Dean Cummings: How to Teach Your Kids to Ski

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Have kids, will heli-ski: the Cummings in AK [Dean Cummings]

Last week I posted highlights from my interview with world champion extreme skier Dean Cummings, who lives in Valdez, Alaska, with his wife and two kids. Naturally you’d think that if anyone could teach their kids to rip on skis, it’d be a pro like Dean. After all, he designs his own line of skis and guides heli-ski clients down some of the steepest, deepest lines in North America, and his kids have been at home on snow since practically birth (he just built them their own rope tow). But for the rest of us mere mortals, getting kids up on sticks can be a dodgier proposition. Should you use a harness or a Hula hoop? Bribe with hot chocolate or pull the ripcord when the whining begins? Attach the tips or just let ‘em rip? Buy or rent? DIY or ski school? 

As a parent of a three-year-old skier and a 16-month old charger who’s desperate to keep up with her snow-crazed sister, I took the opportunity to grill Dean for pointers. No surprise from a methodical guy who's devised strict protocols to keep him safe in the high country, Dean has a simple strategy for getting kids to learn the sport you love.

1. Skip the lift.
Stealing a page from his dad’s playbook, Dean made his daughter and son earn their turns by herringboning up the bunny slope, rather than riding the rope tow, just like he and his four siblings did when they were little. This teaches kids how to edge: Going uphill, they have to engage their inside edges to keep from slipping backwards. At the top, they naturally reverse their edges, point downhill, and voila, they’re skiing. Once they get comfortable and are ready to tackle longer slopes, by all means, let them ride the lift. 

Earn your turns, baby. [Dean Cummings]


2. Clip their tips. 
Dean recommends attaching the tips together with a strap to keep the noodle-legged little ones from spread-eagling on the snow or crossing their skis and face planting. Either way, bummer. A cheap nylon device from your local ski shop or homemade number will do the trick.

3. Keep them close.
Before Wyatt and Tasslina learned to walk, Dean carried them on his back in a pack or held them on his lap in front of him while he skied (sometimes at 60 mph—don’t try THAT at home). When they were old enough to stand up steadily on their own skis, Dean didn’t use put them in a harness but instead had them follow him between his legs while he skied slowly backwards (yeah, I know, easy for him). When we decided, on a lark, to put our 19-month-old on skis for the first time, we ran beside her while she slid slowly downhill, her mittened hands in front of her and knees bent flukishly like a baby Picabo. Only when she started bombing forth with seriously scary speed and zero control did we decide we needed some kind of tether. We found that ski pole works better than a strap rigged beneath the skis (both hurt your back after a few runs), but I’ve met parents who swear by putting the kid inside a Hula hoop and holding the back end. Whatever your method, keep them within arm's reach until they can turn and stop reliably on their own and under control.

4. Speak their language.
Coach them to keep their hands in front of them and look where they want to go by giving them specific landmarks: When we told our daughter to “Look at the Magic Carpet” or “Look at the trees,” she'd turn her head to the side and her skis would follow, slowing her down. When he wanted his kids to snow plow, Dean told them to make a “pizza,” or wedge, with their skis. When it’s time to straighten out and gain speed, be like Dean and have them turn their skis into French fries.

Wyatt Kodiak Cummings rocking the high-speed pizza, Valdez, AK  [Dean Cummings]

5. When in doubt, get help.
Even a pro like Dean isn’t above enrolling his kids in ski school. “It’s always better to have someone else teach your kids,” he admits. Plus being around other kids often puts the kibosh on complaining.

6. Gear up for safety.
When it comes to equipment, keep it simple. Even though he designs his own line of skis and has access to some of the best planks in the business, Dean shops for his kids’ skis at used sports shops because they outgrow them so quickly. Don’t skimp on safety gear, though. Helmets are best bought new, so you know whether it's been compromised by a crash. 

7. Don’t push.
It can be tough to keep your expectations in check—especially for a world champ. “It’s up to my kids whether they decide to compete,” says Dean. “I want them to have that discipline, but we are such crazy overachievers that I know they’ll have it whatever they do.” For the rest of us, this may be simple as calling it a day when the meltdowns outnumber the high fives on the bunny slope and hot chocolate in the lodge won’t bring your little shredder back from the brink. Quit while you’re ahead—tomorrow’s another day. 

Do you have your own tips for teaching kids to ski? Please share.

—Katie Arnold


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