Maybe It's Time for Ski School

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, November 1993

Maybe It's Time for Ski School

Got a problem subject? Bumps? Powder? Steeps? You name it, there's a place that can help.
By Peter Shelton

A teenage kid who joined my class one afternoon in Telluride said he wanted to ski the bumps. On a warm-up run, I saw that he was having trouble with the basics of edging and directing a ski, so I decided to start with a solid skills review and then move on to some intermediate moguls.

The kid remained stoic, if somewhat surly, throughout the lesson, then approached me toward the end. "No, man," he groused. "I mean, I wanted to ski bumps."

"OK," I said, "let's ski some bumps," and took off down one of Telluride's nasty north faces, jamming as fast as I could to show the kid that fundamentals matter if you're going to survive this stuff. But try as I might, I couldn't shake him. He was a rough-hewn fall-line genius, unschooled and wild, but right at home on the steep, loving it. One tip about increasing the speed of his pole-plants was all he needed, all he had really wanted from me. His smile lit the whole hillside.

Some people need a word. Others need a world of reassurance. And sometimes it takes the ski instructor a while to discern the difference. Many people believe that ski school, with its stilted image of order and obedience, has nothing more to offer than lift-line cutting privileges. And there are good reasons for their mistrust.

Many instructors hold forth in front of a fidgety class as if delivering a sermon that will, by dint of its sheer logic, eradicate old habits and instill new, correct ones. Others are techno-speak freaks who can't seem to translate their message from jargon into understandable English. Then there are bored thrill-punks who consider themselves descendents of the true ski bums; they're only teaching to get a free season pass. And there are still a few of those tanned gigolos of legend around, whose careers are predicated on making clients dependent rather than independent skiers.

These are caricatures, to be sure, but they do exist in frightening numbers. They--and not the institution of ski school--are to blame for the bad rep. There are, in fact, plenty of fine schools out there, and even more good reasons to take lessons.

Beginners should always start with a class in the basics; this is what most ski schools do best, and there is no substitute for a solid foundation. Beyond that, the smartest reason for more advanced skiers to enroll may be to learn how to really watch good skiers, such as Doug Coombs. A skilled instructor can help you dissect skiing movement into what is functional and what is show, and teach you how to adopt the best and discard the rest.

A good lesson involves a ton of skiing and very little standing around; talk is kept to a minimum, and then is used primarily to reinforce physical examples. The instructor should lead at a pace that everyone can handle, over terrain that does most of the teaching. Make sure you get some osmosis time skiing directly behind the instructor, where the surest unconscious learning takes place.

Beware the school that claims a new or miraculous technique. Good skiing is not complicated. As Stowe's ski-school director, Peter Ruschp, likes to say, "Stand in balance. Stand on the inside edge of the outside ski. Simple." All competent ski instruction is a variation on this theme.

Do watch out for overhyped video review. It's fun, and even a little instructive, to see yourself as the camera does, but once is usually enough. And don't fall for the more-attention-in-a-private-lesson litany. Unless you're pathologically shy, you'll probably learn more in a gang. Group clinics are cheaper and longer; it's nearly impossible to conduct a meaningful lesson in an hour (including lift time). Bar none, the best way to improve is a week of half- or full-day lessons with the same instructor. This is a sport of motor memory: mileage, mileage, mileage.

Experienced skiers will benefit most from ski school if they pinpoint their goals. Start by deciding what kind of skier you want to be. Do you want to master the bumps? Learn to handle Eurostyle off-piste? Perfect your turns in racing gates? What you choose will determine where you should ski. The terrain and snow conditions of a particular resort indicate the strengths of the school that operates there. Likewise, beginners should select a mountain with lots of long, gently sloping runs for their introduction to the sport.

Next, do a little deductive reasoning. The best ski instructors will naturally gravitate to the highest-quality ski mountains. Stability is another factor: I'd rather work at Jackson Hole, where Pepi Steigler has been the director for 20 years, than at a place where the leadership is a revolving door. The role that the ski school has played in the mountain's history is also important. More than a few resorts--Stowe, Taos, and Keystone among them--were started by their ski-school directors, which contributes to their programs' strong reputations today.

So here's our list of ten premier ski schools, organized by the kind of skiing taught best there. Remember, the mountain dictates.


Telluride, Colorado
The Telluride ski school's special afternoon mogul clinic is called Bumps, Bumps, Bumps--an accurate description of this mountain. So why does director Annie Vareille-Savath order the big Cats out to create artificial bumps off to the side of the Butterfly beginner slope?

Actually, it's a great idea. The problem, according to Vareille-Savath, is that "people come in wanting a lesson in the bumps, and they don't even know how to turn." It's the eternal ski-school conundrum. Sometimes even the gentlest natural bumps--in Telluride's case, up above the restaurant on Butterfly--are a little too tight to facilitate much learning. Thus creation of the big, round, machine-made bumps with plenty of space between them for first-time mogul skiers.

