How to read, understand slope pitch |

How to read, understand slope pitch

Chris Fellows
All Mountain Tips

Success in the steeps requires training the eye to read the pitch of a slope and determining what turn tactic to use.

Being able to read the pitch will help you choose the turn shape, intensity and speed that best suit the terrain you are skiing. By interpreting outside cues from ski pressure and visual indicators, as well as recalling past experiences, expert skiers are able to adjust their skiing to fit the slope pitch.

When learning how to read the angle of a slope, you may want to use a mechanical device that will give you an approximate read of the slope’s pitch.

One easy way to calculate the angle of a slope is to use your ski poles as a slope meter. If the horizontal pole hits the midpoint of the vertical pole, the slope gradient is approximately 30 degrees. If the two poles bisect, the gradient is 45 degrees.

Slopes between 30 and 45 degrees harbor the greatest avalanche risk. Keep in mind that this is an approximate technique for determining slope pitch. If you will be tackling steeper terrain, I strongly encourage you to enroll in a comprehensive avalanche training course.

Skiers who frequent avalanche-prone terrain should also use this technique: While avalanches abide by no hard and fast rules, they typically occur on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees. Because skiers in avalanche territory must continually monitor the pitch they’re on, they’ll frequently mark their ski poles with tape at varied points to give a more accurate slope reading.

For an exact slope reading, you can carry a compass with a clinometer built into it, a method often used by avalanche forecasters, ski guides and backcountry skiers who require more exact slope reading for avalanche terrain analysis.

Reading the pitch of a slope will help you determine what tactic you need to continue moving down the slope in your comfort zone. Just by varying turn intensity and duration, you can move from a “Z”-shaped, skidded turn aided by a smearing action with the skis to an “S”-shaped turn that’s driven more by carve and ski design.

By choosing a “Z” turn shape, you’ll control your speed by carving your skis after entering the fall line; however, too many “Z” turns can be inefficient and tiring on a long run.

As your confidence builds, the track of your turn will take on the shape of an “S”. In other words, there will be more belly in the turn and more carving in the fall line. When you become comfortable with the “S”-shaped turn, you’ll realize that more of the turn will take place in the fall line.

To slow down, change the intensity of the turn and get your skis across the fall line more quickly (a “Z” turn shape during which little time is spent in the fall line). A deft combination of the “S” and “Z” turns will get you through the steeps.

Chris and his wife Jenny are the directors of Truckee’s North American Training Center (NASTC), and Chris is a member of the PSIA National Demonstration Team. Chris may be reached at or 582-4772.

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