Snow Displacement – The Holy Grail Of Skiing

Phil Smith, director of Snoworks, talks about the one thing that very few skiers know about but everyone uses – Snow Displacement. 

If you’ve been on a Snoworks course you will know all about Snow Displacement.

Snow Displacement is exactly that, moving snow. It is the holy grail of skiing. But nobody really talks about it, few know about it and many dismiss it. Why is it so important? And why will knowing about it and getting good at it, take your skiing to unprecedented levels?

Skiing historically has all been about looks and technique. Which way should your shoulders face, how are you standing on your skis, angulation, edge control, balance, pole plant, width of your stance. The list is endless. But very few people talk about what actually gets us down the mountain in control. This is snow displacement.

It was many years ago I discovered Snow Displacement. I’d love to take credit for it but it was a colleague of mine Brian Fearn who first started talking about it. We used to talk about ‘Pressure Control’ as used by all ski instructor associations and began using the term ‘pushing’ for our students as it seemed a more useful term. I used to think of Pushing and Pressure Control as the same, but they were profoundly different. Pressure control is simply the amount of pressure you exert on the ski against the snow. In simple terms this would be the same as standing on some weighing scales and seeing what weight you are or using your arm and pushing down on the weighing scales. Pushing is different. More akin to pushing the weighing scales sideways across the floor.

Brian was the one who first explained to me these are two entirely different actions. You could have lots of pressure but minimal snow displacement and you could have the opposite, not much pressure and lots of snow displacement. Once I understood the concept it became clear to me why so many people defied conventional instruction and seemed to ski well in spite of skiing entirely differently to conventional wisdom.

The first encounter with snow displacement was over 30 years ago. We were running a bumps clinic in La Clusaz. We must have had over 40 students on the clinic. As always in those early days we did the infamous ‘ski off’ and split people into groups of ability related to what we ‘saw’. There were two young skiers that caught my eye. Philip and Simon. The experience was so profound I remember their names 30 years on. They were terrible, LOL. Did everything ‘so called’ wrong. Stood bolt upright, leant back, swung their shoulders, arms all over the place, legs clamped together. They even skied with their coats undone swishing in the wind. You know where they ended, yep, bottom group. After day one, their instructor came to me, Philip and Simon would need to move up a group. “You have to be kidding.” I said. “They are far too good for my group” was the reply. They went up a group. On day 2 their new instructor came to me and said. “Philip and Simon will need to go up a group.” “No way”. We moved them up into a group of trainee instructors. On the third day their instructor came up to me “Philip and Simon are far too good for my group they will need to join you.” “I am taking top level ski instructors for their final exam, that is not possible.” “They have to go with you.” They came into my group and lo and behold they were the best in my group. How did they ski? They stood bolt upright, leant back, swung their shoulders, arms all over the place, legs clamped together. Still skiing with their coats undone swishing in the wind. How could skiers that defied everything I knew about skiing, ski so well? They did everything I was taught not to do but could ski the bumps so fast and in so much control, better than everyone in the group.

The second encounter with snow displacement was a few years later. We had progressed on and no longer did the infamous ‘Ski Off’. Now we just chatted to skiers and asked them what sort of terrain they liked to ski and split people into groups according to their wishes not ours. A group of skiers came up to me on the last evening. “What a great week we’ve had. You don’t remember us do you?” “No.” I replied. “We came with you 5 years ago, you watched us ski, did not like what you saw and put us in the bottom group. We decided not to come back until now.” It was a complete change around. Here were skiers who when I watched ski and compared their skiing to my perception of conventional ski technique they went into our lowest group. When we listened to what they felt they were capable of, they went into the top group. How was this possible? It was another one of those moments that have you questioning everything you know.

The third encounter with snow displacement was in Verbier. Home of free-riding. I happened to bump into a coach that was training instructors. I asked how it was going. “Terrible, their skiing is awful, they can’t ski.” I was surprised as I knew this group of skiers had spent the whole season in Verbier skiing everywhere. They must have been good skiers. “What! They can’t ski?” I asked somewhat surprised. “Oh they can ski everywhere, they are just terrible.” This has to be a contradiction. How can you ski everywhere competently, but still be terrible? The two just don’t add up. Again it was confirmation that skiers who do not conform to conventional ski instruction can still ski very well. There must be something they are doing that is not seen or taught within the conventional structure.

