The 2002 Snow Pro Jam

The 2002 PSIA-E Snow Pro Jam was held at Killington, Vermont on December 9-13. The theme was skiing history and the snow conditions made history. It was the first time in a long time when this early season event had plenty of snow to ski on. Including instructors and guests, over 500 people participated in this 5-day event. We all had a lot of fun and we learned a little bit too. This article comes from Rusty Carr’s notes from the event. Keep reading and you might get a sense for what a PSIA event is like. You might also pick up some teaching tips, tips for your personal skiing and/or some tips for preparing for a level 3 certification exam.

Early registration on Sunday allowed us to reconnoiter where we were supposed to be and eliminate long lines on Monday morning. People tended to hang around the registration area and socialize. There was a magnetic pull to stay when you spotted yet more friends you had not seen in a while. Monday morning was a well orchestrated zoo. We filled up a couple of rooms in the Snowshed lodge. Announcements started promptly at 9. After getting the logistical issues announced we were encouraged to visit the sponsor booths in the main room and advised to take advantage of the demo skis available throughout the week (Elan, Volkl, Dynastar and Rossignol). As usual, the Green Mountain Orthotics guys were busy from the start. Soon we were outside hunting to get in a group.

Our group’s focus was level 3 certification preparation. Our clinic leader was Mick O’Gara from Waterville Valley, NH. The other members of our group were:

  • Jack Trent from Seven Springs, PA

  • Jeff Lea from Wildcat, NH

  • Phil Shutler from Ski Liberty, PA

  • David Shutler from Ski Liberty, PA

  • Kevin Chamberlend from Labrador

  • Steve Burns from Seven Springs

  • Randy Reid from (I forget)

The group shared a trait that is becoming common in PSIA: all of us were over 40.

 Mick started out by asking us what we wanted to cover during the week. The normal focus for a level 3 prep clinic is to get ready to take the level 3 exam THIS SEASON. However, the only person who was definitely going for level 3 was Randall. The rest of us wanted to improve our skiing with an eye towards maybe going for level 3 sometime in the future. Rusty added some additional goals for the week:
1) Get the program. I wanted a better sense of what the examiners are looking for when they evaluate level 3 candidates.
2) Get tips for teaching clinics. Instead of just getting specific advice for own areas to work on, I wanted to get our tips presented relative to teaching others. This would help us add to our teaching bag of tricks.
3) Get an update on direct to parallel. This is a new approach to teaching beginners that PSIA is supporting.

Right off the bat, Mick noticed something that almost all of us were doing: pushing off of the old outside ski to initiate extension into the next turn. He asked us ‘Do you feel the back end break out?’ This is a clue that our extension move is not effective.  The “fix” is to delay the extension move until you are on the new edge. If you initiate turns with tipping to get hip movement across the skis instead of extension, extension can still happen as you progress through the upper part of the turn. As part of the fix, Mick wanted us to focus on pressure on the ball of the foot. He told us to get in the back seat and try to bend our ankles. It can’t be done. Ankle movement plays a supporting role when moving the hips across the skis.

Next we focused on initiating turns with both feet on the snow. This helped us focus on the inside ski instead of stepping off the new outside ski. Finally, to zero in the focus on the inside ski, Mick asked us to feel pressure on the front edge of the inside ski during the upper part of the turn. Mick asked us ‘Do you feel chatter at the end of the turn?’ He told us to extend the outside leg in the upper portion of the turn to spread the forces out throughout the whole turn instead of just during the bottom half of the turn. This is easier to do with a wider stance.

In between tasks, Mick let on to a very simple level 3 make or break criteria: ‘Can you arc the skis above the fall line on icy terrain?’ A lot of us level 2 certs think we’re doing it. All you need to do is compare an examiners turns to typical level 2 turns. This will easily identify the half way point that is needed to pass level 3.

The philosophical thought for the day was “Weight change and edge change are not the same”. A lot of us ski as if they are the same. The challenge is to EXPERIENCE the difference in order to understand it.

On Monday night, the Whitetail people had a get together at Arleta Cosby place in the Woods. These were really nice units. We had a lot of food and drinks. And we even had some ex-Whitetail people drop by. By the way, Whitetail had at least 25 people at this event. Liberty had a similar sized group too.

On Tuesday, we started with a focus on keeping the pelvis underneath the upper body. The idea is that our muscles are more efficient when the body is stacked. Rusty really needed this because his upper body was too far forward in an attempt to get pressure on the tongue of the boots. Mick gave Rusty a specific key thought: expose the belly to the wind. It took most of the week to get this through to me, but it did work.

During the day we found a nice steep run with “firm” snow called East Fall. Mick said this was a good run for a typical level 3 exam task: steep short radius turns. Examiners are looking for consistent shape and consistent speed. Mick explained that he likes his exam tasks to have one technical and one tactical focus.

Before lunch we videotaped the group doing different tasks. For lunch we did a little movement analysis.

