SKIING ON ICE SHOULD BE FUN!
While we are all in this game to ski that untracked line, icy conditions make up a considerable amount of our time on snow whether on holidays or working the season in a resort. Ice can be extremely tricky to ski and is also very off-putting to even the most advanced skiers. So much so that many choose to hang the ski boots up early and begin après on such days.
The difficult and scary elements of skiing ice is the slippery sensation and the feeling of uncontrollable bouts of acceleration. While most of us prefer not to ski when it's icy, ice does have its appeal to technical skiers and racers for its speed and the amount of energy that can be created with the correct technique.
Either way, there are a few things we can do to make skiing ice a more pleasant experience, the first of which is ensuring that your skis are adequately tuned for the conditions. This is the number 1 most important element to skiing ice well. Most ski shops will generally tune your skis with a side edge angle of 88 degrees and base edge angle of 1 degree unless otherwise requested. This is a good edge bevel for most conditions, however for extremely icy conditions I suggest a more aggressive edge angle. When I know its going to be icy, I usually ski with a side edge angle of 87 degrees and base edge angle of 0.5 degrees. This bevel allows the edge to gain more purchase and slice through even the most bulletproof of surface. I have this more aggressive edge bevel on my race skis and on a good pair of carving skis for free skiing when the conditions are icy. I understand the difficulty of changing edge bevel and tuning skis when renting and I suggest you consult the rental shop for their performance line of skis on icy days.
Once you are confident that your skis are sufficiently sharp you can begin to tackle these harsh conditions with more success. While sharper skis will make it easier to gain grip, it also increases the likelihood of ski chatter. Ski chatter is that terrible sensation when the ski is bouncing across the snow sideways sending shuddering vibrations up your leg. One of the positives of chatter is that if it is happening, you know that your skis are somewhat sharp. Ski chatter usually comes from abruptly edging a ski when it is pointing in a different direction to your direction of travel. Doing this creates incredible load/pressure in a short period of time. This usually happens when a skier turns the ski very quickly with little edge angle at the top of the turn and then tips the ski over quickly at the end of the turn. In this situation the pressure from the snow pushing on the edge to change the direction of your travel is created too quickly, causing the ski to bounce sideways rather than traveling in the new direction.
The easiest way to avoid chatter is by tipping the ski on its edge early in the turn and progressively increasing the edge as the ski follows the arc of the turn. This allows the pressure to build gradually. By doing this the ski will change direction smoothly without a abrupt hit of pressure and subsequent chatter that late edging creates. To edge the ski early in the turn a skier must change edges (from the previous turn) without twisting or turning the ski in between. Essentially the ski moves from one edge to the other before the ski tip turns down the hill. Any turning of the ski before this edge change is complete, will cause a sudden hit of pressure when the ski does finally gain grip on the new edges (wherever that may be in the turn).
With a more aggressive edge bevel and earlier and more progressive edging of the skis throughout the turn, it is now time for the final piece of the puzzle! Stronger angulation is required to balance firmly over the outside ski. An edged ski will only gain true grip with balance/weight/pressure on it. Without this the ski will slide. Therefore all the edge angle in the world will be ineffective unless the skier is balanced over the outside ski with their weight firmly distributed along the inner edge of the ski. This pressure will force the edge into the snow more efficiently without the skis sliding out from underneath the skier. Some people like to use the knees more actively for edging as this allows the skis to be tipped on the edge without the Centre of Mass (CoM) moving too far to the inside. At the end of the day, if the skis are sharp and the edge is applied early and progressively, the skier should edge by inclining with angulation through all of the joints (ankles/knees/hips) as required in all other conditions. The only difference is that the skier might show a more prominent form of angulation in the hip to balance firmly over the outside ski. A great exercise to practise on ice is the Javelin Turn. This creates the separation required to angulate correctly and forces the skier to balance over the outside ski.
So the next time you find yourself on an icy slope or teaching a guest who is struggling with these conditions remember: tuned skis are essential, early and progressive edging is a must and strong angulation to balance over the outside ski is required. If this is done well, skiing on ice can be some of the most fun you have on skis! The incredible energy and speed makes skiing ice one of my favourite things to do and most of the time the runs are empty too!