Post-Olympics 102: assume crash position

Tips to help you fall safely, if not gracefully, from skis

Donald V. Mehus
New York

Photo: Jeff / Flickr Like any skill, falling can be mastered with a little practice.

Photo: Jeff / Flickr
Like any skill, falling can be mastered with a little practice.

Part One of this article, “Post-Olympics 2014,” which appeared in a previous issue of NAW, discussed skiing in Norway, with special attention to the seasonal grand finale of this sport at Eastertime. In the ten-day Easter period (this year it’s late, April 20th), areas around Oslo and around Geilo, Lillehammer, and elsewhere are bustling with many thousands of skiers, eager to take in a few more days of the sport before the warmer spring weather settles in.

Throughout the good skiing weather (especially on Sundays) the hills around Oslo are packed with many thousands of skiers. So crowded are the Oslo hills that sometimes on the more popular ski trails there are nearly traffic jams, with skier almost tripping over one another. But the good Norwegians simply take it in their stride.

Oslo’s Ski Havens of Sognsvatn and Frognerseteren
While I had done a bit of skiing earlier in my northern Midwest home, it was not until later in the hills around Oslo that I first really had the chance of doing much with this winter sport. Two Oslo street car lines starting, blessedly, at the center of the city near the National Theater and passing very near my university residence of Blindern Studenterhjem ascended far up into the hills above Oslo, one line to Sognsvatn and the other to Frognersetern.

At either of these destinations, we skiers disembarked, put on our skis (which had been conveniently strapped outside the streetcars), and immediately glided away across splendid skiing terrain. Nearby the Frognersetern stop was one steep hill that was fine for experienced skiers—but not for me. So I just took off my skis and walked down that hill. That’s an American for you. At the bottom was a picturesque lodge where we would refresh ourselves with hot chocolate, snacks, and good old Norwegian coffee, certainly a year-round staple of the country.

Mother Nature
From there we were able to take a fairly easy skiing terrain, much of it descending by gradual stages to town. En route via this hour-or-so long trail there are some fairly short dips in the terrain as well as a few places where you had to ascend brief distances. But essentially, all you had to do is to stand on your skis and glide downward as you let Mother Nature do most of the work for you. Now that is my kind of skiing!

Still, this hour-long downward ski-gliding does offer its challenges, modest as they may be. These include, as mentioned above, the occasional short mild descents and some uphill climbing. Novices, such as myself, best be on guard lest things quickly get out of control with the possibility of tumbling, with or without injury, ever in the offing.

One ideal January skiing day in Oslo was a classic one in all of the pleasures and perils of cross-country skiing for a neophyte such as myself. With a good university friend of mine, John Eide from Larvik, we set out one Sunday morning from Blindern for Frognerseteren, via trikk far up into the hills above Oslo. John being Norwegian was almost by definition an expert skier. Disembarking from our trikk at Frognerseteren, we first skied around a bit, then started out on that long leisurely gradual descent back to town. The trail ended almost at the door of Blindern, where a hearty late Sunday afternoon dinner awaited all of us student residents. Ah, those were the days!

The “Easy” Ski Trail
Well, sure enough, soon after John and I started down that hour-long “easy” trail, I of course tumbled—but not John. I needed little incentive to fall, for there were some fairly abrupt bumps in the trail, a few sharp turns, sudden unexpected downhill drops, and more challenges. Sometimes I found myself moving too fast for my own good as the ground descended and not knowing how to control things properly, I simply fell down—always fortunately quite harmlessly.

That afternoon, in spite of whatever help and guidance John could offer, I fell a dozen or more times, every which way possible: forward and backwards, to the left side and to the right side, sometimes ending up prone in an unholy tangle of skis, poles, arms, and legs.

And what was my friend’s response? Knowing the trail well and having a pretty good idea at what problematic point I might fall, John skied ahead of me a few yards and awaited my sure-to-come collapse. When invariably I did fall, John burst out into the merriest peals of laughter! His response to my ineptitude was so genial and good-hearted that I certainly did not mind at all his laughter—or my falling.