After lunch Mick made an observation comparing old ski technique vs. current technique. For old style, upper/lower body separation was at the top of the femur. The current style is to separate at the top of the hip at the back. For new turns, the hip comes around with the ski (vs. counter). We let the inside ski edge more and get the g force top build higher.

We worked on long turns next. Mick’s bug about long turns is that they must be continuous. If you do a traverse in between turns to get across the slope, you’re sure to flunk the level 3 exam. Mick said he likes to see “attitude” in turns, especially long turns. They should be fun and we should be able to “rip the slopes” with them.

Next, we discussed a couple of teaching tips. First we noted that we teach people who are resisting speed versus racers who make movements seeking speed. We need to keep that in mind when we use race technique as a model for efficient skiing. Next, it is important to give students something better than what you are trying to fix. Don’t fix problems by just trying to take them away. Give them something to do instead. A Rusty problem that he has been working on for a while is a pop move with the upper body when initiating turns. It’s caused by a decelerating move at the end of a turn. Mick advised Rusty to finish his turns more uphill instead.

Rusty asked what the difference was between the new Direct To Parallel approach and the old graduated length method. Mick’s initial response was other than the skis being shorter – everything was different. The old GLM skis were over engineered. An excess amount of glue was used to hold the skis together because, back then, full length skis often broke apart. The GLM skis were super stiff because they had to support more weight per square inch.  40 years later, technology has improved glue to the point where skis can support the weight of an adult and still flex without breaking apart. The old GLM skis were arrow shaped (narrower at the tip to fatter in the tail). The GLM focus was to hop and use rotary to turn up the terrain. Counter rotation was heavily used. This created a mostly pivoted turn. Edging and pressure movement skills were not developed. Development of balance skills was limited due to the accelerated learning curve. But GLM did build confidence with the short length. The Direct To Parallel focus is tipping the ski so that the ski turns you instead of you turning the ski. Pressure control movements are slight, primarily driven by reaction to centripetal forces generated by the carving ski. If you do not try to stay tipped, the ski will force you upright. The new short skis can flex longitudinally and torsionally. Longitudinal flex helps the whole ski stay in contact with the snow, enhancing control of the ski and also shortens the turn radius and adds energy to turns (when the ski snaps back). Torsional flex aids the tipping motion.

When Mick spotted some of us banging our poles in the snow he asked to soften the pole touches. We finished the day with an exam tip. Think about the different modes that you ski in (e.g. teaching mode, learning mode, fun mode, performance mode). Performance mode is for exams. When you are in performance mode ski at 80-90% intensity and focus on consistency.

On Tuesday night, they were showing old ski movies in the lodge, but most of us just headed to the lodge bar for a drink before heading out to dinner.

On Wednesday, Mick finally caught me. Rusty was trying to set up his next turn by finishing his last turn with a move up the hill. This was also lining me up in a countered position (i.e. my belly button was pointing inside the turn) before the move across the new inside ski. Tsk tsk, it’s ok to finish the turn going uphill, but not with an uphill movement. The movement should be downhill to start the next turn. Plus the upper body should stay square to the skis. The move across the skis should be with the inside hip leading. There goes my crutch!

Our next exercise was cross under turns, but not straight down the fall line. This was trickier than it sounds. We played with rolling edges at different intensities and positions in the turn. When we ran across some of the sketchier snow Mick encouraged us to use a lighter touch in more difficult conditions.

On Wednesday afternoon, we had several optional programs to choose from. The annual CE Burbridge race was canceled because only 8 people signed up for it. Other available sessions included telemark skiing, boot fitting, exam tasks and Killington extreme. Rusty chose to get more video done.  3 different groups went out. Rusty went out with Peter Howard (Sugarloaf, ME) and Pete Robinson (Bromley, VT). We did a variety of segments including yet another run down East Fall doing short turns, rail road turns and skating. Rusty got terribly excited when Peter said he saw one good turn in the short turn segment. After the railroad turns, Peter asked Rusty ‘Have you done this before?’ Rusty flashed an evil grin because he was sure he screwed them up and Peter was really watching someone else. Some specific feedback tips to other members of the group included getting arms wider apart for added balance and inertial resistance against twisting, advice to check boot ramp angles, turn initiation coming from the shoulder down versus from the feet up, need to level the shoulders, and using knee angulation to help initiate short radius turns. For the railroad turns (a common level 3 exam task), examiners are looking for a wide stance, even spacing of the feet throughout the turn and use of the skis sidecut to make the turn. For skating, they want you to skate between the skis versus over them, having the heels together at push off, high edge angle and firmness pushing off, the ski to come off the snow level from front to back and a clean smooth glide phase.

Wednesday night was Outback Pizza (really good and discounted for PSIA too) and Wobbly Barn night. The band was real good. The road conditions were not so good.

