This oft-overlooked piece of ski gear is actually important to efficient skiing. But it's use is almost never taught in a learn-to-ski lesson. In fact, many beginners don't carry ski poles these days. You'll almost never get an instructor to take time away from a ski lesson to say, "Oh and by the way, here's how you use your poles to walk." Instruction on proper pole use is also overlooked in intermediate and advanced lessons as well. If you don't ask, you're probably not getting any guidance. For some reason unknown to me, pole use has been largely removed from ski school curriculum.
It's a shame, really, because using your poles correctly is the key to advanced skiing. If you've plateau'd in your skiing, you can easily move to the next level by engaging those things you carry from one lift line to the next.
So I'm pretending you just asked me . . .
Back in my blog about skiing angles, I noted that most skiers are fairly comfortable with full body movements that involve expending as little energy as possible. That observation extends to the poles they carry. Most skiers use them to negotiate lift lines and that's about it. Poles get carried down the hill with maybe an occasional poke in the snow along the way. But I hope that by the time you are finished reading this blog, you'll get some understanding of pole use, and better yet, get motivated to use them to help you ski better.
One of the first things you might learn is to poke the snow with your pole and then turn around the pole. That's an ok beginning but only if it's a beginning. There are three functions to a pole plant.
Use your pole plants to link turns. Poking the snow by dropping your hand to the snow is the beginner's way to learn how to include hands and arms in establishing a turning rhythm. And it's a way to learn to look downhill to anticipate where you might plant your pole for the next turn. That's great but there's more to it. With some focus, you can use your pole plants to establish a rhythm to your skiing, especially on groomed slopes. You establish that rhythm by picking the places where to plant your poles in advance.
Use your poles to create an efficient stance. When you include your arms and hands in your skiing, you also learn where to keep your hands and arms to enhance your balance. As you improve your pole use, you also improve your upper body alignment. That usually means you keep yourself from leaning into the hill, which is characteristic of defensive skiing.
Use your poles to re-center yourself after every turn. A correctly made pole plant keeps you over the balls of your feet and keeps your center of mass moving down the hill. It works like this: You drop your body until your pole touches the snow. Once it touches, you use the feel of the touch as a cue to rise up and stay forward on the balls of your feet. Rinse and repeat for the next turn.
Some common problems with pole plants are: a poke without much purpose; lazy arms which produce a few left plants and few right plants without much consistency; dropping the hands to find the snow; randomly placed pokes someplace in front of you. I've been guilty of all of the above, FYI.
Some tips on how to plant poles correctly:
Actively reach your pole down the fall line from one turn to the next.
Actively plant your pole near the tip of your ski.
Plant your pole before you turn.
Get the pole in the snow by making yourself shorter, not by dropping your arm.
Keep your hands steady and let your wrists to a lot of the work.
Some tactical tips:
In mashed potatoes or tracked powder, ski to a pile of snow, plant your pole, then turn.
In the bumps, plant the pole on or near the peak of the bump.
In the steeps, make a blocking pole plant by moving your hand perpendicular away from your body.
I invite other skiers to share their experience with pole plants. Any other advice out there? I'd love you hear other opinions!