Back To Your Roots

Phil Smith from Snoworks Ski Courses discusses the original concept of skiing and how going back to this can radically develop your skiing, why you ski, how you ski and the enjoyment you gain from skiing.

Photos: Courtesy of Snoworks All-Mountain skier Sarah Bridge.


In the beginning skis were used to cross the snowy plains, they were a means of going somewhere, getting from A to B, going to school, delivering post. It was pretty simple, jump on a pair of skis and use them to go somewhere. Eventually like all forms of transport, skiing turned into a sport and people started to compete against each other, ski racing developed. Getting from A to B faster, even go round some obstacles to make it more interesting. Skis were still a means of transportation just getting somewhere faster. Then skiing became a pastime. Ski schools sprouted up and techniques of skiing were developed, different ways of ‘turning’. They were even given names such as Snowplough Turn, Stem Christy, Parallel Turn. Skiing morphed into a different sport. Not just getting from A to B but more importantly how you ‘turned’. A little bizarre some may say. Why is ‘how you turn’ so important? Surely skiing is about travelling around the mountains enjoying the experience. Unless of course how you turn helps you move around the mountain.

Why do you ski? To go somewhere, get from A to B, using your skis as a means of transport? Or for some other reason? 

I ask this question as people buy into ski school without knowing what their true goal is. When I ask skiers what they want from their lessons. The reply is often “Tell me what I’m doing wrong”. Or “I want to improve”. When I ask “What do you want to improve?” Many skiers don’t really know.

I started this chapter with the history of why skiing first developed as I feel ski teaching lost its way, left its roots and morphed into something completely different.

I became a ski instructor and whilst going through my ski teaching exams my skiing was scrutinised in minute detail. My turns had to be more or less perfect. At the time I bought in to it. But now I question the whole of ski teaching at the time. Some of the skiers in the groups where really good at getting around the mountain, as good as me if not better, but failed their exams due to some technical aspect in their skiing. Others less competent at moving around the mountain would sail through.

It was almost as though skiing had become a demonstration sport, not just a means of transport. How you moved around the mountain became more important than actually moving around the mountain. For example, the width of you feet took on an unprecedented level of importance. In my ski instructor exams we had to demonstrate two different types of ‘Parallel Turns’. ‘Basic’ with the feet apart, and ‘Advanced’ with the feet together. Looking back at this now it’s laughable but at the time I and others felt it was really important. Why on earth should the distant between your feet be important? I completely understand if this affects your ability to move around the mountain. There’s a purpose about it. But at the time there seemed no purpose other than to perfect the demonstration.

How ski instructors are trained will determine how they teach their students. So if instructors are trained on demonstrations it’s easy for this to come across to their students and the students believe this is really important. As instructors we are often the guardians of the sport. How we think can influence how our students think.

For me, now, skiing is definitely about travelling. A means of transport. One of the most amazing means of transport. Taking advantage of gravity, amongst the most powerful forces in the universe and the incredible quality of snow. It also takes part in the most amazing destinations in the world. The mountains.

I look back at my ski instructor training and I definitely feel we left our roots and morphed into something different. From a means of travel to a demonstration sport. I even took part in ski instructor demonstrations. For the selection for the ‘demonstration team’ all the team members had to try to ski similar. Look the same.

I’m not sure where the turning point for me came. I had risen to the top of my career. I was a Trainer of ski instructors. I started to question things. Why all these turns? Snowplough Turn, Basic Swing, Parallel, Compression, Short Swing, Step Turns. We had variations of Step Turns all given names. We had Basic Parallel and Refined Parallel, Short Radius, Long Radius. I thought why? There has to be a reason, a history. Each turn did have its purpose. There was a reason. But the reason had been lost in perfecting the turn. The turn took on greater importance than the reason for the turn. Each turn was for coping with a particular situation on the mountain. It was time to go back to our roots so we replaced the ‘Turns’ with an environment or task. Bumps, steeper slopes, off-piste, powder, ice, narrow slopes, skiing at higher speeds, slowing down, varying direction. This became the new syllabus. Teaching people to ski the mountain rather than perfect a ‘Turn’. The change was radical. We also introduced skills. The concept which had been around a long time. Edge Control, Pressure Control, Rotary Control. Along with balancing skills, developing movements. All designed to be more competent at moving around the mountain. It was a huge change and designed to take skiing back to its roots. Skiing a means of travel.

Most ski instructor organisations have now moved in this direction. What we call skills based teaching. Developing skills to get around the mountain more effectively, go places, experience. But much of the ‘old’ system lingers on with students still believing they need to ski a particular way. Thinking how they ski is really important rather than how well they ski. How well they can move around the mountain.

To this day we still have students thinking for example that they have to ski parallel, must not skid, ski with their feet close together. For no purpose other than that is the way they believe they should ski. Once you go back to the roots of skiing everything fits into place. There is a purpose for everything.

Demonstration or travel?

Some skiers like to work on their demonstrations. It’s important for them. For them this is what skiing is about. Skiing a particular way rather than a means of transport and that’s ok. The purpose of this chapter is for you to think why you ski? The reason being, if you are being taught or have been taught as though skiing is a demonstration this can conflict with skiing as a means of travel simply getting around the mountain and having fun.

