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Alpine skiing (or "downhill skiing") is the sport of sliding down snow-covered hills on skis with fixed-heel bindings. Alpine skiing can be contrasted with nordic skiing, in which skiers use free-heel bindings. (Types of nordic skiing include cross-country, ski jumping and Telemark.)

Alpine skiing may take place at a ski resort where mechanical ski lifts have been installed to transport skiers up the mountain and where snow is groomed, avalanches are controlled and trees are cut to create trails. Alternatively, alpine skiers may pursue the sport in less controlled environments; this practice is variously referred to as ski touring, backcountry skiing or extreme skiing.

The sport is named for the European Alps where it originated in the late 1880s. Today, it is popular wherever the combination of snow, mountain slopes, and a sufficient tourist infrastructure can be built up, including parts of Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealandmarker, the South American Andes and East Asia.


Alpine skiing evolved from cross-country skiing when ski lift infrastructure was developed at mountain resorts to tow skiers back to the top of slopes, thus making it possible to repeatedly enjoy skiing down steep, long slopes that would be otherwise tiring to climb. The towing also allowed for development of equipment and technique, as it eliminated the need for cross-country capability, most notably allowing the use of hard boots and fixing the heel down for better ski control. Ski touring is the name for skiing that takes place outside ski resorts, using muscle power for ascents and requiring slightly different equipment.


The main technical challenges faced by skiers are simply how to control the direction and speed of their descent. The downhill skiers gain such control through making alternating left and right turns. Typically, novice skiers use a technique called the "snowplough/snowplow" to maintain comfortable speed and come to a stop by pointing one or both skis inward, but more advanced skiers use more difficult but more elegant and speedier methods. One popular method of turning is called parallel turn; it involves keeping both skis parallel to each other while alternating the weight distribution between them in order to force them turn in a particular direction. The angle of the ski in relation to the slope (called edge angle) is also important as it determines the resistance (friction) created by the edges of the skis. Modern advanced skiing technique is dominated by "carving". To "carve" at a higher speed, a skier rolls his or her knees from side to side while keeping the upper body and hips facing down the hill and maintaining direction straight downward, so that only the knees and feet are involved into making turns. This technique allows modern "parabolic" skis to turn using the radial properties of the edges of the ski without skidding or slowing down, creating a smooth arc.

As skiers gain confidence, they may tackle steeper, longer and more uneven slopes (including off-piste and ungroomed runs) at higher speeds. In North America, the easiest ski runs are marked by green circles, and are typically fairly flat and smooth. Sometimes known as "bunny slopes", they are usually groomed by specially equipped snowcats every night. A blue square marks slopes of medium difficulty; these blue squares may be steeper or narrower than green circles, or they may be left in a natural state rather than machine-groomed. A black diamond run is yet steeper than a blue square and often involves challenging terrain such as moguls, narrow passes, unmarked obstacles, double fall lines, or gladed sections. A double black diamond is for experts only; these trails are steep, rarely groomed and often left in a completely natural state. There is no standard for these designations, however, and each ski resort determines them relative to their own terrain difficulty. So, for instance, a blue-square (mid-level) trail at one ski mountain may be markedly more difficult than a black-diamond (expert) trail at another mountain. In Europe the system is based on colour alone. North American green circles, blue squares, black diamonds, and double blacks correspond to European green, blue, red, and black trails, respectively.

Different snow and weather conditions, such as dry air in low temperatures or spring conditions, or icy crust, or fresh powder require different skiing techniques and equipment.


Ski racer competing in a Giant Slalom race
Various alpine skiing competitions have developed in the history of skiing. Broadly speaking, competitive skiing is broken up into two disciplines: racing and freestyle.

