Back to Ralph's Blog
Posts from November 2006

PSIA Examiners College, West Yellowstone, November 20-22, 2006
Posted November 28, 2006

Professional Ski Instructor of America (PSIA) certification examiners from all over the country met on the ski trails in West Yellowstone to update and unifying national examination standards. The PSIA Nordic Team spearheaded this astounding event by creating an opportunity to bring the “PSIA Ski Team” of examiners and clinic leaders together with the USSA Cross Country Ski Team coaches to look at how the two organizations could better work together to foster more unified standards and improve ski education at all levels.

In a strong spirit of cooperation, our group compared the PSIA’s recent six component Skills Model with the simplified three part skills model being used by the USSA. We enjoyed a collaborative effort with Pat Casey and Matt Whitcomb, coaches from the US Ski Team.

Our collaboration produced a new three-part model that includes Body Position, Timing, and Propulsion. These components are a mirror image of what USSA is using to produce the best Nordic racers in the US. To refine this "Track Matrix," we dove into the descriptions for the various levels of PSIA instructor certification. There is nothing like a roomful of ski instructors to over-analyze the simple act of sliding on snow. At the same time, we all recognized the importance of mutually agreed upon measurable, easily recognizable and attainable standards. I'll be looking at these descriptions later in the winter along with photos of skiers.

All this took place among the ritual of West Yellowstone’s Fall Camps, a Nordic skier’s paradise. The streets are filled with Cross Country skiers and racers of all abilities and ages on their way to the trailhead, skis in hand. Junior skiers and elite racers whiz by on the trails. Manufacturers and reps stand by at the trailhead with new equipment to demo and custom wax jobs to keep your skis fast.

Hundreds of Nords, completely focused and immersed in improving their skills and fitness, fill the Rendezvous Trail system. In the midst of this inspiring and overwhelming cross country scene, the PSIA team of boys and girls alike were treated to the eye candy that only high speed Lycra can provide.

Surprisingly, amid all this distraction, we managed to stay on our skis, avoid being flattened by serious, gun-toting biathletes and other racers, and remained on task. Our days consisted of skiing and many hours of working through the details that would generate and clarify the Cross-Country Instructor Certification Standards.

We came to a consensus that we believe will standardize the certification exam process all across the country. Standardized certification will lead to standardized instruction both throughout all of PSIA and the USSA.

Any you thought I just went to West Yellowstone to have fun.

Photo Captions:
Top: The busy Rendezvous Trailhead during the height of the Yellowstone Ski Festival.

Second from Top: For our first on snow classic ski session temperatures were in the mid 30s providing for difficult waxing conditions. Can you guess who's using waxless skis? From Left to right are: Randy French (Eastern Division), Urmas Franosch (Western), Brock Woods (Central), Scott McGee (PSIA Team), and bending over and waxing hard is Ross Matlock (PSIA Team).

Second from Bottom: Don Portman (Western) makes a point to Scott McGee (PSIA Team) while discussing the relaxation phase of the diagonal stride.

Bottom: USSA Ski Team Coach Pat Casey demonstrates the USSA concept of a stable panel.

West Yellowstone Ski Festival
Posted November 27, 2006

This years festival was a blast. Jill Owen and I arrived in West Yellowstone early Monday afternoon to find good snow and fast conditions. There were quite a few skiers on the trails and the trail head was much busier than on normal winter weekdays (top photo).

Our PSIA Cross Country Examiners College wasn't set to begin until 5:00 PM so we took some time to get our ski legs. I'm always just a little shaky the first time out each season on high performance gear and this years was no exception. I was please though at how quickly I became accustomed to the fast glide!

I wasn't the only one in this boat. Quite a few skiers had that early season look. But then that is why the West Yellowstone Ski Festival is so good. Most attendees had not seen snow in their home areas yet and this was the perfect opportunity to get a jump start on the season, ski each day and develop the relaxed balance so important to good skiing.

The trails were busy with small groups of skiers having fun and working on their technique (middle photo). Some clinics were in progress and many more would come later in the week.

