Saturday, October 15, 2005

Baffled by Bumps

Has ski history kept you from mastering moguls?

You’re a fit expert skier, but you’re yet to master the bumps. Over and over, you’ve watched those mogul skiers who glide so fluidly, so effortlessly through the bumps. But when you jump into the zipper line, it spits you out after just a few turns. So, what is it about mogul skiing? It can’t be all that difficult, can it?

Actually, mogul skiing is not so much difficult as it different. That is, different from groomed-trail skiing. The bumps require a special set of techniques that are not widely known outside of competitive mogul-skiing circles. And why are mogul techniques not widely known among members of the skiing mainstream? History, my friend. Ski history.

With your mogul floundering, you’re paying for, among other things, a mistake made more than 30 years ago by the now revered American racing coach and ski-instruction author Warren Witherell. In 1972, Witherell’s book, How the Racers Ski, gave the downhill skiing masses their first comprehensive, understandable explanation of modern racing technique: in particular, the carved turn. The book influenced skiers everywhere. Its message permeated ski coaching and instruction, and helped to improve the skills of countless racers, instructors and recreational skiers. But the book claimed to be more than it was. It claimed to offer no less than “the fundamentals common to all great skiers.” In fact, it offered only the fundamentals common to all great groomed-trail skiers.

Venture away from the smooth, groomed snow, to the bumpy side of the mountain, and the value of racing technique suddenly disappears. Real carving isn’t even physically possible in a tight mogul fall line. The purely carved turn isn’t fast enough for the bumps. It’s also too wide for the bumps, and it requires more ski-to-snow contact than the bumps afford. Also, the racer’s crouched posture and relatively wide stance don’t allow for the rhythmic and coordinated absorption and extension movements necessary in the bumps. In other words, in the moguls, racing technique will get you into trouble. Yes, I know, a few of the more athletic racers out there can ski soft, forgiving moguls with a bit of speed. But have you seen many racers who can ski big, irregular, icy bumps with quickness, smoothness and efficiency, while staying in the fall line all the way down a steep hill? A good mogul skier can do it all day long.

When Witherell described alpine-racing techniques as “the fundamentals common to all great skiers,” nearly everyone believed him. Race coaches believed him. The instructing establishment believed him. Recreational experts believed him. And nearly everyone still believes him to this day. Most skiers, including many instructors, believe that carving and all of the techniques that surround carving are the only legitimate downhill skiing techniques there are. Listen to the advice and instruction that’s commonly passed around by the expert masses these days and you’d think that mogul techniques don’t even exist! Instructors and other groomed-trail experts are constantly suggesting that the narrow, legs-together stance is outdated and incorrect, and that a carved turn is, in all circumstances, superior to a more heavily steered turn.

Although most ski schools do offer mogul skiing lessons, you’d be hard pressed to find, at a traditional ski school, an instructor who knows why the narrow, legs-together stance is technically advantageous in the bumps, or why heavy steering is actually the most efficient means of turning in the bumps. You’d be hard pressed to find an instructor who can explain the crucial importance of absorption and extension in the bumps, or who can ski the zipper line with the speed, smoothness, efficiency and control of a real bump skier. Just as difficult would be finding an instructor who doesn’t traffic in one or more of the common mogul-skiing myths (e.g. fall-line bump skiing is for daredevils only; mogul skiers aren’t good technical skiers; of the several different ways there are to ski the bumps, none is any better than any other; et cetera).

Today’s mogul myths are no different from other myths that have cropped up throughout ski history only to be eventually disproved and disregarded. The Norwegians used to say that skiing steep, alpine slopes was impossible. After alpine techniques were successfully developed, the common myth said that alpine skiing wasn’t safe enough for the recreating masses. (Daredevils only, they said. Sound familiar?) Hannes Schneider then disabused his contemporaries of this ski myth by developing a safe way to teach nearly anyone to ski downhill. Likewise, today’s mogul myths will pass and the expert-skiing masses will learn to ski bumps, once people gain access to real mogul technique.

