Between a Rock and a Hard Place: How to Manage Rocky Terrain in Portillo

| June 17, 2016 << Back

By: Ben Brosseau of the North American Ski Training Center (NASTC)

How do you manage rocky terrain? Do you want to get comfortable skiing Portillo’s rock-littered zones? The professional instructors at NASTC pass along tips to ski “between a rock and a hard place.”


It’s safe to say much of the skiing population avoids terrain with rocks, walls, and cliff bands. Then, there are some—like myself—who venture beyond the groomers, past the moguls, and above the tree line. What compels us to flirt with danger in challenging terrain?
We gravitate to that dramatic environment that demands skillful movements and total awareness, and it’s the allure of an adrenaline-filled descent that we get to boast to friends about (but not to your mom) that we find during summer ski trips to Ski Portillo.

Narrow chutes, boulder fields, and rocky surfaces in your ski line always pose navigational challenges. Skiing this type of terrain requires visual preparation, quick decisions, and mindful tactics.

Want to learn how to up your game when the going gets rocky? Here are three tips NASTC (North American Ski Training Center) teaches clients during our annual Adventure Ski Training Vacation in Portillo:

Blizzard Skis

1.) Plan Your Route

Scout your line from the bottom or from a lift ride, if possible. Visualize a smooth, fluid descent. Often times, critical sections in our line choice will force changes in our downhill tempo. Identify the crux or difficult zone and anticipate the changes needed. When planning your line, ask yourself these questions: How will the obstacles effect my fluidity? Will I be more successful with a shorter turn? Longer turn? Straight line? Air or hop turn?

Quick tip: Remember that changes in rhythm do not have to mean interrupted flow down the fall line.

Blizzard Ski

2.) Judge Your Distance

Think of an exposed rock as the tip of an iceberg; there’s more of that beneath the surface. Snow conditions will regulate how close you can efficiently ski. Fresh powder and sun effected snow mean your skis will be traveling beneath the surface a few inches or more; its best to keep those travel margins wide. Firm snow conditions, however, make for a supportable surface; here it’s fair to keep the line tight. Rule of thumb: Soft snow = greater distance between you, and the rocks.

Quick tip: Skiing near rocks can be an effective tactic in low visibility conditions. The contrast in color and shadow is a helpful visual cue to measure pitch, speed, balance and prevent vertigo.

Ski Tips

3.) Be Light On Your Feet

The finish of the turn is typically where most skiers feel the heaviest through the turn shape. Pressure gradually increases and that’s where we receive the most feedback from our skis. It’s also the part where we can do the most damage to the base and edges of our skis when we hit a rock. Instead, focus on consistent and sensitive pressure throughout the entire turn. Anticipate rocks and thin snow cover by rolling to a flat ski, lighten the load on your boards and create a “floating” sensation through the transition to the next direction change.

Quick tip: Damage to our gear is inevitable when we are literally skiing the boundary of snow and rock. Have your local shop “hot box” your skis. It will improve the durability of the bases.

These tactics are a few examples of “calculated risk” elements we teach clients of NASTC to become more comfortable in rocky terrain. Come prepared to Ski Portillo with a strategy and a bag of tools. Stay sharp, be adaptable, and enjoy. See you this summer in Chile!