Some four million American skiers are awaiting the season's first snow reports, and a great many of them are united in a single resolve. This year they will keep their skis, boots and knees together; they will ski parallel. They will abandon trusty stem turns and forsake comfortable feet-apart stances. They will emulate the slow, graceful sweep of their instructors' skis-together turns and vow not to backslide during free-skiing hours, even though it may mean some snow-eating up among the moguls, where vows are more difficult to keep than on the manicured teaching slopes. And before the last Gl√ºhwein of spring is consumed, a large number will be successful. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED applauds their resolve and offers on the following pages an introduction to parallel skiing, as demonstrated by a masterful Austrian skier, Stowe Instructor Helmut Falch (see cover), in sketches by Robert Handville.
The current mass interest in parallel skiing is relatively new. For years the parallel technique, while recognized as the ultimate, was widely thought to be the property of an elite composed of men and women more athletic, better equipped and with a lot more time to ski than the average lift rider. But with recent major advances in skis, boots and bindings of middling price, with more and better-tended trails and with the present drive for standard teaching methods in America, that idea has been sharply changed. What once was a jumble of personal, regional and imported teaching styles is being resolved into one—the so-called American system, which is another way of saying modified Austrian. Everything taught in certified ski schools, from the beginner's snowplow on up, is part of a step-by-step progression toward parallel. The Austrian tendency to drill for perfection at each stage is notably absent in America. The student is sped on as fast as he reasonably can advance. The rush to parallel has been so massive that Stowe, for example, can claim to observe a third of its customers paralleling with some degree of facility, Aspen a comparable proportion.
This is not to say that the step up to parallel is easy or quick. There can be a time of purgatory in which the skier, too proud to stem and too poor in technique really to parallel, is all false starts. The novice is rarely told but soon learns that merely keeping the skis together in a simple sideslip or gentle schuss requires a serious effort of will. But the rewards for rigorous practice and perseverance are real. Like the high-handicap golfer who belts a long straight one off the tee, the skier of small experience who finally gets his skis together and executes some pretty good Christies is exhilarated beyond rational belief. He's hooked, and likes the feeling.
The last bridge to pure parallel skiing is the stem Christy (above), in which the skis are parted only to initiate a turn. At right, Instructor Falch completes traverse and stems out his uphill ski. Then in one fluid motion he shifts his weight to uphill ski, brings the other parallel and sideslips into turn to the left. Eliminating the stem (below), Falch demonstrates a valuable exercise preparatory to parallel skiing. From a forward sideslip he sinks down and edges sharply (left). From that platform he immediately hops tails of the skis uphill (center) and descends (right), ready to sideslip again. This gives feel of check-and-go maneuver, perhaps the most important segment of parallel technique.
Common faults to be overcome are leaning forward from the waist (above) and leaning into the slope (below). The first is the usual reaction of students to unaccustomed speed, but it only magnifies the problem. Speed is unchecked or increased, and the skier's only aim now is survival; a proper parallel turn is impossible. Leaning in results from timidity on steep slopes. There is a tendency to hug the hill, as in sharp descents made on foot. The skis go out from under and a fall ensues. Standing out over the skis is one of several unnatural positions that must be practiced until they are reflexive.
Putting theory into practice, Falch swings easily downhill in the style of parallel skiing called Wedeln, which simply means a series of closely linked turns from which traverses are omitted. His is a straightforward approach free from contortions. His stance is upright and slightly forward. He swings to one side, with most of his weight on the outside ski, edges angled inward against the snow to control the sideslipping motion and upper body roughly square to the fall line. With a down motion and slightly deeper bite of the edges, he finishes off one turn and touches his outside pole to trigger a swing back the other way. He flicks the tails of his skis up and across toward the fall line, skids the tails across it with weight now shifted to the new outside ski and the sideslip now controlled by angling the opposite set of edges—and so on in rhythmic repetition. The moment in which he checks speed and changes direction is critical. Hesitation breaks one's rhythm, lets the skis come apart and starts the next turn badly. A turn well begun usually ends well; begun badly, it remains sour.
As the skier moves on to steeper trails he must sharpen his reactions. Everything is accelerated. Hesitation, sloppiness and failure to read the terrain below are swiftly penalized. On the opposite page Falch rounds out a swing to the right, in the second figure edges crisply and touches his pole, and in the third puts plenty of air under his skis as he hops the tails up and across to change direction. Here the artist has moved Falch slightly from the photographic sequence on which these illustrations were based in order to show the maneuver more clearly. Finally, Falch takes advantage of a rise to his right, checking speed a bit by letting his skis slide up against it.
Experts vary a good deal within the basic framework of parallel skiing, and Falch exemplifies the natural look, as opposed to the India-rubber acrobatics of many brilliant stylists. Falch's way is the one currently in vogue in the U.S., and with good reason. Extreme shoulder, knee and hip action can be fine to look at but for the recreational skier are hard to imitate with any proficiency. Furthermore, the natural stance focuses the learner's attention where it belongs: on footwork. If the skis behave, a lot can be loused up above the knees without destroying a turn.
Two bodily motions which the skier must get down pat have the mouth-filling names of counterrotation and angulation. The first means twisting the shoulders against the set of the skis, and Falch is doing so. Angulation means leaning the upper body out, pressing the knees in. These movements are essential to balance and also provide a windup, analogous to a baseball pitcher's pumping motion, from which the skier can rhythmically bounce back in the opposite direction. Falch's hop at the left is a moderate one. The height of the hop is not particularly important as long as the skis comfortably clear the slope. On steep slopes there is obviously more mountain in the way than on shallow ones, and more lift is necessary. Ski schools routinely teach beginning parallel students to hop vigorously just to give the feel of elevating those slats. A valuable exercise is hopping the tails back and forth while running directly down the fall line on a dead-easy slope, but in finished skiing it is incorrect to hop beyond the fall line. The right way is to descend in it or short of it and let the skis slip around and down in a controlled skid. Skiers who consistently pick up more speed than they can handle in the swing through the fall line may discover that one reason is simply dull edges. If edges are not kept sharp they will not have the proper bite. It is extreme folly to handicap oneself with dull edges.
Mental preparation can take much of the toil out of making the transition from stem to parallel skiing; it is wise to have the basic movements thought out beforehand. And if there is one overriding idea to keep in mind it is perhaps the concept of continuous motion; once you begin a maneuver, keep on with it. Over and over again instructors see students set their edges to begin a Christy—and then hesitate. This is like checking a golf club momentarily on the downswing. In both cases the result is disaster.