I like to use the analogy of two other sports that are similar with very different goals. Figure skating and Ice Hockey. Both take place on the same surface, ice, with similar equipment, ice skates. The sports are very different and taught different. Can you imagine a player from an ice hockey team swapping places with a figure skater. It would be chaotic and confusing to say the least. Even funny. I think there have been films made about this scenario.

Both figure skaters and ice hockey players are incredible skilful. There’s no doubt about that. But both have different goals.

It’s the same in skiing. Ski demonstrators and all-mountain skiers are all very skilful. But their objectives are different.

If you are into demonstration skiing and you end up with an instructor who is in to all-mountain skiing there may be a conflict of understanding and goals. And vice versa. Skiers who wants to learn to travel and get around the mountain having an instructor who is in to perfecting demonstrations.

There is nothing wrong with learning to perfect demonstrations. Many skiers are not interested in skiing everywhere. Their preference may be to ski on well prepared slopes. Blues and Reds, perfectly groomed, learning to do it with more grace, finesse. Sounds lovely, quite attractive. I was into it for many years. Achieving the so called perfect skiing ‘model’.

The idea of this chapter is for you to understand what your goals are. Many skiers have no goals of going further than the well groomed Blues and Reds. It’s enough for them, they’re enjoying themselves. Or maybe they may have but either think that it’s never going to be possible or just do not know there are skills that can be learnt that will allow them to spread their wings.

On our courses our students are amazed at what they are able to do just with learning a few simple skills, where they can go, what they can experience. This is a testimony from one student but echoes many.

“The Snoworks All-Terrain Ski Course with Snoworks and Emma our instructor transformed my skiing and my skiing experience.

I participated in the All-Terrain Course. I am 45 and have been skiing (in my view badly) for around 10 years, firmly stuck on the blues and reds and rather grateful to get down them safely. After undertaking the All-Terrain Ski Course with Emma, I am now truly an all-mountain skier.

I have just returned from a long weekend in Argentiere, Chamonix where I have tackled every marked run in the Chamonix area with ease and in complete control, popped through the trees and into the powder bowls and skied off-piste from the top of the Grand Montets looking for the best snow and the most fun.

With Snoworks instructions ringing in my ears I have the tools to tackle hugely differing conditions from piste to powder.

Skiing after a Snoworks Course is truly a different experience as you survey the mountain looking for fun and good snow, confident in your ability to rise to the challenges of the terrain.

I still aim to do another course just for the sheer fun of it!  I can’t recommend the Snoworks Ski Course enough, it totally transformed my skiing in 15 hours!  I am never balking at a piste marker again wondering what obstacles it will throw at me down the mountain, I am an all-terrain skier!

Back to your roots.

Next time you go skiing take a few moments to think about your perception of skiing, your goals, what you want to achieve. Is it about how you ski, what others think, about perfecting a way of skiing, some type of demonstration? Or is it about getting around the mountain competently, going places, travelling? 

Would you like to ski on terrain you can already ski or would you like to learn to tackle new terrain you often struggle with?

The answer to these questions will determine your objectives. When your instructor asks what you wish to gain from your lesson you’ll be able to answer them.

“I want to learn to cope with ice”
“I’d like to learn to tackle bumps”
“Id like to venture off-piste”
“I’d like to be able to control my speed on steeper terrain and tackle my first Black”
“I’d like to be able to ski faster to keep up with my friends and relatives”
“I’d like to be able to slow down quickly”
“I’d like to feel I’m in control”
“I’d like to head off into the Backcountry, go places where there are fewer skiers, get away from the crowds”
“I’d like to ski more competently when visibility deteriorates”
“I’d like to be able to cope in deep snow”
“I’d like to learn to ski powder”

All these sentences above have clear goals about travelling and coping with the mountain, they are measured goals. Faster, slower, more control. Ski bumps, steeper terrain, off-piste, powder. Coping with difficult visibility.

On the the other hand you may have different goals about improving technique.

“I’d like to improve my posture”
“I need to stop swinging my shoulders”
“I’d like to learn to keep my weight forwards”
“Angulate more”
“Keep my feet closer together”
“Learn to ski parallel”
“Stand taller”
“Look better”

All these comments have no measured outcome. True they may help for you to become a more competent skier at moving around the mountain. But they may have the objective of just helping you to change your technique, changing the way you ski with no improvement in measured terms. Which is fine. Many skiers want this and that’s ok. But you also have to be careful. As every instructor working in this area will have different ideas about good technique so you can end up going round in circles. Feet closer together, feet further apart, Stand taller, stand lower. Further forwards, too far forwards.

Going back to your routes, thinking of skiing as a means of travel, is very different. I can not emphasis enough how this can completely change your outlook on skiing, why you ski, the enjoyment you get from skiing, the experiences you gain and how to improve. It did for me over 30 years ago and I’ve never looked back. I’ve skied in the most amazing destinations all around the world. Met so many wonderful people. Had experiences of a lifetime. Every day I go skiing I think what will the mountain bring me? Every slope is a challenge to work out. I ski with a smile on my face every day and that, for me, is what skiing is about.