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To Pole or Not to Pole?

By Dan Balkin, HoliMont Snowsports School 

That is the question. Paraphrasing Shakespeare always places one in good company. If the immortal bard had been a skier, he may have posed the question himself. Our snowboarding friends have shed their ski poles, but alpine and tele skiers still rely on them for a variety of functions.

All skiers use their poles for propulsion (pushing on the flats or heading up a gentle incline).  Many skiers use their poles as a brake to position themselves for getting on the chairlift. After those two exceptions, if we watch skiers coming down the hill, we can detect a seemingly endless variation in the way that different skiers employ their ski poles.

What I am about to say is not ski instructor dogma – and some of my colleagues may even regard it as a bit heretical. But I learned long ago when I spent five seasons teaching skiing overseas that any national technique is simply that – a national technique. I have taught skiing with instructors from many different nations, and most of them had a slightly different take on how to plant ski poles in the course of the turn. This experience taught me that using poles is not an “objective” truth (such as 2+2 = 4), but a “subjective” belief (the Stones are better than the Beatles). Funny how no one ever compares the Stones or Beatles with Mylie Cyrus – but that is another story.

That said, I have a simple rule about the use of ski poles: Use them when you need to, otherwise get them out of the way. No doubt, planting ski poles play a role in skiing steeps and moguls, but we don’t really have much steep terrain in our neck of the woods and very few skiers actually venture into the moguls. So the focus of this article is on how ski poles are used in our everyday “piste” or trail skiing.

My belief – again, this is not PSIA dogma – is that the pole plant hinders, not helps, most skiers’ ability to make a ski turn.

Several years ago, I attended a PSIA (Professional Ski Instructor of America) update clinic with a PSIA examiner named Eric Jordan. At the top of one run, Eric asked us a question:  Should skiers plant their ski pole before or after they make the edge change for a new turn?

The ski instructor dogma we had all absorbed for decades said that we should plant our pole JUST BEFORE we make our new turn. This essentially promotes what instructors call an “edge-check” turn. In other words, we plant our pole for the new turn while still on the uphill edges from the prior turn.

A wry smile came across Eric’s face – and then he explained why all of us were WRONG.  Eric said that (excluding moguls or steeps) the pole plant should come AFTER we change edges to make our next turn down the hill.

That simple idea set off a revolution in my thinking. He was, of course, correct. The real change in thinking that Eric put forward came about as a result of shaped skis. These skis are so much easier to turn, that we no longer needed to rely on the old straight ski method of planting our pole BEFORE making our turn. Even though we instructors were all sporting shiny new shaped skis, our pole plants were still caught in a straight ski time-warp.

Our young friend here is making a turn to the right. She will finish the turn on her uphill edges. My point is that if she continues to hold her left pole at an angle, she can simply let the basket of her left ski pole brush against the snow AFTER she changes her edges to turn left. That way, she avoids a jarring pole plant which arrests her flow into the new turn. I believe that concentrating on firmly planting your pole before you turn is, in most situations, an anachronism from the straight ski era that is no longer necessary.

What is the “international” pole “touch” (notice I did not say pole “plant”)? It is found in World Cup Ski Racing.  Look at the YouTube video of the recent World Championships in Vail and you will not see one racer using a jarring pole “plant” that arrests their forward momentum. Well, we may never stand on a podium while having a medal draped around our necks – but we can, and should, bring our pole “touch” into the 21st century.

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