Higher on the mountain, split grooming has been a hit with intermediate bump classes. The right half of The Plunge, for example, is allowed to grow whitecaps, while the left side is rolled smooth. Would-be sailors can test their sea legs at will with a safe harbor always at hand.

For the few skiers who really want to push the mountain's limits, there are weeklong Ultimate Telluride Experience ski clinics. One lucky instructor will lead you through pinball routes in the trees, down a series of funnel bumps in the West Drain, and through soft, windblown powder bumps in Little Rose. If you're exceptionally hot, request a lesson with Hugh Sawyer, who coaches junior freestylers and lays down a sinuous track to die for.

Ultimate Telluride Experience clinics, with five six-hour days of classes, plus additional seminars, cost $370; three days, $300. Morning or afternoon group clinics, including Bumps, Bumps, Bumps, are $35 for one, $70 for three. Call 303-728-3856.

Sunday River, Maine
Many people thought freestyle was dead until Sunday River brought back the Legends of Freestyle four years ago--Scotty Brooksbanks, Wayne Wong, John Clendennan, and Eddie Ferguson, shimmying through the moguls. The crowds have grown every year since then, and with them has come a resurgent interest in ski classes that specialize in managing the moguls. A combination of excellent terrain (52 percent of the mountain is rated upper intermediate and advanced), relatively abundant snow, and aggressive thinking about ski instruction has put Sunday River in the vanguard in the East.

The signature double-diamond mogul runs are appropriately named Agony, Vortex, and White Heat, the last rivaling Killington's Outer Limits for bragging rights as the all-time eastern mogul crucible. But thanks to ski-school input, there's also a blue (intermediate) bump run, carefully monitored and groomed when necessary, to serve as a learning ground. It's called 3-D, after a comment by last year's Legends winner, Stu O'Brien, who correctly observed that skiing moguls, as opposed to smooth terrain, "is a 3-D experience."

Classes are all part of an integrated, ten-level progression called the Perfect Turn Program. Skip King, part of the team that developed this touchy-feely approach, likens it to The One-Minute Manager, which emphasizes "catching people doing something right, avoiding negative perceptions, and building on existing strengths."

The Perfect Turn Premier Ski Week, including two 75-minute clinics each day for five days, lift tickets, and video review sessions, costs $279. Intermediate and advanced 75-minute clinics are $20. Beginner 90-minute clinics, including lift tickets and equipment rental, cost $35. For information call 202-824-3000.


Alta, Utah
No place tops Alta when it comes to innovations in powder skiing. From the late 1930s on, Alf Engen, Dick Durrance, and their protégés invented virtually every deep-snow technique from the Dipsy Doodle, a kind of bounding, ping-ponging approach to working heavy wooden skis, to the Alta Start, to the Uppercut hand movement for the desperately steep. Before these existed, most people couldn't handle deep snow. Alf remembers "sideslipping that incomparable powder, just to get rid of it." Now everybody wants to dance.

Alf retired in 1989 after 40 years as ski-school director. His son Alan, the current director, says that powder skiing is much easier now, largely because of new equipment, such as the "fat boys": short, ultrawide powder boards made by Atomic, Völkl, and Evolution. "We call them dream skis," says Alan Engen. "People make giant strides on them. They just float to the surface; it's much easier to turn."

Two-hour morning classes divided into levels 1-9 cost $21. Focused afternoon workshops, with two and a half hours of instruction, are $30. Call 801-742-3333.

Sugar Bowl, California
More snow falls on Alta than any other ski area in the Rockies, and more snow falls at Sugar Bowl than just about anyplace on the planet--an average of 500 inches per season. This is near the site where, in the winter of 1847, the Donner Party suffered its grisly fate. So much snow fills the basin between the Union Pacific tracks and the Sugar Bowl Lodge that the resort has dispensed with a road altogether and instead transports skiers, luggage--everything--in via the Magic Carpet gondola.

So if you're looking to become an expert deep-snow skier, short of ransoming the kids' future on a winter of heliskiing, you might consider riding the lifts on Mount Lincoln and Mount Disney. (Yes, Walt Disney was an early investor, and that's Sugar Bowl snow in Goofy's 1941 tour de force, The Art of Skiing.)

Mike Iman directs a ski school that has to deal with powder--neck gaiters should definitely be part of the uniform. He follows in the footsteps of Hannes Schroll, the school's first director, who could arc a giant rooster-tail in the fluff on seven-foot wooden skis, with pole baskets the size of LPs, hair and wool pants both smartly pressed.

You can do it, too. This is the place to get your reps, to sharpen your form. On new-snow mornings, try the ski school's Sunrise Special. While everyone else has to wait until ten o'clock to start lessons, be on the lifts at nine, with nothing but trackless white below your skis.

