Kick turns are an extremely useful tool to have in your bag of backcountry tricks. One variety, the snap-kick turn is useful in deep snow, and practically essential on steep terrain. Without the snap-kick turn you can be in a rather precarious position when it comes to changing direction on a skin track, especially in glacial terrain where the consequences of a fall might be fatal.
With good kick turn technique you can easily navigate complex terrain with less energy and far less anxiety. It takes a bit of practice but only a bit, and is worth it.
Nearly everyone knows how to do the simple uphill kick turn on moderately steep slopes. But to master the kick turn you need to break the movement patterns used for that simplistic turn. In particular, the position of your hands and how you weight each ski as you switch directions is dramatically different with a snap kick turn compared to an uphill kick turn.
To recap, the key points are to 1) keep your poles above the skin track for balance. With an uphill kick turn you place your poles downhill to balance as you lift your second ski across the fall line. It is impossible to do the snap-kick turn with your poles below you.
Secondly, you want to make sure that when you set your new downhill ski in the reverse direction that you place it so it is as close to 90° across the fall line as possible. This gives you a more stable platform to transfer your weight to so you can snap the other ski around. Every degree of incline on this new ski reduces your sense of security and stability to allow the snap-kick move.
Finally, once you’ve transferred your weight to the ski in the new direction you need to just pause a moment and make sure you feel stable on this new ski. Relax and feel the security. If you don’t feel secure, the chances are very high the ski is at too steep of an angle. Flatten that sucker out!
Okay, now, with your poles positioned above and forward, lift the old downhill ski and bend your knee so your heel draws up towards your butt. In many cases, if you have a free-pivoting binding the tail of the ski may drop away and you can just pivot your ski around. But if it doesn’t, with your heel cocked up, quickly extend your leg and snap the tail of the ski from the heel of your boot. This will cause the tail of your ski to drop away. As it does the tip will come up and as it does rotate the ski into the new direction. Step down and skin on!
It will take about a dozen attempts to break some of the habits you have developed with the uphill kick turn. But with just a bit of perseverance you’ll get it. And once you ‘get it’, switchbacks will no longer be something you avoid, but something you can enjoy.