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Going Downhill

The aspect of cross-country skiing that worries most beginners--in fact, keeps them out of the sport--is going downhill. And even when people become skiers, uncertainty over their ability to navigate hilly areas often keeps them off the most scenic trails. With a few simple techniques, however, you can learn to not merely survive downhills, but also to enjoy them.

Here is what to do the next time you are at the top of a hill faced with the necessity of getting down it still standing up:

Trust the tracks: Analyze the hill. It may be easier to navigate than you think. Nordic trail designers usually know what they're doing, and they realize skiers possess different levels of ability. At least on the blue trails, there often is a straight run-out into the flat, so even if you do pick up speed on the descent, you can use that speed to carry you over the flat, gradually slowing down before starting to poll again. You spent a lot of energy getting up the hill; now it's cash-in time. Leave your skis in the tracks and enjoy the ride down.

Position yourself properly: Unlike going uphill where you weight the backs of your skis, you want to keep your weight forward going downhill. If not, your skis will slide out from under you, dumping you on your behind. The proper downhill position, thus, is ankles flexed, knees bent, butt back, shoulders forward, hands out in front of you. In fact, one way to get into this flexed-forward position is to reach out with your hands toward the tips of your skis. Make this a conscious movement every time you start downhill. Reaching further forward will lower your profile and cause you to move faster because of decreased wind resistance. But you'll be less likely to fall in this lowered position, and if you do fall, you're closer to the ground. You'll kiss the snow, not smack it.

Learn the tricks of slowing down: You can control your speed with subtle movements. Since lowering your profile decreases wind resistance, standing more upright and catching the wind will slow you. (Be sure to maintain your forward lean, however.) You can also shave some of your speed by dragging your poles. Since the snow often is slower outside the tracks, moving one or both skis into this softer slow will help you slow down. To really put on the brakes, you can place your poles between your legs and sit on them, digging them into the snow. They'll bend, but shouldn't break. Before doing this, however, you should learn how to snowplow (below).

Snowplow: This is the first technique that instructors teach beginning downhill skiers. Snowplowing is the reverse of the herring-bone that got you up the hill. Instead of separating the tips of the skis, you point them together. Your tails draw apart, forming a reverse "V," or snowplow. The farther apart you push them, the slower you will go, particularly if you press your weight on the inside of the snowplowing skis. Unfortunately, the skinny skis employed by cross-country skiers offer less drag than wider downhill skis, but you can still slow your speed using this basic technique. Another variation is to use a half-snowplow with one ski, keeping the other ski in the track.

Bailing out: Alas, some hills are either so steep or so slick, even the most practiced skiers need to take defensive action. This particularly may be true if the trail curves left or right with trees on side. (Turning is a technique we'll discuss next.) Falling is one way to come to a stop. In a controlled fall, simply crouch and let your skis slide out from in front of you, letting your poles drag behind so you don't run over them. Then get up and figure out how you're going to complete the rest of your descent. For more on how to bail out, see: Stopping.

Chickening Out: Don't be embarrassed, we've all done it: novice and advanced skiers. At the American Birkebeiner, the 55-K ski race that attracts only the most seasoned skiers, they even have side trails beside some of the steeper descents. This allows competitors to take off their skis and walk down. Before doing that, however, you may be able to sidestep your way down the hill. This is the reverse of the sidestep described in Going Uphill. Place your skis perpendicular to the slope, plant your uphill pole firmly into the snow, and lower your downhill ski to a point lower on the slope. Plant your downhill pole for support and lower the uphill ski to a point next to the downhill one, then repeat. Maintaining your weight over your skis is very important if you don't want to slide down the hill. If you decide to remove your skis and hike down the hill, please be considerate and move to the side of the trail so you don't ruin the tracks for those who follow.

Although most cross-country trails are marked to show degree of difficulty (green, blue, black), this relates to relative difficulty within each specific Nordic center, not as compared to other Nordic centers. A green trail at one center might be a blue or black at another--and vice versa. Similarly, snow conditions can affect trail difficulty. Soft snow may make a blue or black trail easier to ski; ice may convert even a green trail into one advanced skiers may avoid. Learn the techniques of going downhill, skiing will become easier and more enjoyable for you.

Getting Started Ski Technique In Full Stride
Introduction Moving Forward Destinations
Conditioning Going Uphill Racing
Equipment Going downhill Nutrition
Where to Ski Turning Snowshoes
Two Techniques Stopping Downhill Skiing