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 Conditions in the Lake Tahoe area can be quite variable and not always ideal for good skiing.  I recall skiing one particular day when a rainstorm the previous night had resulted in severely icy conditions with the steeper runs closed. I witnessed several people fall and get quite a ride down the intermediate runs that day!

Needless to say, an uncontrolled slide down a mountain can be unnerving and quite dangerous, both to the skier (you won’t fare well hitting signs, lift towers or trees at an uncontrolled speed) and to other skiers below! Luckily, none of the steeper advanced runs were open that day, which could have resulted in seriously dangerous slides!

Several years ago I watched helplessly from the chair lift as a woman fell near the top of a black diamond run at Mt. Hood Ski Bowl and slid down the entire run, bouncing off the bumps along the way. Her companion tried to get below her, but he was not able to ski fast enough to get to her until she finally slid to a stop at the bottom. I hollered over and asked if she was OK, and got an affirmative response. However, I quickly went to that run and skied to the bottom. The lady was still lying on the snow and was very upset, although not seriously hurt. When I asked why she did not do a self-arrest, both she and her partner asked, “What is a self-arrest?”

Since snow conditions in the Tahoe area can be variable, occasionally with serious ice, it might be helpful to review how to stop yourself after falling on a steep, icy slope. It often isn’t possible to get your skis below you and to dig in, even if they are still on. Once you are sliding fast, that would actually be dangerous!

I have had to use a self-arrest several times, and was glad I had been told how to do it! The first time was scary because I had never had the experience of an out of control slide before. It wasn’t even particularly icy, but I was on one of the steepest runs at Alta (Stone Crusher, next to Alf’s High Rustler), and it had been skied enough to be firmly packed. This run is accessed by a long traverse, and some deep ruts at the end of the traverse at the top of the run caused one binding to release, causing me to fall. I was already half way down the run by the time I realized I was in trouble and finally managed to complete the arrest.

A self-arrest is performed using one of your ski poles. As you are sliding, roll onto your stomach. Continue to grip the handle on one pole and with your other hand grasp the pole near its basket. Gradually use that lower hand to dig the pole tip into the snow. Do not stab the snow, because if the tip sticks in, it could be pulled from your hands. Instead, gradually increase pressure on the snow. At first, this will cause your body to swing so that your legs are downhill. That is the desired effect; you don’t want to crash into anything going head first! Once your legs are downhill, increase the pressure of the pole tip on the snow. This will slow you down and then bring you to a complete stop.

Unfortunately, it will be difficult to roll onto your stomach if your skis have not released, and you might find yourself in an awkward position and unable to roll over. In that case you should be able to get onto one side, and holding the tip end of the pole in your hand nearest the snow, reach out to the side and press the tip into the snow. Specific positioning in this situation is hard to describe here. Just use the tip of a pole in any way you can to slow yourself down. A smooth gradual slowing and stop is what you need; no need to look good doing it!

The idea is to get the pole tip engaged with the snow as soon as possible rather than trying to get into an ideal body position. It is wise to begin the arrest as soon as you are aware that you aren’t sliding to a normal stop.

Now, what do you do if you’ve had a complete yard sale and no longer have your skis and poles? This is a more difficult scenario, and if conditions are icy, might be hard to perform successfully. Without poles, about the only other thing you have to dig in with is your boots. Roll onto your stomach and bring your elbows in to your sides with your hands by your face so you are sliding on your forearms. Lift your body off the snow by arching your back so you are sliding on your boot toes and your hands/forearms. The higher you can get your hips off the snow, the better. This puts pressure on your boots, which should dig in enough to slow you down.

I couldn’t find a video specifically demonstrating a self-arrest with ski poles, but here are two videos demonstrating how to self-arrest with an ice axe, and many of the concepts transfer to using a ski pole.

In case your skis are still on, the advice about lifting your feet is important to keep your skis from digging into the snow at high speed, possibly twisting a knee or coming off and hitting you.

Remember, a self-arrest isn’t turning yourself in after sticking up a convenience store! The rate of acceleration on steep and/or icy slopes after a fall can be quite rapid, and this valuable skill can be the difference between getting back on the slope for another run or taking a ride in the Ski Patrol sled!