Racing involves making fast turns through gates in an attempt to attain the fastest overall time down one or two runs of a race course. Elite competitive skiers participate in the annual World Cup series, as well as the quadrennial Olympic Games and the biennial World Championships. Slalom (SL), giant slalom , super giant slalom , and downhill (DH) are the four racing disciplines. Slalom is the most technical, with speeds that can reach 55kmph. Downhill is the fastest, where speeds can exceed 100kmph, showing the clear distinction between the two disciplines. The Giant slalom event is also considered a technical event and the Super-giant slalom considered a speed event, as similar speeds are reached as in the downhill discipline. There is also a "combined" event that includes one downhill run and two slalom runs on a single day. In 2005, the FIS (Fédération Internationale de Ski) introduced a new event to the World Cup calendar called the super combined, or super combi, consisting of one shortened downhill run and just one slalom run. That year, the FIS also introduced an alpine team racing event at the World Championships in Bormiomarker, Italymarker. Ski racing is controlled by a set of rules which are enforced by FIS. These rules include such things as regulation ski sizes, sidecuts, boot heights, binding risers and other regulations such as limitations to chemical substances found in winning racers as well as many other things which all ensure one particular skier has no advantage over another. Next year (2008) these regulations are set to be changed in order to make it harder for racers to complete a race course. Some changes include increasing the minimum ski length and also the sidecut which will make the ski turn less tightly.In 2008 ski lengths were increased as it was found by physiotherapists that the shorter skis combined with the constant knee jerking movements were considered unnecessarily harmful to racers knees due to the turning radius of the skis (especially the slalom skis) therefore the F.I.S made the minimum ski length for women in slalom 155 cm and men 165 cm. Other size minimums were put in place in the other three events.

Freestyle skiing incorporates events such as moguls, aerials, and sometimes "new-school" events such as halfpipe, big air, slopestyle, and skiercross. Together with extreme skiing, new-school freestyle skiing is also sometimes known as freeskiing. Until relatively recently, freestyle competitions also included an event called ballet, later renamed "acro-ski."

In addition to racing and freestyle, other types of alpine skiing competitions exist. One discipline administered by the FIS but not usually considered part of racing is speed skiing, in which competitors strive to achieve the highest total speed in a straight line, with no gates or turns. Numerous non-FIS competitions have emerged over the years. More traditional events include gelandesprung jumping (ski jumping for distance on alpine equipment), and "powder 8" contests; among the more recent introductions are "big mountain" or "extreme skiing" contests, in which athletes start at the top of a mountain and ski a route down that involves wide, fast turns as well as cliff drops. The competitors are judged on the technical difficulty of their routes and any tricks they perform on the way down the hill.

Organization of alpine ski competition

Ski competition rules and scheduling are managed internationally by the International Ski Federation (FIS) based in Switzerlandmarker. Each participating nation worldwide is represented by a national association that manages the sport in that respective nation.

In the United States, alpine skiing competition is managed by the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA). The USSA organizes all levels of skiing competition from grassroots through the U.S. Ski Team and the Olympics.

Most organized skiing competitions are dependent on a cadre of Race Officials and course workers who plan, organize and run the events. Alpine ski races are usually organized by a Race Organizing Committee (ROC), led by a Race Chair. Race Officials include the Chief of Race, starters, timers, gate judges, referees, a jury and others who organize the event and ensure it is run safely and according to governing body rules. Under the leadership of a Chief of Course, course workers erect safety systems (usually nets), prepare and maintain the surface of the race course, erect and maintain other equipment such as a start tent, a finish area and the gates through which competitors must pass, and remove any fresh snow that may fall during the event. A FIS World Cup downhill, for example, requires a team of several hundred course workers that may spend over two weeks preparing a course prior to a week of racing, during which the course workers will continue to maintain the course. Race Officials and course workers are usually volunteers, but may include paid staff and, in some European countries, members of the military. Most regular venues of major alpine ski races have a local ROC which remains in place from year to year. An example of an organization of volunteer course workers are the Whistler Weasel Workers.

Recreational Ski Racers at a NASTAR race

Ski trail ratings

North America

In North America, a color–shape rating system is used to indicate the difficulty of trails (otherwise known as slopes or pistes). Australian ski slopes also share the same rating system.

There is no governing body that assigns difficulty ratings to ski trails. Instead, ski resorts assign ratings to their own trails, marking a given trail according to its relative difficulty when compared with other trails at that resort. As a result, identically-pitched trails at different resorts can have different ratings. Some skiers and snowboarders may interpret this as manipulation of ratings of their slopes to appeal to as wide an audience as possible; in fact, it is an attempt by ski areas to conform to the trail rating conventions.

