How long has it been since you took a ski or snowboard lesson? Or even considered taking one?
If you haven’t experienced a lesson since “rocker” made you think of Springsteen, not ski construction, and the term “sidecountry” didn’t even exist, it might be time to reconsider.
“In the old days, ski school was about what the instructor wanted you to do,” said ski industry veteran Weems Westfeldt, who heads up the ski school at [R25R, Aspen Highlands]. “Now, ski school is about what you want to do—with some sound coaching about how to get there and what more is possible.”
With the aim of enticing intermediate to advanced skiers to continue their on-snow education, many resorts’ have revamped their lesson options by developing specialty clinics that focus on things like steeper terrain or backcountry awareness, as well as expanding kids’ and women’s programs to include higher-level instruction.
“Some of this approach just goes down to basic understandings of what recreational athletes like and how they learn,” Westfeldt said. “The other part of the approach is programmatic. One size and price does not fit everyone. Kids classes, family classes and special programs now abound.”
Westfeldt, for example, developed the Diamond Sessions private lessons at [R25R, Aspen/Snowmass], with the goal of teaching skiers and riders to self-coach and achieve peak performance in a variety of situations, on snow and off.
Today’s ski schools have become excellent resources for skiers of all levels and ages. Still not convinced? Keep this in mind: ski instructors themselves continually take training clinics to refine their technique. Here’s a sampling of what you can expect to find at various resorts.
For the Groms
Most resorts do a great job of teaching little ones to ski or ride and, at best, helping to instill a lifelong love of sliding on snow. But some go above and beyond, with comprehensive kids’ centers that combine learning and fun while providing a place for lunch and snack breaks during the ski day. The 25,000-square-foot Treehouse Kids’ Adventure Center at Snowmass, for example, has age-appropriate themed rooms and interactive play features based on the mountain ecosystem. Child group ski lessons start at age two-and-a-half. [R435R, Sugarbush]’s new kids’ center, The Schoolhouse, has murals and play structures designed by Vermont-based artists, and group lessons start at age three.
If you’re concerned about potentially large class sizes, look for programs that cap the number of kids per instructor, like[R198R, Killington]’s Max 5 lessons or the Ultimate Four at [R482R, Vail], [R36R, Beaver Creek], [R77R, Breckenridge] and [R197R, Keystone].
Kids learn how to ski at Vail Mountain in Colorado. Photo by Dan Davis. Courtesy of Vail Resorts.
Kids’ snowboarding lessons usually start around ages five or six. But at Burton’s five U.S. Riglet Parks, tots as young as three can learn to shred, beginning indoors on specially designed balance boards, then quickly progressing to the outdoor park, which includes mini-terrain features. Burton supplies kid-friendly boots and boards equipped with retractable leashes that let instructors tow young riders. The Riglet Park at [R395R, Smugglers’ Notch], with a treehouse theme, opened in December 2011. Yoda’s Riglet Park at [R362R, Sierra-at-Tahoe] opened in January 2012, with chainsaw-carved wood likenesses of Star Wars characters like Chewbacca and Anakin Skywalker, and interactive features that help kids learn to balance, glide, and control their boards.
Kids learn how to ski whle passing through Elkhorn Tunnel on Snowmass. Photo by Tomas Zuccareno.
Teens may loath signing up for lessons—knowing this, some resorts run kids’ programs only until ages 13 or 14, then lump teens into adult classes—but the chance to master super-steep terrain or learn big-mountain skiing skills might outweigh the too-cool-for-school attitude. [R10R, Alta] runs its Teen Freeride Camp, which teaches freeskiing tactics and includes video analysis, during Christmas and Presidents’ Week. During those same holiday periods, [R440R, Sun Valley] offers a half-day Teen Adventure Camp for skiers and riders. [R314R, Park City]’s “I Ride Park City” Freestyle Camps provide three days of park and pipe coaching for kids up to age 15; participants also get to shoot and edit a GoPro video that they can share later on. Other teen programs include [R497R, Whiteface]’s Teen Experience, held daily during holiday periods; [R191R, Jackson Hole]’s three-day season-long Fall Line Camps (including one with legendary and local film company Teton Gravity Research); and the three-day Stowked Teen Camp at [R429R, Stowe], held during the Christmas and Presidents’ weeks.
Teaching to the Terrain
It makes sense for resorts to capitalize on their signature terrain by helping guests learn to ski or ride it better. Killington and [R507R, Winter Park], for example, have long had popular moguls clinics. Now, with the ubiquity of terrain parks and pipes, and improved ski gear that makes expert areas more attainable, terrain-focused specialty programs abound.
At Sugarbush, you can book a private lesson with pioneering extreme skier John Egan and tackle runs like the trees and steeps in Slide Brook, terrain that Egan says is “a training ground for East Coast skiers who want to go out West.” Beginning this winter, Egan’s brother Dan now leads a variety of two-day ski clinics at Killington, focusing on moguls, steeps and trees; he also heads up a three-day steeps clinics on [R48R, Big Sky]’s notorious Lone Peak.
Pro Extreme Skier John Egan can show you the ropes at Sugarbush. Photo Courtesy of Sugarbush Resort.