The Monday-Friday Ski Week, including lodging, four hours of instruction daily, lift tickets, and breakfast and dinner each day, costs $590; without hotel and meals, $250. Two- or three-hour advanced clinics are $24. Two-hour women's workshops, including lift ticket, cost $52. Beginner and intermediate group lessons, including lift tickets and equipment rental, are $45. Sunrise Special private lessons go for $30 an hour. For additional information call 916-426-3651.


Mammoth Mountain, California
Dave McCoy has exactly the right philosophy about ski racing. The founder, owner, and guiding force at Mammoth Mountain, in the eastern Sierra Nevada, put four of his children on the U.S. Ski Team: Kandi; Peanut; Penny, who won a bronze medal at the 1966 world championships in Chile; and Poncho, who raced in the 1968 Olympics. But that was never Dave McCoy's goal. He just figured that the discipline of racing would help his kids get through life and make them better, happier people.

Discipline, in the form of precise turning in the gates, is what the Mammoth Race Department aims to teach. There are many paths: masters race camps, pay racecourses, the weekend Mammoth Challenge Series for recreational racers, ski club race camps, custom races, and more. Last year the department organized 40,000 racer starts through the timing wands.

Many skiers who've never raced before sign up for morning and afternoon clinics, which alternate between giant slalom and slalom (GS is recommended for novices, because it's closer to the way most people free-ski). Drills set up on the racecourse focus on controlling the arcs of turns and the timing of pole-plants, skills that will improve anyone's recreational skiing. The coaches will even take you up to the cornice at the end of the two-and-a-half-hour clinic so you can see how much happier you are.

Race Department clinics cost $25. The Mammoth Ski School is a separate entity, with a roster of programs for all levels: Advanced Ski Clinics for solid intermediates and ski weeks for intermediate and advanced women, including five six-hour days of instruction, cost $210. Four-hour group lessons and three-hour specialty clinics are $38. Call 619-934-2571.

Stowe, Vermont
Forget the extremists and the cliff jumpers; the best skiers around are racers. Think of Killy, crevasse-hopping in Snow Job, or Franz Weber, barreling to world speed-skiing records. Sometimes just watching great racers can up the level of your game. At Stowe over the years you could have seen Sepp Ruschp, Billy Kidd, or Tiger Shaw etching turn after turn, compasslike, on the brittle Vermont ice. Sepp was Austrian national four-event champion (cross-country, jumping, downhill, and slalom) in 1935 when he signed on to teach skiing for the Mount Mansfield Ski Club in Stowe. Now his son, Peter, runs the school.

Skiers aspiring to champion status, or those who simply like speed, can sign on for one of Stowe's Race Weeks, offered three times during the season. Each day has a different focus, such as line judgment, slalom, giant slalom. You'll spend three days on Spruce Peak, then two days on longer courses on the big mountain. People with less time to devote to racing can join a two-hour NASTAR clinic, given every morning during the season. A NASTAR course set up every afternoon gives skiers a chance to put new skills into action.

Ski school can help, says Ruschp, but the real reason Stowe has produced so many exceptional racers is "the degree of difficulty. Just go up and ski that mountain."

Race Week, with five six-hour days of instruction and lift tickets, costs $189. Mountain Experience Week for intermediate and advanced skiers, including two-hour morning sessions for five days, is $89. Focused workshops cost $30 for two hours. The Front Four Workshop on double-black-diamond runs is $45 for three hours. Two-hour NASTAR race clinics and group lessons for all levels cost $24. Call 802-253-3000.


Squaw Valley, California
Squaw has more Alpslike steep and ungroomed terrain than any other ski area in the country. And unless a given pitch is prone to avalanche, skiers are allowed to run it. It's no accident that Scot Schmidt, Robbie Huntoon, and a significant core of the American extreme-skiing movement have called Squaw home.

For more than 15 years the ski school has run Advanced Skiing Clinics, geared toward upper intermediates whose skills have plateaued. The instructors look for trouble, taking their classes anywhere and everywhere on the mountain they're capable of going. Some instructors even lead their better groups to a graduation jump off the Palisades cliffs--of course, only when they can find a safe, preferably soft, place to land. They usually locate one; Sierra dumps are frequent and historically big. This is one of the few ranges in the world where one storm can obliterate all of the moguls overnight.

Advanced Skiing Clinic, with five six-hour days of instruction, lift tickets, lunch, and video feedback, is $675. The five-day Just For Women clinic costs $600; three days, $395. An advanced one-day mini-clinic, with six hours of instruction and lunch, costs $75. Group classes at all levels, including mogul and powder workshops for advanced skiers, are $25 for two hours. Call 916-583-6985.

Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico
The challenge at Taos, the sheer steepness of the narrow, tree-lined chutes off the ridges, has gripped and held a core of ski instructors since Ernie Blake founded the place back in the mid-1950s. Brothers Jean and Dadou Mayer arrived from France in 1956 and '58, respectively, and remain fascinated, working daily on the mysteries of extreme gravity.

They have created a step-by-step approach to teaching the steep: work first on the flats, with emphasis on controlling the arc of the turns; develop strong muscle-memory of the basics; encourage dynamic balance on nonthreatening bumps (the sharp face of a mogul representing in miniature the steeps above); and finally, foster an attitude. As Jean says, "It takes a body-awareness and an aggressiveness. You must be willing to commit down the hill."

All of which would be tough to do in an hour's or even a day's lesson. But at Taos, experienced skiers can sign up for the Learn-to-Ski-Better Week, which includes two hours of instruction each morning over five consecutive days, or the Super Ski Week, offered three times a season, which doubles the amount of instruction time. Blake believed passionately in that old-fashioned, all-inclusive institution, the ski week, and it works.

He also insisted that ski lessons, first and foremost, be fun. There's a strong emphasis on personal relationships within the group at Taos, a sense that everybody is on the same adventurous journey together. You need time for this to take hold.

And you need to relax. Blake, who was Swiss and ran the school until he died in 1989, used to hide flasks of martinis under strategic trees. "We have found," he said with a completely straight face, "that gin, with just a breath of vermouth, activates the blood and increases confidence."

Which is sometimes the last ingredient you need to make that commitment down the hill.

The Learn-to-Ski-Better Week, which includes a five-day lift ticket, is $318. Super Ski Week costs $422-$482 depending on time of year. Group lessons at all levels are $26 for two hours. Call 505-776-2291.


Keystone, Colorado
While Max Dercum worked at Arapahoe Basin at the top of Loveland Pass, his eye wandered to a gentler, forested peak to the west. It was a perfect hill, he thought, for people to learn to ski.

In the late sixties, Max cut Schoolmarm along the serpentine west ridge of Keystone Mountain and created something new in the West--an easy yet consistently intriguing trail that beginners could follow from the top of the mountain to the base, for three miles and the full 2,300-foot vertical.

Most people can ski Schoolmarm after a single lesson on the Energizer Bunny Slope. (Ralston Purina owns the resort.) Nothing pumps up a new skier like the big views from up there. Though Dercum has retired (Hank Thiess is the current director), he's still the soul of a school that converts more "never-evers" into lifelong skiers than any other place I know.

One reason is methodology: Beginner classes are carefully segregated and then re-split as a second instructor swoops in and picks up stragglers for a bit of remedial guidance or siphons off the stars to a faster group. Another reason is well-trained instructors who are given a high degree of autonomy; they rotate classes, which means that even the best take their turn with beginners. But the premier reason is brilliant terrain that took Max's eye to discover.

Group lessons, including beginner sessions and intermediate and advanced focused workshops, cost $30 for the first two-and-a-half-hour session, $25 thereafter. A ski week for all levels, which includes access to Arapahoe Basin, Breckenridge, and Keystone, is $375 for a five-day lift ticket and five hours of lessons each day. For the nonbeginner, Keystone has the Mahre Training Center, headed by Olympians Phil and Steve Mahre: Five days of instruction and lift tickets cost $595; three days, $375. Call 800-255-3715.

Gray Rocks, Quebec
When I first skied Gray Rocks, in Quebec's maple-covered Laurentians, I wondered where everybody had gone. It was noon, and my turns practically echoed--the slopes were that empty. Turned out that 90 percent of the guests were on the ski week program, and they all broke for lunch at the elegant Auberge.

Nothing much has changed, although the Auberge is now called the Gray Rocks Hotel. The resort is a cruise ship on snow, a self-contained and sheltered world where ski instruction, like the small jewel of a mountain (650 vertical feet), is burnished to a high sheen.

Ski-school director Wayne Bradburn, a Montrealer who's been with the resort since 1966, claims that Gray Rocks invented the ski-week concept in 1951: seven days, 19 meals, and 22 hours of instruction, all for one price. Guests stay in the 125-room hotel, the 25-room Le Chateau, or a Village de Soleil condo; take their blueberry pancakes with maple syrup in the 500-seat dining room; and ski all day on utterly nonthreatening terrain.

There's a camaraderie and unity of purpose here that's sadly missing from more-modern resorts. The skiing, and the attention, is so sweet, one woman from Boston told me, "It's like a womb. I don't want to go anyplace else."

The full ski week, including six nights' lodging, all meals, lift ticket, and four hours of instruction daily, costs U.S. $635-$1,030, depending on type of room, time of year, and exchange rate. A la carte group lessons are $35 for four hours. Call 819-425-2771.

Peter Shelton , who begins his 38th ski season this month, is the author of The Snow Skier's Bible (Doubleday).

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