Ski tips: Terrain Parks 101, air with care
February 19, 2016
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — There's something captivating about ski area terrain parks. Skiers and snowboarders airing off jumps, sliding rails, that ever-so-brief taste of flight — it's enough to attract even the novice skier or rider.
But with that comes some cause for concern. It's relatively common to see kids and adults alike going off of jumps or park features that are well above their skill level. Or their mistake may be as simple as not knowing proper park etiquette. Unfortunately, even small errors can have serious consequences.
Snow is soft, but the reality is plenty of slope-side clinics see injuries from skiers getting in over their skis in the park.
With that in mind, the Tribune spoke with U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association certified freestyle ski coach and former pro freeskier Matti Wade to get some insights on some of the common errors he sees in the terrain park.
One of the biggest problems? Wade said simply, "A lot of people rock up to a terrain park and don't know what they're doing."
Just going for it can be a big mistake.
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Terrain park riding is like any ski or snowboard skill. It's all about progression.
"Start small," Wade said, "and work yourself up."
That's a good idea for any skill level. Even the pros don't go straight to the 70-foot tabletop jump to start the day.
Any skill not mastered on a small jump or rail will be magnified on a bigger feature.
In recent years, resorts have become really good at building jumps and features for all skill levels. Get comfortable on the small stuff first.
Terrain parks can get crowded, especially in the springtime when the sun is out. That's why knowing proper etiquette is crucial. It starts with communication.
If there are people around, call out that you are dropping in on a jump. Let others know.
If you see someone has crashed, give people farther up the slope a heads up. They may not be able to see.
Maybe most importantly, "Never cross in front of a feature," Wade said.
Recognize if you're in a place where you can't be seen from above. Curious beginners often make that mistake and wander into someone else's landing zone. Let them know.
SCOUT IT OUT
On any day, the first run through the park should be about checking out the features and getting an idea what kind of speed it's going to take to clear them. Conditions vary enough day-to-day that the same jump can feel very different from one day to the next.
Wade suggested watching others run it to see what kind of speed it may require. Watch where they land.
"Know the feature before you go," Wade said. "Don't go into anything blind."
And don't be afraid to ask others about a jump.
"That's the beginning," Wade said. "Talk to others."
Someone who has already hit a jump will be able to tell how much speed it takes.
With both jumps and rails, proper form is critical. If you take off with bad form, you'll probably land with bad form. That can dramatically increase injury risk.
"I see a lot of people sitting backwards," Wade said of the tendency for people to get pushed in the backseat on takeoff. "It puts them in a bad position for landing. That's most people."
Approaching a jump with a forward stance allows for a more balanced takeoff. Fight the urge to lean back on the jump slope.
From there it's about keeping the body "quiet" and limiting flailing. Having hands forward on takeoff can help a great deal.
"Try to be static with your upper body in the air," Wade explained. "Rolling those windows down, you see that a lot."
Skiers and boarders should also keep their eyes focused ahead, beyond the landing. Often, riders have a tendency to look at their skis or board.
"You're looking past the landing," Wade elaborated. "Looking down (at skis) puts you in the back seat."
LEARNING THE RAILS
The same rules apply for boxes and rails. The most common error is to lean back, causing your skis or board to slide out from under you — Charlie-Brown style.
It's important to have a more upright, athletic stance.
Wade added, "Look at the end of a feature. Don't look at your feet."
A good way to help with proper stance on a rail or a box is to point one arm toward where you're going. It will keep you upright.
And again remember progression. Most parks have some wide box features that are low to the ground and a good place to start. Start by just going straight across a wide box before thinking about spins and rails. It's all about comfort level.
DON'T GO IN ALONE
While these guidelines may help, there's nothing better than getting insight from someone in person.
"Take a lesson," Wade suggested. "Don't try to figure it out alone."
While you may think that terrain parks are only for experts, a lot of resorts now offer some very basic freestyle lessons for all ages. Clearing 30-foot tabletops doesn't have to be the end goal. Even basic terrain park skills can translate to everyday skiing.
Before working for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, reporter Sebastian Foltz spent five winters as a certified ski instructor.