Breakthrough With Lito

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If you're stuck in a rut, don't give in. Go to Aspen to learn from Lito. After just five days, you'll dance where you hesitated, carve where you skidded, charge where you choked.It's December, and I'm standing on the top of Aspen's Buttermilk Mountain as early-season flakes fall. I'm listening to Lito Tejada-Flores, a small man with a salt-and-pepper beard, an engaging smile and a manner that redefines the term "charismatic." He's telling me and 44 other skiers that in the next five days he's going to change the way we ski. Forever. Permanently. If we follow his instructions, he merrily suggests, we can expect a "breakthrough" in our skiing.

This is how Lito's "Breakthrough On Skis" clinics begin, and I desperately need one. I took up skiing in my late 30s. Like many new skiers who come to the sport as adults, I had sampled a smattering of lessons here and there, East and West, that often seemed to contradict one another. Every year, I felt like an absolute beginner yet again. My skiing curriculum vitae consisted of intermediate trails and chance encounters with mogul fields that left me feeling like some ill-prepared Victorian explorer on his way to a Pole. I was probably in control about 30 percent of the time and felt doomed to spend the rest of my days skidding down some of America's finest mountains. Then I attended Lito's clinic.

Most skiers stop improving "when they hit the intermediate or advanced-intermediate stage," Lito says, reinforcing my evolution. "They never really experience all of the beauty of skiing. They're trapped. They're merely coping when they go down a mountain; they're not flying or dancing. They don't make the transition to expert because expert skiing is not an improved version of intermediate skiing. Expert skiing is different. It's not harder, it's just different."

Like many innovative teachers, Lito focuses on what might appear to be a very obvious matter; in this case, the humble turn. Skis, he reminds you, are designed to turn. Utilize their design and not brute force to make your turn, which should be round and completed, not z-shaped and unfinished. Early weight shift from one foot to the other, he stresses, is a key element to making turns smoothly and in succession. And linking those turns with dynamic anticipation, he promises, makes them virtually effortless. That, in a nutshell, is the guts of Lito's philosophy of skiing. It's a message that many skiers have already heard and heeded, thanks to his first book, a classic, Breakthrough On Skis: How To Get Out Of The Intermediate Rut.

Lito, who was born in Bolivia, raised in the U.S. and has taught skiing at Vail and Telluride in Colorado and Squaw Valley, Calif., annually musters some of Aspen's best instructors to help him guide students to a breakthrough. For five long days, prisoners of the intermediate zone focus on the arc of the turn, on why skis turn and on why the shape of a turn is so important. Perhaps the single most important technique that Lito strives to get across is the idea of skiing on one foot. Expert skiers, he insists, are always on one foot or the other.

Much of the first day is spent balancing on one foot or the other, on easy stretches like catwalks, before progressing to steeper areas. "Remember," he stresses, "that putting all of your weight on the outside ski is exactly the same as taking all of your weight off the inside ski. That's a much easier way for many skiers to visualize it."

We work on carving turns of different shapes and sizes, on what Lito refers to as a "bombproof parallel start," and finally on shorter turns and dynamic anticipation. That sounds complicated, but is summed up like this: You lead your skis rather than vice-versa. It's what enables experts to link short turns straight down a steep hill. "When your short turns start falling apart, do some wide turns," suggests Lito. "There are days when I feel like I weigh 20 pounds and I'm skiing on razor blades, and then there are those other days when every turn is work."

During a private session with Lito, you get a firsthand taste of his methodical, patient way of working on the same drills over andd over. When I ski up to Lito, he points to my tracks and says, "You must be thinking about deadlines." Turning around, I see that I've left two skidded tracks in the fresh Aspen powder, meaning that I'm still not letting my skis' sidecut do enough of the work. Later that day, the camera reiterates his point. Mistakes are inescapable when caught on film, and we're videotaped daily. "Look at those feet!" says instructor John Philips, as someone skis toward the camera in the old windshield wiper style, swinging his skis back and forth. Usually it's me. "You're putting too much twist in your body and trying to do things too fast. Watching myself in slow motion on video has a humbling effect. No matter how good I feel on the hill, it becomes pain-fully obvious how far I have to go. Yet, day by day, I see improvement. Incremental at first, then virtual giant steps. Every day after skiing, we convene for beers and talk by Lito on everything from ski equipment to getting in shape, followed by a question-and-answer session. Lito uses the time to emphasize the points the instructors stress on snow. Like side-slipping. We spend loads of time side-slipping down the mountain, trying to make it effortless, trying to make the skis do the work. "Side-slipping is a drill to help you make turns on steeper hills," he explains. "It's a rising-and-falling mechanism."

By day five, things started coming together. I was moving more naturally up and down, my weight was shifting from foot to foot with less effort, and my posture had radically shifted from rigid to fluid. Most astoundingly, I had begun to trust my skis. Sure, I still had some bad habits-a shoulder that kept dipping, hands that kept falling, an occasionally dyslexic relationship with my poles. But honestly, it was probably the most important five days I ever spent on skis. And yes, on the day after class ended, skiing with some friends at Snowmass, I had some fleeting moments where I felt I was truly dancing down the mountain. Thanks largely to Lito, I'm happy to report that I've done a lot more dancing since then.

Details
For 2001-02, Breakthrough On Skis will be run for six weeks in December and January. Tuition is $1,050 for five days at Snowmass. The price includes a five-day ski pass, evening events and a closing-night banquet. Call the Aspen Skiing Company at 877-282-7736, or log on to www.breakthroughonskis.com. Special lodging rates are available for participants at the Stonebridge Inn in Snowmass (800-922-7242). To order Lito's new book, Breakthrough On The New Skis, call 888-802-3355, ext. 610, or log on to www.skiingcompanystore.com.