Jill Owen (bottom photo at left) and I skied the Rendezvous and Deja View loops. Our balance improved quickly. We quickly realized that it had been very advantageous to get to West early and get some quality ski time before our event began.

As the days continued our skiing improved even more. Our Examiners College (more details in the next post) was a tremendous success.

We visited the outdoor "Try Before You Buy" demo of skis, boots and bindings (photo below) and the indoor Ski Show at the Holiday Inn.

By the time we left West Yellowstone we were pleasantly exhausted and ready for the new season.

Our First Ski of the Season
Posted November 19, 2006

After our surprise of last Sunday we eagerly anticipated getting out on skis. Ah, the weather did not cooperate though. A nice dump of about 2-3 feet of wonderful snow was followed by warm windy conditions.

Wind out here is something to behold. Air builds against the west side of the mountains until it can be contained no more. Then over the pass and down the east slopes it comes. Sometimes the jet stream adds to the fun by developing vertical waves. When one of these waves dips near the ground then things really begin to happen.

Gusts between 90 and 120 mph knocked down signs, flipped a roof off a motel in Browning, turned big semis on their sides and tore the gravel from the roadsides. Barb wire fences were festooned with strands of prairie grass, siding from nearby buildings and every imaginable bit of roadside litter. We stayed home.

By Friday the winds had calmed. Bud, Bill and I decided to see if there was any snow left around Marias Pass.

Most times when the wind gets to howling the snow blows off toward North Dakota and is seen no more. This week though, we were lucky. The temps warmed and turned the snow wet before the winds came. When all was said and done there was a bout a foot of crunchy snow at Marias Pass. We decided to try using our older rocks skis and headed up the Pike Creek Road.

It is still hunting season here. A few hunters tried to drive the road early in the week. They left nice ruts! One group drove in that morning. We found their wheels had exposed fresh snow so we skied in their tracks as far as they went then continued skiing on the crunchy snow. We only wished their tires were a little wider and that they had gone farther.

As we gained elevation the snow got better. So did the scenery. The backdrop of Summit Mountain (above) behind Bud always makes for a good time.

It always amazes me how shaky I feel on skis the first time out each season. The slightest of icy downhills caused all kinds of wild movements as I tried to maintain my balance. The more we skied the smoother we became. Finally we began to feel almost at home on skis.

There was even one time when I felt my follow through lifted my rear ski off the snow. Amazing!

High up near Flattop Mountain the Forest Service has a gate across the road. Beyond the skiing was marvelous. No ruts! No ice! A little powder on top of the crust! Beautiful views! Good glide!

We were a little concerned about our trip down through the rutted snow. After lunch and a little more time enjoying the winter wonderland, we headed back. The better snow up high allowed us to improve our balance on the skis. We soon were cruising on long downhills and around easy curves. A few uphill sections kept us warm. All in all it was a great day for our first ski of the season.

West Yellowstone Ski Festival
Posted November 19, 2006

Snow has blanketed the Rendezvous trails in West Yellowstone. The Yellowstone Ski Festival begins Monday. I'll be spending part of the week there with other Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) education staff working on our technique and beginning a process to standardize how skiing is taught by PSIA and the United States Ski Association (USSA). Check back next week to see how it went.

Surprise!
Posted November 13, 2006

Whoopee! Snow is really coming down in the mountains but it caught us by surprise.

Yesterday, Bud, April and I decided to take a hike in Glacier near Marias Pass. The weather forecast was for windy conditions and a chance of rain showers. As I turned west onto US Hwy 2 in Browning I noticed a car coming the other way that was packed with snow. Hmmm!

About a mile from East Glacier the road turned white. So did the air. As I pulled into the parking lot across from the Two Medicine Grill, our traditional meeting place, I could see that several inches of snow had fallen already.

After a short parlay over coffee and a discussion of road conditions over Marias Pass we decided to hike the Autumn Creek Trail west from East Glacier. For some reason we all had brought snowshoes but no skis.

It was a beautiful hike through falling snow. By the time we had reached the ridge above East Glacier we were hiking through 18 inches of new snow. It was great to see real snow on the ground and we immediately planned another outing, this time on skis, during the next few days.