Many Western ski areas known for gut-checking double blacks offer programs for those who want to conquer—not just survive—such terrain, like [R419R, Squaw]’s weekend-long Squallywood Big Mountain Camp with the ski area’s legendary chronicler of extreme, Robb Gaffney, and [R120R, Crested Butte]’s new Group North Face Guides adult group lessons for advanced skiers and riders.
Tackle the steeps of Crested Butte with the Group North Face Guides. Photo by Robb Pennie. Courtesy of Crested Butte.
And jibbing and airing it out of the pipe aren’t only for X Games wannabes. [R425R, Steamboat], for example, offers daily lessons for adult advanced skiers and riders in its Mavericks Superpipe and terrain parks, and [R227R, Mammoth]’s three-day Unbound Parks and Pipes Camps teaches tricks in a progression from small to bigger features.
With sales of Alpine touring skis on a steady uptick and soaring interest in skiing terrain just outside resort boundaries, ski schools have recognized the opportunity—and, frankly, the need—for backcountry education.
[R201R, Kirkwood] opened a dedicated building for its Expedition: Kirkwood programs for winter 2011/2012, with classrooms, rentals and retail for things like safety equipment and other backcountry gear.
“If ski school goes up to college level, this is like getting your Ph.D.,” said Kirkwood’s VP of skier services Jon Copeland, who oversees the Expedition center. “Our main teaching point is safety in the backcountry.”
A ski instructor skiing powder with his students in the background at Kirkwood Mountain Resort near South Lake Tahoe, California. Photo courtesy Kirkwood Resort.
The center offers clinics in backcountry awareness and avalanche education, as well as the chance to explore Kirkwood’s adventurous terrain with a guide.
[R404R, Snowbird] puts on a three-day Sidecountry Camp for advanced skiers and riders; the clinic includes practice with avalanche tools (beacon, probe, shovel), terrain evaluation and the chance to explore out-of-bounds stashes.
Vail’s three-day Mike Weigele Heli-Prep Program prepares you for the holy grail—heli-skiing—by focusing on technique, backcountry awareness and safety.
Enhanced Women’s Programs
Long a staple of most ski schools’ offerings, women’s clinics are getting a facelift at some areas. To attract more advanced skiers and riders and revitalize their programs, resorts are adding higher-performance options that keep the focus on skiing.
“Every ski area has some sort of women’s program, but it tends to be, ‘We’re doing a women’s event, so maybe we’ll do a yoga session, or fashion show, or spa treatments,’” said Lisa Densmore, a former U.S. Ski Team racer who leads women’s clinics at resorts around the country. “Those are all fine, but what ultimately matters is, everyone wants to ski better and wants info on how to do that.”
In addition to good ski technique, these newer programs emphasize strategies and confidence-building tactics for tackling challenging terrain. Squaw Valley’s Next Level Women’s Freeskiing Camp, taught by pro skiers Ingrid Backstrom and Jessica Sobolowski-Quinn, will help you step it up in Squaw’s steeps. Kirkwood’s three-day Women’s Weekend for skiers and riders, offered through Expedition: Kirkwood, includes off-piste terrain and gear demos; one-day clinics throughout the season also focus on serious skiing and riding. Jackson Hole’s four-day women’s camps focus on big-mountain skiing and riding and may include a backcountry outing.
And, in a new twist on the gender-specific concept, [R129R, Deer Valley] now offers a men’s-only weekend clinic, while [R403R, Snowbasin] has three-hour men’s lessons on Sundays throughout the season.
Need for Speed
It’s not just gate-bashers who benefit from the discipline and drills of race technique. Many of today’s best big-mountain skiers, for example, grew up racing. Learning to carve efficient high-speed turns can help your skiing in all types of terrain and situations.
But before you hit the NASTAR course, brush up with a race-specific clinic like Squaw Valley’s Gates to Skills, offered on several Fridays throughout the season, or Killington’s early-season race program. Four-time Olympian Martin Bell teaches a two-day clinic at Big Sky, while the Mahre Training Center Ski Camps call Deer Valley home. Though these three- and five-day camps don’t focus purely on racing, you know that with Phil and Steve Mahre heading them up, you’ll pick up some good racing fundamentals.
Adaptive programs, which teach physically and mentally challenged children and adults to ski and ride, have multiplied over the past dozen or so years. One of the country’s largest organizations for outdoor recreation is the National Sports Center for the Disabled, started in 1970, which operates its ski and snowboard program out of Winter Park. Disabled Sports USA’s Far West program has been based at [R5R,Best Squaw Valley | Alpine Meadows Hotels for 40 years.
Joining these stalwarts have been programs of various sizes at seemingly every ski area. And they’re offering more than basic lessons. For example, several times a season Smugglers’ Notch holds a five-day Autism Snowman Camp, which includes winter outdoor activities in addition to skiing. Jackson Hole offers an adaptive version of its four-day Steep and Deep Camp, with Paralympic medalist Chris Devlin-Young as a guest coach. And the Telluride Adaptive Sports Program has even partnered with local heli-ski company HeliTrax for a day of heli-skiing.