A Better Way?
In any case, I soon came to realize that there had to be a better way of coping with such misfortunes as falling when out skiing. And this method, over the course of time, I gradually devised from my own experience and from talking with and observing other skiers. The upshot of mastering this method is that if you did fall carefully (if not especially gracefully), you greatly lessened the chances of any injury to yourself.

Now this method, I hasten to add, is certainly not for the expert or highly skilled skier; they already know how to handle—or injure—themselves. Even top-flight Olympians, as we all too well know, sometimes manage to suffer debilitating injuries. At the same time, this method assumes that the athlete at least knows, and has practiced somewhat, ordinary non-professional skiing for his or her own pleasure. This method relates primarily to cross-country skiing, whether for long or short distances.

This “seat-of-the-pants” method of falling would certainly not be recommended, in most cases, for fast and furious downhill Alpine skiing with its very steep inclines. Nor would it be recommended for slalom skiing, with its fast, dizzying, hairpin turns downhill between several sets of two poles each. Such skiers presumably already know how to take care of themselves, even if they are not always successful in this respect.

Still, this method of falling, as here described, might well be considered inelegant, ungraceful, even ludicrous at times, but the technique certainly helped me many a time to fall safely with no injuries. If – and when – you have occasion to master a better and safer way, more power to you! In fact, once you have read about the following method and you know of a better one, please so inform us, as I am sure our readers would like to profit from it. By the way I checked the Internet to see what others might have to say on the topic. Mostly the advice is to follow the rules, don’t fall, and enjoy. But how in the world are you to fall safely? One wishes one could learn more from them.

The First Steps
Now the very first thing you need to do before you even get on a pair of skis is to practice this method of falling on dry land or on mats or whatever. When you put on your skis in snow before you even make a step, you can easily slip and fall and suffer all sorts of misfortunes. So take this precaution.

Now, standing up in good skiing fashion, bend your knees and your body slightly forward, holding your ski poles behind you, as though dragging them on the ground. When actually skiing, this dragging will help slow you down, diminishing the impact of a fall.

Next bend your knees more and more while moving your body somewhat further forward, maintaining your balance all the time. Keep on bending your knees more and more till your rear end (that’s the most delicate way I can put it) is 12 to 6 inches from the ground.

While bending your knees, shift your weight slightly to the right. Then when you have crouched down as far as you can, to just a few inches from the floor or ground, simply sit down. Just as this would be harmless to you on dry ground, so would it also be harmless – if properly done – on skis in the snow, with the ski poles dragging behind, thereby helping you to slow you down to a safe stop. Assuming that all is well after the tumble, you simply get up and go on your way again.

Faster and Faster
When you are skiing, this falling method is particularly useful in several circumstances:

1) when inadvertently going faster and faster and you feel that things might be getting out of control, then instead of falling any which way, you simply use this method of controlled falling and should quickly come to a smooth and easy stop;
2) when the ground gets bumpy, or you don’t know what’s beyond a curve, especially when you are in a wooded area, or if it appears that there might be a precipitous drop ahead and you don’t know how steep or how long that drop might be, then early falling may well come to your rescue.
Now of course experienced skiers have their own tried and true methods of coming to a stop, whatever the terrain or whatever their speed. They might turn their skis at a right angle to their forward direction and dig the skis into the snow. Or they can point the tip of their skis inward in an “A” shape from themselves to slow themselves down to a dead stop. I am sure there are all sorts of other ways, but here we are not so concerned about the techniques of the pros.

A word of caution: if you attempt the “seat-of-the-pants” method of fallingand it doesn’t quite work to your satisfaction, or something untoward happens, please don’t place the blame on others. Not everything goes as smoothly in life as one would like!

So, if you have—or know of—a better way than the “seat-of-the-pants” method to save body and soul from a skiing mishap, more power to you! As remarked above, by all means do let us know. We are sure our readers would like to profit from your experiences so that they too can enjoy without too much trepidation the art and the sport of skiing!

This article originally appeared in the March 14, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.