Martin Bell’s Expert Advice: Part 5 - Off-Piste Skiing

Martin Bell’s Expert Advice: Part 5 - Off-Piste Skiing

By Martin Bell

We have been working with former Ski Olympian Martin Bell for over 15 years, collaborating to create and constantly develop our unique PB Martin Bell Ski Academy, which runs in Arosa at February half term for children, aged 11 to 15. Martin has written a series of articles and blog posts exclusively for Powder Byrne, where he shares his extensive knowledge and valuable expertise on all things skiing. In this article Martin focuses on off-piste skiing and gives us his expert advice on the mastering the powder.

Going off piste

If you can only ski on pistes that have been groomed to a perfectly smooth surface, you'll always be limited as to the areas of the mountains you can explore. If you want to progress towards becoming an advanced or expert skier, you'll need to learn how to handle unprepared surfaces: off-piste snow (which may or may not be powder) and bumps.

When snow has recently fallen, it is often light, soft and fluffy. This is powder, and it can be wonderful to ski, creating a floating sensation that feels like flying. But it can also be tricky and frustrating, if you're only used to skiing on the snow, rather than in it. If the fresh snow is only 10-20 centimetres deep (so-called "boot-top powder"), things are relatively easy, as you're still effectively skiing on the older, firmer surface underneath. At first, it will feel weird to look down and not see your skis. You should use a slightly narrower stance, and you should keep your weight evenly spread across both feet; this will lower the risk of one ski being "snagged" and dragging you off balance.

Once you get into deeper snow, say knee-deep, it's even more important to keep your feet together and evenly weighted, so that they act as one "unit" as they sink into the snow. If you stand on your outside ski more than the inside one, your outside leg will sink deeper into the snow, and you'll topple outwards. This happens to powder novices so often, that it even has a name: the "powder flip".

To make turns in very deep snow, you need a '“bouncing" action. Every time you bounce up out of the snow, your skis will come up to the surface, making it easier to pivot them to start your turn. Then as you sink back down into the snow, you can finish your turn and control your speed (usually, the pure depth of the snow will help you slow down). This bouncing action also helps you to balance, and here's why. Imagine standing on a pogo stick; if you just stood still, you could never keep your balance. But if you bounce on it, you can stay upright. This is because you can make tiny corrections on each bounce. With short, bouncy turns in powder, you need to stick to the same principles as with any short, pivoted turns; you need to set your rhythm with solid, regular pole-plants, and you need to turn just your legs underneath you, while your upper body remains looking straight down the slope.

Heavy snow

Off piste snow is not always light and fluffy powder. If the air is too warm during the snowstorm, the snow will be wet and heavy. This generally means that you have to work a little harder to get your skis up to the surface of the snow to start the turn. However, the upside is that you won't sink quite as deep at the end of the turn; the thicker snow will give you more "support".

Breakable crust

Too much sun or wind can create a hard crust on top of the snow - while it still remains soft and powdery underneath. If this crust is thick enough to bear your weight, great - it's just like skiing on a piste. But if it is thin enough to be breakable... well these are the most difficult snow conditions of all. The only way to handle breakable crust is to jump entirely clear of the snow on each turn (hard work), or if the slope is gentle enough, you can step your skis around each turn.

Fat skis

The last decade has seen the emergence of skis that have a wider shape - known as "fat skis", "freeride skis", or "big mountain skis". Because they have a greater surface area, they float nearer the surface of the powder. This means you no longer need to use the traditional "bouncy" technique and can use a more surfy, carvy style. But, the risk of snagging the inside ski still exists, so you need to keep a certain amount of weight on both skis.

Once you learn to ski powder, you'll be hooked on the sensation. Just remember, you'll often need to know how to ski the bad off piste conditions too, in order to get to or return from, that perfect powder bowl.

For more information on the PB Martin Bell Academy, click here or call 020 8246 5300.

Read our other blogs from Martin using the links below:


Part 1: Ski Equipment

Part 2: Ski Fitness

Part 3: Carving Turns

Part 4: Conquering Bumps

Part 6: Racing

Part 7: The mental game of skiing