Who You Calling Good?

Stop arguing. We surveyed the experts and shall now define, once and for all, a good skier.

Jim Harmon

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YOU SEE THEM occasionally: a skier ghosting through trees in total control, a climber spidering up a sheer rock face with ease, a poised surfer rocketing out of a perfect barrel. They’re the picture of mastery and grace, and they define skill, power, and incredible focus.

That’s nice, sure, but what about the rest of us? Is there a way to define a sport’s classic standard and provide the mere recreationist with an attainable goal? You bet. And in this and future issues, we’ll huddle with the experts to decode the secret of what it means to excel at—if not master—your favorite pursuits. By analyzing the necessary skills and laying out the methods to acquire them, we’ll send you off on your mission fully prepared to complete it. First up is skiing.

According to Katie Fry, team manager of the Professional Ski Instructors of America’s national education squads, skiing’s true litmus test is solidly negotiating a fall-line run on a double black diamond littered with varied terrain and obstacles, like big bumps, messy snow, stray piles of powder, icy patches, and rocks. Fry estimates that only 10 percent of the people skiing on any given day have the talent and confidence to expertly take the fall line. She defines this skill as linking 30 turns inside a 20-foot-wide corridor without wandering across the pitch to avoid anything in the way.

“To make it down, you have to maintain balance and rhythm with a lot of terrain changing underneath you,” she says. “It takes accuracy and precise movements, because you’ll do maybe three turns of the same shape and size, then you’ll suddenly launch off a two- or three-foot drop.”

Phil McNichol, the U.S. Ski Team’s head men’s alpine coach, agrees: “It’s rare that you see someone who’s staying in the fall line on a steep slope—someone who has graceful balance over their skis, makes consistent turns, and almost dances down the hill. When I see that, I think, That’s a skier.”

If these old pros just described the easy manner in which you nail any slope on earth, here’s to you. If not, you’ve got some work to do this winter—and your plan of action starts here:

» Start by skiing the fall line of an intermediate mogul run, without using your poles. Instead, hold your sticks halfway down the shaft, and don’t let them touch the snow. “When you ski bumps without a pole plant, the nature of the terrain forces you to figure out when to extend or shorten your legs so you maintain your balance,” says Fry. “You use your lower body more actively.”

» On the way down a bump run, say “Quick!” (or your own focus word) with every turn. It’ll help create a rhythm, triggering you to twist your lower body around and change from one ski edge to the other. Plus you’ll control your breath so that it matches the flow of your body down the pitch.

» As your balance and coordination improve, set goals like eyeballing a tree 100 yards downslope and making 20 turns on the way to it. “It’ll only take 20 seconds to get to that tree,” says Fry, “but if you do it right, you’ll be breathing hard at the end.”