No Pizza, No Fries

  Date Wednesday, January 13th, 2016
Banked turns carved into a slope teach skiers to turn intuitively ( John Poimiroo)

Banked turns carved into a slope teach skiers to turn intuitively ( John Poimiroo)

Ski and snowboard instructors are no longer emphasizing pizza, fries and floating leaves to describe skiing and boarding positions. Instead, they’re using specially sculpted slopes to teach skiing and snowboarding, intuitively.

For years, ski instructors would describe the triangular shape of a slice of pizza to instantly communicate how learning skiers should stand to control speed and turn. Previously, this was known as a snowplow turn or stop. “Fries” was also used to describe skiing with skis parallel to each other. While, snowboard instructors described maneuvers as floating leaves, falling leaves and garlands

Terms like these intellectualized what skiers and riders were to do in order to turn or stop. However, those descriptions often made new skiers think more about what they were attempting, rather than feeling.

Terrain-based learning has changed how ski and snowboard lessons are now taught. At at El Dorado County’s Sierra at Tahoe, instructors work with the hill’s grooming crew to sculpt learning areas to make it more intuitive for beginning skiers and riders to grasp the sport.

“A lot of beginners used to take one lesson and quit. When we asked them why they didn’t continue, they told us they got frustrated over not progressing faster,” said John Rice, general manager at Sierra at Tahoe. “We realized we’d put too much emphasis on explaining how to ski or ride, and not enough on helping them feel success, from their first lesson.”

Ryan Thompson, adult program manager at Sierra at Tahoe Ski and Snowboard School, said, “Terrain-based learning has been around forever. Instructors have always used natural contours to help teach… a snow bank beside a run or terrain differences to make it easier to stop or turn.”

The difference is that Sierra’s instructors now consult with the area’s snow groomers to sculpt elements into the area’s learning area so that instructors can use the terrain to speed learning, by feeling what it’s like to do something right.

Sierra begins its students on a slight half pipe, “the kind you see on the Olympics, except it doesn’t have the vertical wall. It has a mellow drop off and flat bottom that guests can slide across with no fear of going too fast, cause the other side will slow them down,” Thompson explained.

Skiers and riders start by walking with one boot attached to a ski or the board and the other free to push them. By doing this, they soon feel the board’s edge and how it holds them to the slope.

Skiers then progress to attaching both skis and walking with them, eventually learning to slide forward into the gentle half pipe and slowing themselves in a gliding wedge position. “We’re not trying to get people to stop,” with this position, said Thompson, “The wedge is more like a breaking position where they learn to glide and slow down. As the lesson progresses, they learn that the wedge also helps them turn a bit easier.”

Once they have the wedge down, they ride the Magic Carpet lift (a flat rubber mat that skiers and riders step onto for an easy ride to the top of Sierra’s learner’s area) where they’re next taken to a large flat area to begin learning to turn.

They then descend the hill by a series of mild switchbacks and banked turns that the area’s groomers have sculpted into the snow. “The switchbacks and banked corners gently persuade them into turns without them having to think much about it.” Thompson said.

Soon, they’re making turns and getting the feel of skiing or riding without a lot of confusing explanations. By the end of a 2.5-hour lesson, most are able to ski down a green run (the easiest at a ski area). Sierra has one that descends 2,000 feet from the top of the mountain.

Children’s ski lessons at Sierra’s Wild Mountain program and snowboarding lessons at its Burton Riglet Park employ a similar progression and sculpted terrain. Jason Albery, children’s program manager at Sierra’s ski and snowboard school said terrain-based learning is all about containment and safety. “So, it’s a lot of speed control.”

“Doing a sideslip or floating leaf on a snowboard creates a lot of resistance against its edge, which is pretty hard on little legs. With terrain-based learning, we see the kids actually turning a bit more and not getting stuck on the heal edge, like we do in normal lessons.”

Terrain-based adult lessons teach by sensation. Similar children’s lessons teach through play. “We almost trick the kids into learning. We’ll set snowballs atop small, brightly colored highway cones, give the kids a small bat and have them knock the snowballs off the cones as they glide by. Pretty much, we’re trying to get them to not think about the movements and let the terrain do that for them. Before they realize it, they’re making the moves and building muscle memory,” said Albery.

Adults feel the turns as they descend the switchback while, at Wild Mountain kids learn to make turns without really thinking about it on the “snake.” It’s the same thing as the adult switchback, only much smaller and more playful. Wild Mountain and the Riglet Park are decorated with foam animals and sculptures used as points to ski or ride toward.

The brilliance of terrain-based learning is that it teaches by doing, not by explaining the physics of skiing or riding. No pizza or fries are consumed, but it’s just like fast food for beginning skiers and riders.

For more about learning to ski or ride, visit

A gentle half pipe automatically stops a learning skier (John Poimiroo)

A gentle half pipe automatically stops a learning skier (John Poimiroo)

A gliding wedge is taught to control speed and turn (John Poimiroo)

A gliding wedge is taught to control speed and turn (John Poimiroo)

Learning skiers and riders step onto a slow-moving Magic Carpet lift. (John Poimiroo)

Learning skiers and riders step onto a slow-moving Magic Carpet lift. (John Poimiroo)

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