At heart, perhaps, we North Americans are still just sappy colonials, endlessly impressed by things European. Alpine racing is, after all, alpine; it comes from the Alps, from Europe, and is done best by Europeans. Yes, yes, I know; every 20 or so years, a Mahre or Street or Miller comes along to produce a blip on the world’s alpine-racing radar. But, let’s face it; alpine racing has been pretty much dominated by Europeans, and we colonials have always been endlessly impressed. “Oh, my!” our skiing mainstream said to itself back in 1972, “Mr. Witherell says the alpine racers all carve their turns. We must all do as the great alpine racers do! You’re no good if you don’t carve like the great alpinists!” And our skiing mainstream has since all but ignored the downhill-skiing techniques that we colonials have pioneered: mogul techniques.

Over the last 20 or so years, America’s kneeling at the racing-technique altar has become an exceptional irony. While the U.S. has produced just a few great alpine racers over the years, we’ve produced many great mogul skiers and we pretty much dominate World Cup mogul skiing today. To put it another way: mogul skiing is the sort of downhill skiing that American competitors do best and that American competitors often do better than anyone else in the world.

On the World Cup bump circuit, it’s not uncommon for the top ten finishers of a contest to include five or more Americans. America has so many good mogul skiers that it’s also possible for an almost completely different set of five American mogul skiers to finish in the top ten a few weeks later. America has enough great mogul skiers to field two or three viable World Cup teams. The American mogul competitor’s biggest challenge often isn’t competing against skiers from other nations, but, rather, earning a spot on the U.S. team. Yet, the average American skier is unaware of America’s mogul skiing prowess, and unaware of authentic mogul technique.

Moguls crop up everywhere we ski, and everyone wants to know what to do with them. But ski history has led our instructors and recreating masses to a narrow definition of skiing excellence, a definition built almost solely on racing technique. And so the average expert stumbles through the bumps, trying to apply racing technique where mogul technique is needed. Perhaps, however, the future will allow our instructors and skiing masses to turn away, for a moment, from How the Racers Ski, and to learn something about how the mogul skiers ski. It would only make for better, more versatile skiers. And then, maybe, your local ski school could teach you to ski that zipper line like the bumpers ski it.



Blogger jsul185 said...

Great blog, where have all the bumpers gone. Hey, Dan why doesn't Cannon have a seeded bump run to learn/practice technique. I love Paulie's Folly, rocket, zoomer and avalanche but a seeded run would help. How but a seeded run on it's sister mountain Bretton. Bretton could have a great seeded bump run for mogul skiers. What do you think of Whaleback?

11:27 PM  
Blogger Dan DiPiro said...

Glad you like the blog. Yup, Cannon could surely use some machine-made bumps. And the area does employ at least one cat operator who knows how to build them. But mountain management is reluctant to invest grooming dollars in a mogul field. For a couple of years now, I've been lobbying for a stretch of machine-made bumps on the upper, right-hand side of Zoomer, but to no avail.

Of course, the good thing about Cannon's icy, gnarly, irregular moguls is that they can teach you the art of line choice. If you can ski a straight line on Zoomer or Avalanche bumps, you can ski a machine-made bump course with your eyes closed.

As for the Whaleback project... I love the idea and hope to have the chance to check out the area this season. If Evan Dybvig can build the terrain, assemble the coaching staff, and let the world know about it (and his publicity is already strong), he and his partners could have a thriving new business on their hands, and we all might have a new freestyle community to enjoy. I hope it happens.

-Dan DiPiro

7:55 AM  
Anonymous joegm said...

is dan dipiro gonna be the mike douglas and shane szocs of 1997?
there was a powder magazine cover story from 1996 that proclaimed
well unfortuately, it never quite made it back to the extent that powder fact , it got run over by the jibber bus and re-smashed for good measure again by the old alpine downhiller train with captain BODE at the helm.
as mr plake said in the greatest ski movie ever made fistful of moguls- " it's time to say goodbye to all the gimmicks "
dan , get me your e address please!!!!!
MSR ( mogul skiers rule )

11:53 PM  
Blogger Dan DiPiro said...

The key to mogul skiing's popularity and growth will be skier education.

The interest is out there; the expert-skiing masses do want to know how to ski bumps. But mogul technique has remained a sort of esoteric secret known only in competitive mogul-skiing circles. (I've even heard instructors argue that there is no such thing as mogul technique!)