The forth encounter with snow displacement and where the term was born was again in Verbier. I had a high level group of skiers. The weather was bad up high so we had dropped into the trees lower down. There was a lot of deep snow which had been skied, so tracks everywhere, combined with trees, patches of ice where the deep snow had been scrubbed, along with bumps and drops. The terrain and snow was the most varied ever. The group was struggling even though they were a very high level. “Come on Phil, give us some tips.” Everything I suggested did not work. The snow and terrain was just too variable. Every second, every meter different. I tried to explain that our skiing needed to be as variable as the mountain but it just was not working. We tried to find for a common denominator that would be a consistent whatever the terrain, whatever the snow and after much deliberation we came to the conclusion the only common denominator was speed control. Whatever the terrain, whatever the snow we had to control our speed. How? Speed control in conventional ski teaching was either using a skid, which clearly would not work in deep snow or going around the turn and going back up hill. Which again would clearly not work with trees and drops in the way. How can you control speed when you cannot skid as in the conventional way and you cannot use your turn shape? The answer is so obvious. MOVE SNOW with your skis. The term SNOW DISPLACEMENT was born there and then.

So how do you DISPLACE  SNOW?

It’s so simple it’s crazy. Everyone does this all the time. Since their very first day on skis they’ve displaced snow. Every turn, every run, every day throughout their skiing career. Not a minute goes by without displacing snow when skiing. The next time you go skiing take a look at every skier. You will see snow spraying up as every skier makes a turn or an adjustment to their speed. It’s all subconscious. That snow spraying up is snow displacement in action. Now here lies the problem. If you work on technique alone then your technique will determine how much snow is displaced. If your technique remains the same all the time then the amount of snow you displace will remain the same all the time. Hence why the vast majority of skiers travel at a similar speed all the time and struggle to either speed up or slow down. It’s why the vast majority of skiers stick to the pistes unable to progress into bumps, steeper terrain or off-piste. It’s why the vast majority of skiers struggle on ice, deep snow, slush, bad visibility, bumps or anything tricky.

Some snow is easy to displace, some snow difficult, some snow awkward and sometimes it feels that there is no snow to displace. On well groomed pistes snow is easy to move. Hence why most skiers stick to well groomed pistes. Off-piste and slush, snow is more difficult to displace. Bumps, narrow slopes, awkward shaped terrain snow is tricky to displace and on ice it feels there is no snow to displace. So you have to get used to this. Once you get the idea it’s easy.

All you have to do is use your muscles to move the snow. Get your foot or feet and push the snow sideways with your skis. It’s so simple. That’s how you can control speed and change direction in all types of terrain and snow texture.

(If you are a racer, speed is your friend, so it’s still snow displacement but opposite to all-mountain skiers. Racers are trying to displace the minimum amount of snow possible to change direction without slowing down. Or even using the skill of ‘Snow Displacement’ to accelerate. More of this in another blog.)

‘Snow has to move’

That’s it, snow has to move. Every skier on the mountain is moving snow. It’s your muscles and the snow. Once you get used to this it’s easy to ski everything. Look at the slope and say to yourself can I move the snow? If you can move it, you can ski it. If you can’t move it, you can’t ski it. Simple.

Watch the Snoworks Snow Displacement video.

Let’s take off-piste as an example. Most people when starting out in off-piste focus on trying to turn their skis. The result, it’s really difficult and you end up tripping over. On the other hand use the base of your ski or skis to move the snow and you change direction and control your speed almost effortlessly. Bumps the same. Ice, easy.

Once you get the idea of snow displacement everything changes. Your focus is on control, not how you look or your technique, purely control. You’ll find yourself getting down things you never thought possible. You’ll begin to ski in harmony with the mountain. You’ll realise that off-piste, bumps and ice are your partner not your enemy.

Snow displacement is taught on Snoworks courses.

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Phil Smith is founder of Snoworks All-Mountain Ski Courses. Snoworks runs Ski Courses throughout the year where you can learn snow displacement to become a competent all-mountain skier learning to cope with everything the mountain throws your way.