This means that a black diamond at one resort is not necessarily a black diamond at another; it could be a blue square or double black. Thus, the NSAA advises all skiers, of all ability levels, to work their way up from an easy slope so that they can become familiar with the trail markings at a ski area.

Although slope gradient is the primary consideration in assigning a trail rating, other factors come into play — including trail width, normal snow conditions and whether or not the resort regularly groom the trail.

Ski trail difficulty ratings in North America
Trail Rating Symbol Level of difficulty Description
Green circle Easiest The easiest pistes at a mountain. Green Circle trails are generally wide and groomed, typically with slope gradients ranging from 6% to 25% (a 100% slope is a 45 degree angle).
Blue square Intermediate Intermediate difficulty slopes with grades commonly ranging from 25% to 40%. These slopes are usually groomed. Blue Square runs comprise the bulk of pistes at most ski areas, and are usually among the most heavily-trafficked.
Black diamond Difficult Amongst the most difficult at a given mountain. Black Diamond trails tend to be steep (typically 40% and up) and may or may not be groomed, though the introduction of winch-cat has made the grooming of steep slopes both possible and more frequent.
Double black diamond Expert These trails are even more difficult than Black Diamond, due to exceptionally steep slopes and other hazards such as narrow trails, exposure to wind, and the presence of obstacles such as steep drop-offs or trees. They are intended only for the most experienced skiers.This trail rating is fairly new; by the 1980s, technological improvements in trail construction and maintenance, coupled with intense marketing competition, led to the creation of a Double Black Diamond rating.
Variations Various Variations such as doubling a symbol to indicate increased difficulty, or combining two different symbols to indicate intermediate difficulty are occasionally used. One example is a diamond overlapping a square to indicate a trail rating between a Blue Square and a Black Diamond. Mont Tremblantmarker in Canada utilizes two blue squares right next to each other to indicate the same thing. Many resorts in Summit Countymarker, Coloradomarker use a double diamond with an "EX" in the center to mark a trail even more difficult than a double diamond. Bogus Basin, a resort near Boise, Idaho, uses orange diamonds, which are more difficult than double black diamonds. Other U.S. resorts, such as Smugglers' Notch, Vermont, and Mt. Bohemia, Michigan, use triple black diamonds. The combination of symbols is comparatively rare at U.S. ski areas; most ski resorts stick to the standard 4-symbol progression.
Terrain parks Various Terrain parks are whole or portions of trails that can offer a variety of jumps, half-pipes, and other special "extreme" sporting obstacles beyond traditional mogul. The trails are typically represented by an orange rectangle with rounded corners.Usually, the terrain park will carry its own trail rating, indicating the level of challenge. A terrain park with a Black Diamond or Double Black Diamond rating would contain greater and more challenging obstacles than a park with a Blue Square rating.


In Europe, pistes are classified by a colour-coded system. The actual color system differs in parts for each country - in all countries blue (easy), red (intermediate) and black (expert) are being used. Shapes are not always used - sometimes all ratings are circles as being defined in the basic rules of the German Skiing Association DSV. The three basic color codes of the DSV have been integrated into the national standards DIN 32912 in Germany and ÖNORM S 4610 f in Austria. The ratings are:
Green: (Spain, France, Scandinavia, UK, Poland) Learning or "Beginner" slopes. These are usually not marked trails, but tend to be large, open, gently sloping areas at the base of the ski area or traverse paths between the main trails.
Blue: An easy trail, similar to the North American Green Circle, and are almost always groomed, or on so shallow a slope as not to need it. The slope gradient shall not exceed 25% except for short wide sections with a higher gradient.
Red: An intermediate slope. Steeper, or narrower than a blue slope, these are usually groomed, unless the narrowness of the trail prohibits it. The slope gradient shall not exceed 40% except for short wide sections with a higher gradient.
Black: An expert slope. Steep, may or may not be groomed, or may be groomed for moguls. "Black" can be a very wide classification, ranging from a slope marginally more difficult than a "Red" to very steep avalanche chutes like the infamous Couloirs of Courchevelmarker. France tends to have a higher limit between red and black.
Double or triple black diamond: (Scandinavia) Very or extremely difficult pist.
Orange: (Austria, Switzerland, certain other areas) Extremely difficult.
Yellow: In recent years, many resorts reclassified some black slopes to yellow slopes. This signifies a skiroute, an ungroomed and unpatrolled slope which is actually off-piste skiing in a marked area. Famous examples are the Stockhorn area in Zermattmarker and the Tortin slopes in Verbiermarker. In Austria, skiroutes are usually marked with orange squares instead.

