (or skis) with movements of the upper body.  This trait is generally exhibited as upper-body rotation in the direction of turn initiation.  On soft snow this is not much of a problem and, in some circumstances, is even desirable—not so on ice.  The rider needs secure footing to rotate the upper body to begin a turn, once the board begins to pivot, rotation of the upper body must cease.  Once again, this requires grip underfoot.  Meanwhile, the ice has not become any less slick, and the rider is now moving faster, which makes gripping even more difficult.


Encouraging your students to minimize their movement of the upper body to improve balance and minimize disruptions to the movement flow.  For a series of medium radius turns, require that the group adopt a particular relationship between the board and their shoulders, maintaining it throughout the entire arc of the turn.  Specifically, the shoulders might be parallel to the board, perpendicular to it, or somewhere in between.  Each rider should choose a different position, ride in it for a while, then change to another position and ride.  Discuss the results.  Students should notice that some positions make it easier to move from edge to edge, while others make it more difficult.  This doesn’t mean that the rider’s upper body should always be in the same relationship to the board at all times and in all types of turn, just that it is possible and beneficial to ride without a lot of upper-body gyration.


Balance Basics


Looking back at the trampoline and its similarities to a bending snowboard, let’s consider our means of balancing.  The deck of a trampoline is spongy and inconsistent, and defies our attempts to stand solidly without effort, even while standing still.  As we begin to bounce, we find that our feet are in contact with the deck for only a short time and thus we need to look elsewhere for a base of support.  To deflect the deck, we need to push against the inertia of our body mass.  We can also balance off this inertia.  Balancing off you inertia and movement flow is critical when riding on hard, icy snow.  Because ice is predictable only in the sense that it is hard and slippery, you can’t depend on it for support.  On the other hand, once you begin to move down the hill, your body develops momentum, which is very dependable, even predictable.


With some quality practice, it is possible to influence the snowboard with movements of the upper body, while balancing off the inertia of the upper body.  This is often referred to as upper/lower body separation and is the hallmark of an accomplished skier or snowboarder.  The separation can take place vertically, laterally, and rotationally, all of which are necessary to ride a variety of turn shapes while maintaining edge contact, balance, and continuity from turn to turn.


Encourage your students to quiet their torsos and arms by isolating and gradually eliminating disruptive movements.  If their arms move around in a particular, continuously repeated manner during a particular phase of a turn, it may be a reflexive means of maintaining balance.  Find the cause of the imbalance, located somewhere in the movements of the lower body or in the tactics of the turn, and focus on treating the “disease”, not just the symptom.  Ask students to ride as loose as an overcooked noodle to see how the body arranges itself without conscious interference.  Then ask them to ride as rigid as a steel I-beam and see how hard it is to maintain balance.  Throughout these experiments, make sure the turns have consistent shape and that students begin each turn with subtle edging movements.




Riding well on hard snow requires quality practice time by the truckload, with the following pointers in mind:

1.   Practice terrain should be fairly flat, to control speed and highlight the need to develop precision in movement and balance.

2.   Though good technique transcends turn shape, for the sake of consistency have students use a round, medium radius turn for the exercises outlined above.

3.   Turn shape and line should supplant skidding as a means of controlling speed.

4.   Edging movements should be smooth, progressive, and fluid.

5.   Pressuring movements (both fore to aft and vertical) should be compliant, continuous, and controlled.

6.   Rotary movements should be de-emphasized, reduced, and controlled.

7.   Balancing movements should use the body’s inertia rather than the snow and board as a base of support.

8.   Finesse is far more important than strength.

9.   If you could be a tree in the wind, be the willow, not the oak.

10. Sharp edges make for crisp turns.


Above all, keep lessons on ice fun and creative, and be sure not to jam too much information into students’ stress-laden craniums.  And when all else fails, go skating!


Erik Beckman is supervisor for the Sugarloaf Snowboarding School.  A certified Level III snowboard instructor and Level II alpine instructor, he has written a comprehensive text on snowboarding.