On Thursday morning we had 8 glorious inches of powder. Ok, it was a little heavy, but it was still sweet. Mick’s first tip was to tighten the abdominal muscles. Our entire group of over 40 men gave him a dirty look, but Mick just went on to encourage us to use patience during our turns (Rusty calls it slow motion skiing). We noted that the second most common problem in powder (aside from sitting back) is that when people feel resistance to feet turning, they often resort to shoulder movement to help the turns. This burns energy fast. Another energy burner is bouncing up and down to help get more turning power. This works better than shoulder turning, but should be minimized. Rusty gave a couple tips to Dave, pick up your toes instead of leaning back and hold your hands a little higher. We might have lost a run or two by breaking the cardinal rule – being friendly on a powder day.

In the afternoon we hopped on some Elan 130 cm demo skis. These puppies have the same sidecut as the old SCX (clown feet) skis, but are just shorter so they don’t look as funny. Waterville Valley uses these skis in their Direct to Parallel lessons. Mick walked us through how they teach DTP.  First, it only works for people in 130cm long skis or shorter. A new drill Rusty had not seen before was a one ski drill where you dragged the heel of the boot on the snow while turning with the ski on the outside foot. This seemed like it would promote weight in the back seat, but actually worked pretty good at promoting inside foot steering and driving the inside knee forward. The guts of the Waterville Valley DTP lesson involved a fan progression on two skis. You start the progression doing a shallow traverse, then step up the hill to stop (initiate the step with the uphill/inside ski). The second step is to shuffle the feet instead of stepping. Finally, turn the skis by tipping slightly instead of shuffling. This is unbelievably easy to do on the 130cm skis. The transition to linked turns is done with 1 or 2 steps to get started into the new direction, then tipping to finish the next turn.

After the DTP walk through we did some exercises on the shorties for our personal skiing experience. Taking those little things through the cut up powder was certainly a learning experience. Some of us tended to bend over to compensate for a loss of control at higher speeds. Mick encouraged us to focus on a tall stance and staying centered. Finally Mick went in to evil mode. We thought we were returning the demos, but oh no, we only swapped one of the shorties for one of our normal skis. No matter what the value of this exercise was, the looks from people on the mountain were priceless. Some people actually bought the “the rental shop sucks” explanation. Everyone adjusted to the weirdness pretty quickly. At first Rusty could feel one ski arcing and one ski skidding depending on how much edge was used and what turn shape was performed. But after a bit of practice we got more centered and were making graceful turns in both directions. Next came the really weird part. We swapped the shorties from the left foot to the right foot. Mick says 60% of the people that do this “short circuit”. Rusty not only short circuited, but after a stop to reset, he skied even worse. After Mick gathered us up and explained the short circuit phenomenon and after another (longer) reset, Rusty was able to ski normally. The phenomenon was unexplained, but some left turn versus right turn problem may be at the root of it. Whatever it was, it was a great experiential learning task.

Later on we did a drill where we skied with our hands at our sides. Wow – it sure is hard to fight the impulse to move your hands forward! This was a good “bag of tricks” drill to get people out of the back seat. Sometimes moving your hands forward only causes the butt to stick out more to counterbalance.

Mick finished the day by telling us about a mountain study where there was less level 1 retention in lessons taught by level 3 certified instructors than lessons taught by rookies. It turns out the level 3 guys were more rigorous, kept the classes more organized and spent more time talking (cough – explaining). Their classes moved less, got less mileage, and were less fun.

Thursday night was banquet night. The Summit hotel hosted us for cash bar for cocktails before hand and plenty of food stations for dinner (no long lines). The theme was history and prizes were given out for best costumes. A few of us actually did arrive dressed in old ski clothes. The prize for best outfit went to the lady who had a $1 ½ day lift ticket attached to her coat. One guy with a neon pink coat got a special mention. Awards were given out to outstanding instructors and examiners who have showed exemplary qualities or service during the event or their teaching career. The opening band was an instructor with a guitar accompanied by a guy with an accordion. They covered some really really old ski tunes. The main band was another group of instructors who did some eminently danceable tunes. We gave Mick his card (with tip) and he gave us our certificates for attending. Some of us old poopies ducked out early to get some sleep, while the more energetic ones danced late into the night.

Friday was a short day with most of the group breaking up at lunchtime. We spent most of the morning trying to lock in the changes we’d made during the week. Mick noted that most of the time he focused his thoughts on his feet, while race coaches spent most of their effort on what their knees were doing. Although Mick’s observation was that racers focus on gaining speed, while recreational skiers focus on controlling it, the snow conditions were so nice he was getting some understanding of the knee focus. Our task became to initiate turns by driving the knees in the direction of inside the inside ski (instead of the driving the hips to that point). After lunch Rusty made some turns with a couple of Whitetail pros, then hightailed it back to PA for a full weekend of teaching at Whitetail.

The single most important benefit of PSIA membership is the opportunity to get training from some of the best instructors in the country (i.e. our examiners and demo team members). The PSIA-E Snow Pro Jam is the largest ski instructor training event in the country. It is well attended because it is a high quality product offered at a tremendous price. If you like what you’ve read, let Rusty know if the tips in this article have been helpful. If you’ve never attended the Pro Jam and think you might want to, plan on signing up for next year’s event as soon as you’re allowed to. The spots fill up fast!