I got my first pair of cross-country skis in elementary school. Winters were cold and snow was deep in Berlin, N.H., just north of Mount Washington, making skiing a popular pastime. By following my aunt around on local trails, I learned the rhythmic motion of the sport and grew to love it.
Proficiency came from sheer repetition, but my first attempts to ski uphill required brute upper-body strength as I pulled myself forward with my poles while my legs followed in an awkward herringbone. I got up the slope—most of the time—but I could have benefited from the tips that Ski School Director Sue Wemyss routinely gives skiers at Great Glen Trails, in New Hampshire’s Pinkham Notch. And one of the first things this 1984 U.S. Olympian will tell you is to “push yourself up the hill, not pull yourself up.”
As with hiking, there can be a tendency when skiing to “dig in” as a trail steepens. You may lean more forward as the incline begins and drop your gaze to the terrain right under-foot. You may abandon your classic stride and break into a herringbone before it’s needed. Either scenario adds undue exertion to a climb.
“Trying to use a diagonal stride through as many hills as possible is going to be the most efficient,” Wemyss says. “What’s important is…making sure that you are not looking straight down at the ground but looking up the hill and [that] your hips are forward and tucked with a good flex in the ankles.”
Bend at the hips on a slope and your center of gravity shifts to the front of your skis, causing slippage. Looking up the hill helps you to straighten out and keeps your stance more perpendicular to the hill.
Pushing yourself up the hill, Wemyss says, “requires that the pole be planted, angled back rather than vertical, so there is less than a 90-degree angle [between] the pole shaft and the snow.” Plant your poles too far out in front and you’ll end up hanging on them, as I first did. Rather, your hands should be passing by your hips, and you should continue to flex your ankles.
“As a hill steepens, quicken the tempo,” Wemyss advises. “It’s better to increase the turnover and take shorter, quicker steps.”
If you still find your skis slipping in a track, step out into the loose snow on the side of the trail, which can often provide your skis with enough purchase to continue forward.
Inevitably, though, you will encounter a trail section steep enough to warrant changing over from the diagonal stride to what’s considered the “go-to” hill-climbing technique.
Wemyss teaches the herringbone—moving with your ski tips spread wider than the tails, creating a “V” snow pattern—in beginner lessons. It’s something every skier should master early on, she says. In the backcountry, it’s a survival skill—ensuring that you can tackle challenging terrain unassisted in a safe, efficient manner. On a groomed network, it’s preferable to taking your skis off and walking, which requires more effort and leaves bootprints that disrupt conditions for skiers who follow.
When transitioning to a herringbone, Wemyss advises skiers to continue looking toward the top of a hill to maintain a hips-forward stance. “You need to be on your inside edges,” she continues. “Think about being knock-kneed. [Your] tips are angled out…and you want to be planting your poles to the outside of your skis.” Your “V” does not need to be overly wide, particularly if you choose to run up the hill. The key is to keep on your edges.
As you “walk like a duck”—the image instructors often use with young skiers—be sure to lift each ski tail over the other to avoid tripping yourself. Maintain a sustainable pace and remember what’s waiting at the top: the fun of going down the other side.
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