Return to top of Page.


New Birkie Classic Trail
Posted November 13, 2006

The American Birkiebeiner board of directors voted last week to allow classic skiers to use a new separate trail for the first 9 kilometers of the Birkie trail. This new trail was constructed parallel to the main Birkie trail this fall. It runs through the same terrain as the main trail but was designed specifically for classic skiing with easier uphills. The new trail will join the main trail briefly before the 4.5 kilometer feed station then continue on a parallel course to the 9 kilometer feed station where it rejoins the main trail. The new trail is 16-18 feet wide and will have several sets of classic tracks.


The new Birkie classic trail just off the power lines at 5 k.

It will be an interesting addition to this remarkable ski marathon. The first 9 kilometers of the Birkie are the most congested. Birkie and Korteloppet freestyle and classic skiers all vie for the same space. The congestion results in rapid deterioration of the classic tracks. Also most classic skiers herringbone up the steep hills along the power lines and after the first feed station again resulting in destruction of the classic tracks.

This year for the first time all classic skiers will follow a separate "classic only" trail from the start. I believe this will be a great improvement, especially for those classic skiers who have been at a disadvantage in the early stages of the race. It should also reduce congestion for freestyle skiers since the course will have fewer skiers and more skating room.

Another change this year will be setting two sets of classic tracks on the right side of the trail the remaining 42 kilometers to Hayward. In prior years, with only one track on each side of the course, classic skiers had a more difficult time passing other classic skiers. The additional set of tracks will improve that situation immensely.

I believe these are positive changes that should attract those classic skiers who passed on the Birkie because of the congestion. I commend the Birkie board for making these changes. I am eagerly looking forward to this year's race!

Return to top of Page.


Balance on Skis
Posted November 6, 2006

This was a frustrating week. It began with a blizzard and cold temperatures. Ice formed rapidly on the lake. By Thursday morning there was almost 4 inches. When I went to bed Thursday evening it was +6 F degrees. Friday morning when I awoke it was +43 F. This morning (Monday) it's +55 F. The mountains got rain and much of the snow from the blizzard turned to mush. Winter will have to start over.

There wasn't enough snow at lower elevations to road ski so we entertained ourselves with balance drills.

A variety of drills has been described to help develop better balance on skis.

  • Stand on one foot and use the push-off motion of classic skiing to jump to the other foot. Lean forward simulating the stance of classic skiing and continue the position on one foot for as long as possible.
  • A similar drill can be done simulating the skating technique. Stand with you feet in a V with toes farther apart than the heels. Rise onto one foot and simulate the skating push-off by edging the foot. Move the raised foot to the front and side. Then jump onto that foot while simulating a skate onto that foot. Then hold the one footed position for as long as possible.
  • There are many other balance drills. Send me your favorite and I'll add it to the list.

At first your balance may be unstable. You might wiggle on your foot. Muscles in your foot and lower leg will struggle to maintain the position. But as better balance is developed the exercise becomes easier. The muscles in the foot will quiet down. You'll be able to maintain the position for longer and longer periods of time. The enhanced one footed balance will permit longer glides when skiing on snow. When you're comfortable with these drills try the Montana variant.

The Montana Balance Drill Variant can be seen in the photos below. There are several alternatives available but the concept is the same: try to walk, climb or simulate skiing when the wind blows over 50 mph.

In the photo above April and I are "skating" up Elk Mountain on the southern edge of Glacier National Park. We're following the trail to the former fire lookout site on the summit. The temperature is about 20 F and the winds are blowing steadily around 40 mph. Our skating technique leaves a little to be desired but we blame it on the wind.

We can easily "skate" up the trail until the wind gusts to 50 mph. Then the balance part comes in. When the wind gusts over 60 we plant our poles firmly and spread our legs apart to form a tripod. We generally just hang on like that until the wind subsides and we can resume skating up the mountain. If the wind really gets to whipping we lie flat on the ground.

The exercise is good and the scenery is spectacular. That keeps your mind off the numbing cold and roaring wind. The only problem with this drill is that it may result in a permanent lean in one direction.