Alpine slope classification in Europe is less rigidly tied to slope angle than in North America. A lower angle slope may be classified as more difficult than a steeper slope if, for instance, it is narrower and/or requires better skiing ability to carry speed through flatter sections while controlling speed through sharp hairpin turns, off-camber slope angles or exposed rock.


Japan uses a color-coded system, but shapes do not usually accompany them. Some resorts, mainly those catering to foreigners, use the North American or European color-coding system, adding to the confusion. When in doubt, check the map legend. The usual ratings are:
Green: Beginner slopes. These are usually near the base of the mountain, although some follow switchback routes down from the top.
Red: Intermediate slopes. At most ski areas in Japan, these constitute the majority of the slopes (40° to 60°, depending on how the slopes are accounted).
Black: Expert slopes. These are the steepest and most difficult slopes at the ski area. The difficulty of these compared to like-classified slopes at other ski areas is heavily dependent on the target audience.

Japan has more than 1000 ski areas (115 in Nagano Prefecturemarker alone), many of them small and family-oriented, so comparisons between slope classifications in Japan and "equivalent" slopes in Europe or North America are minimal.

New Zealand

Green: Beginner, but a lot more difficult than North American greens. Some people say that New Zealand greens are as hard as American and European blues or even blacks.
Blue: Intermediate, with an increase in gradient and usually a tighter and less open trail.
Black: Difficult, steeper and narrower than Blue
Black Diamond: More difficult that Black - dubbed "Expert"
Double Black Diamond: More difficult than Black Diamond - dubbed "Tricky"
Triple Black Diamond: Most difficult of all runs - dubbed "Suicidal"

Snow and weather

This terrain park begins with three jumps, each with a variety of entries.
Skiers and snowboarders can encounter a wide range of snow and weather conditions, in part due to the location of specific resorts and global weather patterns at the time.

Natural snow ranges in consistency from very light and fluffy to dense and heavy, depending upon atmospheric conditions as it falls. Snow is often measured by moisture content, or the amount of water in a given volume of snow. Some areas of the United States' Rocky Mountains, for example, can receive considerable amounts of snow with moisture content as low as three to five percent; in the Northeastern United States and the Alps, moisture content is more typically 15 percent or more. Snow made by mechanical snowmaking often has moisture content of 35 percent or more.

Temperatures play a critical role in snow moisture content, but other atmospheric conditions are also relevant. Air currents and other factors determine snow crystal shape; obviously, the farther apart given snow crystals are, the more air is contained in the newly settled snow, resulting in lower net moisture content in a given volume of snow. Snow produced mechanically typically has high relative moisture content and low amounts of loft because the crystal structure resembles small, dense pellets.

Even the fluffiest snow has mass, and snow typically settles under its own weight after time. This is one reason why untouched snow measuring 20 cm on the day it falls might be measured at 15 cm the day following. Snow is also subject to sublimation — a process by which water can go directly from a frozen state to a gaseous state without first melting. It is this same process that ultimately makes ice cubes shrink in a freezer.

There are other factors that impact snow beyond its moisture content and crystal shape, however. Snow is impacted by wind, sunlight, skier traffic, ambient air temperature, relative humidity and grooming equipment; all of these factors combine to change snow crystal shape and density over time.

