It's not the speed; it's the terrain.

Last week, I went skiing with my friend Jordy, a competitive freeride coach. He teaches younglings how to throw themselves down very steep terrain and to do it quickly and in control.

I put Jordy on skimo skis, so that he could see just what we’re dealing with in races. He helped me a ton that day, and the main lesson that I learned is: Don’t turn so much.

One of the techniques that we used, Jordy called “graduated straight-running”. To start, you put yourself as high on a slope as you are comfortable and then ski straight down without turning. On the next lap of the same run, you start a little higher than the first time. The next lap, higher still. Repeat until you run out of terrain or courage.

The biggest advantage of straight-running–something I’ve told my sons to never do–is that it sets a new benchmark of acceptable speed. And once turning becomes optional, any turn you make brings you below that benchmark speed. As speed falls below the benchmark, comfort level rises. Overall, you can ski faster with less stress.

After my day out with Jordy, I went to a local low-traffic ski hill to put this into practice. I chose a run with a steep start, smooth features, and a long run out. When the coast was clear, I pointed my skis straight down and held on. Lap after lap, I gradually increased the elevation of my start position. I was surprised to see that my top speed hit 99 kmh.

Jordy would laugh at my pride. His top speed when he was racing was 148 kmh.

I then tried a different run that was more varied in terrain and with a rougher surface. It was a lot scarier, so I was sure that it must have been a lot faster. But even after that run, the top speed shown on my GPS was still 99 kmh.

When I got home, I downloaded the GPS data and compared my laps run-for-run. My speed on the scary run was only 84 kmh. It was 15% slower, but much more than 15% scarier.

It dawned on me then that it’s not the speed that’s scary or daunting; it’s the terrain. On a steep, smooth slope with a long run out, there’s not much to be afraid of. On rougher, rolling terrain with less visibility, there’s a lot more to be cautious of.

That’s sounds obvious, I’m sure. But when people talk about high speed skiing, they often remark on the speeds themselves: “Did you hear that the top speed in the Lake Louise race was 130 kmh?”

But that doesn’t paint the whole picture. The proper follow-up question is: “What was the terrain like?”