Once instructors, racing coaches and the expert-skiing masses, in general, gain access to real mogul technique, people will learn to ski bumps well and to enjoy them. Mogul skiing's popularity will then grow.

7:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Just read those articles. Truer words have never been spoken. It's almost as if I could finish some of your sentences.

PSIA is really a fraternity of skiers who bow at the alter of European ski technique. It's all about carving and racing. Nobody in PSIA wants to hear about specialized techniques for skiing bumps, trees, or real steeps (45 degrees+). They'll play the tactics card and tell anyone who will listen that their technique is the ticket, to just alter the tactics. But they can't explain how to do that.

I've heard the same nonsense about being a daredevil and that skiing steep bump lines is outside the ability of most skiers. What a bunch of trash! It's more an excuse for PSIA devotees to explain why they can't ski bumps and why they can't teach others to do so. How incredibly ingenuine! I'm not young in terms of years anymore (47) and I don't ski bumps quite as fast as I used to, but I can ski icy zipper lines with control and fluidity and I sure as hell can explain how to do so to others who want to learn.

It's about having an open mind and embracing new ideas. Tough to do when you have to look over your shoulder for your clinician who might disapprove of you talking to a bumper or who tells you that an examiner doesn't want to see you ski bumps that way on an exam.

I have experienced all of what you write about. Failed level III skiing several times only to be told by the majority of my examiners that I was the best freeskier/bumper in the group. Huh? Isn't that the model that most recreational skiers aspire to? Or are we really to believe that most skiers aspire to wearing tight racing suits and running NASTAR courses all day?

PSIA is a political group that is self sustaining and that has to sell its' form of ski teaching to the exclusion of all others. Most ski schools are similarly either meet their image of what a ski teacher should be or you'll be an outsider forever. So be it, I'm in the game for my own enjoyment anyway.

I don't hang around much with other PSIA groupies either...the mind numbing group speak you hear over and over is like brainwashing. If those folks could hear what they talk about while looking at video of themselves skiing maybe they'd tone it down a bit.

All I know is the end of the season my kids are all better skiers than when we started, they're happy, their parents are happy with the progress they see, and I get alot of referrals. Must be doing something right. Yet I'm still the subject of disdain from the ski school management; a loose cannon they say.

I could go on forever.

11:50 AM  
Anonymous SKIP MCKINLEY said...

hey there fellow moguler. just got back from winter park, looking around for some mogul info and your blog poped up. there is so little out there for instruction, nice to know someone is still psyched about the bumps. sure there are plenty of events for the younger bumper, but where are there events for the older crowd? everone loves demolition derby's, so why not a mogul contest for kids over 40? we could call it the "Bone Breaker" or the Carnage Mogul Tour". Everyone love carnage.
I got to go do my chores now, and then order your book so I am ready for my next trip to "Mary Jane"
talk to you later, IOWASKIP

12:58 PM  
Blogger Dan DiPiro said...

Iowa Skip,

Thanks for checking in, and thanks for buying a copy of my book.

I turned 40 this summer and I, too, have imagined a Masters Mogul Tour.
Until it comes to pass, we do have those miscellaneous, open mogul contests that give prizes for various age groups. Several of these events are held each spring here in New England, I know. And I've just moved into the 40-50 age group!

Stay in touch.


3:13 PM  
Blogger iowaskip said...

got the book, thanks. will help on this year's SAFARI.
every year's gets better,this year lots of trips to winter park for training & fun at the jane. then a couple local contests,back to the west for more, all on a paupers wages, and what about that powder in utah , gotta have some of that too. thanks for the inspiration of writing down & sharing your tips in the bumps. did you ever go to summer bump camp? keep in touch; iowaskip

6:50 PM  
Blogger iowaskip said...

READING YOUR BOOK NOW,,,,, ,,,,, ,,,,,

2:55 PM  
Blogger Dan DiPiro said...

Iowa Skip,

Hope you're enjoying the book.

No, I never attended summer bump camp. Those camps didn't exist in my training and competing days.

As a coach in Nick Preston's BBTS / Waterville Valley Freestyle program, I'm amazed at the training resources available to our kids: summer ski camp, trampoline camp, water ramps, well-made bump courses.... They've got it good.


3:21 PM  

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