Whatever Happened to Wedeln?

Pfeiffer wedeln

Seventy years ago, the rhythmic fall-line turn was the acme of skiing elegance.

Above: In Skiing Simplified (1966) Doug Pfeiffer accepted the formal Austrian technique of sweeping the tails.

For about 15 years at the height of skiing’s boom era, the mark of excellence for a ski instructor was Wedeln. These seamless heel-thrust turns, performed on a relatively flat ski, were generated mostly by lower body movements, including an up-unweight to lighten the skis for lateral thrust. The skier’s torso faced the direction of travel (downhill) while the legs and feet gently and rhythmically pivoted the skis left and right. The effect was a graceful leg-pendulum movement, complemented by a stable torso and rhythmic pole plants. Done correctly, these turns were purely parallel, entirely eliminating the stem.

Around 1955, Stefan Kruckenhauser, head of the Austrian Ski Academy (and therefore the pope of all Austrian ski schools) chose the name Wedeln (tail-wagging) to describe these turns. He enshrined it as the top goal for expert skiers in his 1957 book Ősterreichsicher Skilehrplan.

It could be said that Wedeln evolved from the Kurzschwung (short swing), a rhythmic and rapid linking of turns with hard edge-sets that provided speed control in steep terrain and narrow passages. Wedeln’s primary function, in contrast, was playful turning (as opposed to speed control), and it was mostly performed on gentler terrain or in deep powder.

Wedeln became the mark of good skiing as it allowed a skier to demonstrate high levels of mobility, speed control and skillful play. In that last sense, it served more of an aesthetic purpose, reflecting a joyful personal expression of skiing. Wedeln differed from short swing by requiring softer edge engagement and lesser ski displacement across the fall line. Practitioners often described their ski-snow interaction as Schmieren (smearing). Variations of Wedeln also emerged, driven by terrain and snow conditions, and differing in the degree of ski displacement and commensurate edge engagement. And the technique became the bread and butter of racers negotiating flushes and gate combinations with little off-set.

Schriebl flush
Stratton's Austrian instructors ski a flush. Hubert Schriebl photo.

As with many innovations, it is difficult to pin the invention of Wedeln to a particular person. According to St. Anton native and ski-school director Dixi Nohl, Kruckenhauser filmed and analyzed local racers as they perfected the style while training in endless slalom flushes set by their coach, Toni Spiss (see “When Krucki Ruled the World” in the March 2005 issue of Skiing Heritage).

Wherever it came from, Kruckenhauser and his successor, Professor Franz Hoppichler, elevated Wedeln into a trademark of Austrian skiing.

The method of teaching laid out in the Austrian ski manual was:

  • Straight runs with rhythmic vertical movement.
  • Repeat the above with rhythmic alternate pole plant.
  • Add SMALL pivoting of the skis to the end of each up movement.
  • Reduce vertical movements until torso and arms remain on one plane, legs developing leg pendulum movements!
  • Rinse and playfully repeat! [my addition].

The ability to wedel elegantly became the price of entry into the Austrian teaching system. European skiers were suckers for novelty, and they flocked to the ski areas that boasted the best “tail-wagging” instructors. Periodic demos by instructors at the morning meeting places served as visual evidence of the elegance and grace of skiing in this manner.

Gamma: Handbook of Skiing
In Handbook of Skiing (1981), Karl Gamma suggests it might be permissible to pivot the skis around the boots.

Other European national ski schools skied the same turns, but they failed to benefit by neglecting to name and market the style. The French, for example, built on their concept of virage aval (“turn to the valley”), emphasizing the need to face the torso downhill when skiing the fall-line. Their toute neige, tous terrains (all snow, all terrain) approach always offered a broad selection of techniques and styles of turning. In 1959, Georges Joubert and Jean Vuarnet published Wedeln à la française, identifying the turn as a “thrust-pivot” and placing it not at the top of the learning progression but as an intermediate step en route to the “modern christie,” a more completely finished speed-control turn.

The French soon made headlines by promoting avalement (“swallowing”), especially for bump skiing. This technique required the skier to fold and turn the legs and feet to absorb the impact of bumps and/or the accumulating pressure of a well-edged turn finish. In contrast to the rotary movements used to make medium- and long-radius turns, the French ski school emphasized virage aval when linking short-radius turns. In response, Kruckenhauser advised that in bumps, Wedeln could begin with a down-unweight instead of a hop.

Both French and Austrian techniques won the attention of the skiing public. Skiers waiting in line for the tram could be heard debating the merits of one technique over the other.

Wedeln with glove
Doug Pfeiffer added: Hold a glove between your knees to learn the fashionable tight stance.

Some instructors began talking about carving in the late 1960s. By 1972, when Warren Witherell’s How the Racers Ski came out, an emphasis on carving began to eclipse all other forms of skiing. Witherell suggested that a ski’s design should be a more powerful driver of the turn, not the skier’s comparatively weaker efforts to pivot. Aided by radically evolving ski design, carving emerged as the new signature of expert skiers. As new flex patterns and shorter lengths have complemented deeper sidecuts, carving remains the holy grail of excellence in Alpine skiing to this day.

Snowboarding may have led the way in this development. If carving can be explained technically as the edged ski’s tail following the same path as the tip, its psychological definition is the thrill of lateral acceleration—the serotonin-producing risk-taking generated by leaning into the turn while feeling the dynamic support of edged skis beneath the body. I believe carving is here to stay. At the recent Interski in Levi, Finland, it was evident that the entire ski world carves, addicted to the accelerating turn.

For recreational skiers who are not addicted to speed, preferring instead to feel secure, veteran instructors will continue to encourage a flatter ski with a skidded parallel turn to control speed, at least on easy groomed terrain. People who don’t take lessons, and who are therefore uninfluenced by theory, will continue to ski all sorts of inconsistent techniques, including the occasional fall-line descent with rhythmic skidded turns.

The joy of skiing is experienced at all levels of skill acquisition. To that end, while carving is the current pinnacle of Alpine skiing, Wedeln and Kurzschwung, rotation and avalement are alive and well in the recreational skier’s repertoire. 

Horst Abraham wrote about student-centered teaching in the March-April 2023 issue.