Thus, skiers and snowboarders typically encounter a wide range of snow conditions over the course of a season. Some of the more common conditions include:

Powder: Light, fluffy snow, found during and immediately after snowfall. Skiing and snowboarding in deep powder snow is a favorite among skilled, experienced skiers and snowboarders; sometimes known as "powderhounds" hunting for the next big dump. Because Western snow generally has a lower moisture content, western powder is lighter and easier to ski than heavier eastern powder. Utah and Colorado snow is especially known for being extremely light and dry as well as a lot of snow found in New Zealand.
Groomed or corduroy: Snow that has been tilled by a grooming machine. This snow condition is favored by beginners and the majority of recreational skiers, in that it tends to be relatively forgiving, easy to turn upon, and requires less skill to negotiate than powder snow.
Granular snow: Snow with large crystals, i.e. small pellets. Depending on sun and temperature conditions, it may be wet granular snow — meaning that there is a considerable amount of unfrozen water in it, or loose granular snow, which has no unfrozen water. Wet granular snow will form a snowball; loose granular snow will not. Wet granular conditions are often found in the springtime. Loose granular conditions are generally produced when wet granular snow has re-frozen and then been broken up by snowgrooming apparatus.
Corn snow: The result of repeated daily thaws and nightly re-freezing of the surface. Because of the thaw-refreeze cycle, snow crystal shapes change over time, producing crystal shapes somewhat akin to wet granular, but larger. True corn snow is a delight to ski or ride.
Ice/Hard-Pack: Skiers and snowboarders typically regard any snow condition that is very hard as "ice". In fact, true ice conditions are comparatively rare. Much of what is perceived to be ice is actually a frozen granular condition — wet granular snow that has refrozen to form a very dense surface. Telling the difference is comparatively easy; if one can get a ski pole to stand up in it, the surface is likely to be more of a frozen granular surface than an icy one — and while it is certainly not as enjoyable as many other snow conditions, skilled skiers and snowboarders can successfully negotiate it. In fact, ice is a preferred condition among racers, in that the surface tends to be quite fast and race course conditions tend to remain more consistent during the race, with fewer ruts developing on the course. Another form of icy condition can be found at higher elevation resorts in the Rocky Mountains and in Europe; direct sunlight can melt the top layers of snow crystals and subsequent freezing produces a very shiny, slick surface. This true ice is also common in Vermont, where it is affectionately called "Vermont Powder."
Crust: A crust condition exists when soft snow is covered by a harder upper layer upon the surface. This crust can be created by freezing rain (precipitation formed in warmer upper levels of the atmosphere, falling into a temperature inversion at which surface temperatures are below freezing, and freezing on contact with the ground), by direct sunlight, and by wind loading which packs down the upper layers of the snowpack but leaves lower layers more or less unaffected. Crusts are extremely challenging conditions.
Dust on crust: A trace of new snow on top of crust. Undesirable.
Spring conditions: A catch-all term ski areas use to describe conditions when numerous different surface types can be found on the mountain — usually in the later part of the season, although the term is sometimes used during an extended midwinter thaw. The term also generally reflects the presence of bare spots and/or areas of thin cover. With spring conditions, the snow is usually firm in early morning (even reaching frozen granular status if left ungroomed), breaking a softer corn or wet granular surface mid-day, and is often very soft and mushy in afternoon (many skiers refer to this type of snow condition as "mashed potatoes," due to its heaviness). In some instances when the snow is untracked, sun baked, slightly dirty, with the consistency of a snow cone, it is called "tecate powder". The speed with which conditions change on a given spring day is directly related to the exposure of the slope relative to the sun. In the northern hemisphere, east- and south-facing slopes tend to soften first; west-facing slopes generally soften by mid-day. North-facing slopes may hold on to their overnight snow conditions throughout the day.
Windblown: A type of snow that forms when powder isn't skied on for a long period of time. It is essentially powder past its expiration date. The consistency is that of a thick and "sticky" powder, that provides lots of resistance; it often is covered by a crust of hard packed snow. It is prone to happening in large, open areas where there is little shelter from the wind. Its appearance often fools inexperienced skiers to believe it is fresh powder, much to their dismay.
Variable: This snow type is a catch-all term for snow that can be tracked out, spring corn, packed powder, hard pack, and even powder. It is a "mixed bag," if you will, of conditions.

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