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Ski Schools On Trial

Fall Line

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Ski schools are getting bad grades. From their students. And from their partners in the ski industry. The most troubling numbers are these: While beginner lessons are up for both alpine and snowboard first-timers, only a few of these snowsliders return. In fact, 85 percent of first-time lesson takers don’t come back. And upper-level skiers are skipping class in droves.

What happened to turn these people off? And what’s become of those proud days when a ski resort’s most visible, most romantic and indispensable component was its professional stable of ski instructors?

Skiing has changed since Sigi and Benno and Hans lined students up every morning outside the base lodge. The Ski Week, once the predominant vacation option, has gone the way of the carrier pigeon. Technology, in the form of the shaped ski revolution, has shortened the learning curve. Even the mountains themselves have undergone radical transformations.

Take grooming. In the old days, if there was fresh snow, ski school classes had to pack the hill before they could work on their turns. Today, fleets of half-million-dollar machines lay down a velvety carpet that practically turns your skis for you.

Or consider snowmaking. Instructors used to guide clients around bare patches, point out obstacles and lead the way to the best, easiest-turning snow. Terrain and snow variety were a part of the learning process. Now snowmaking guarantees a uniformity of surface. “Skiing on ego snow 90 percent of the time instead of 10 percent,” says one veteran Mammoth Mountain, Calif., instructor, “leads to an inflated sense of one’s abilities.”

Much-improved gear. Smooth, predictable surfaces. Skiing is cushier than it ever has been. Easy enough to make ski school obsolete? The answer may lie with skiers themselves.

On every mountain, there is still a big gap between the really good skiers-the ones who float downhill with confidence-and the majority of hackers. And yet most respondents to a survey at Booth Creek resorts last year said they are not looking to become great skiers; they are only looking to have a great day. But is it possible to have a great day while flailing? Have Americans lost their ambition to “ski like Stein?” Or Tamara? Or Jonny? Are skiers too impatient, too spoiled to try?

Doug Morrison, who’s been teaching since 1971, the last five years in Telluride, Colo., believes that skiers in earlier decades were more athletic than they are today. “They were risk-takers. Skiing was perceived as difficult, even dangerous. They were serious about their skiing,” he says. Then, changes on the hill made the sport accessible to “a broader spectrum of talents, desires and attitudes. Now the whole vacation-the shopping, the dinners, the sledding with the kids-matters more than the skiing.”

Yet instruction is part of the fabric of golf. Every golfer knows that to improve he is going to have to seek a pro’s help. Practice until the blisters become calluses. All to shave a few strokes. Is that the key? Is it that golfers keep score and skiers don’t?Morrison thinks that something he calls the “snowboard mentality” has hurt ski-school business. “Now, you take a lesson the first day, and then you go out and beat yourself up until you improve,” so there is no ongoing instruction.

For sure, the culture of lesson-taking has changed. What about the culture of teaching? The era of authoritarian Austrian bend-zee-knees instruction is long gone. The Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) has worked hard to shed that image and replace it with a responsive, client-driven, fun-oriented approach to teaching.Apparently ski schools have a way to go to convince potential customers of this. First hurdle, for some folks, is the very word “school,” which is a turnoff, as are the concepts of teachers and students. Ski schools are responding, semantically at least, referring to their instructors as “coaches” and selling “clinics” and “adventures” rather than lessons.

But there are other problems. One is a dearth of professionalism. It’s the same problem bedeviling public schools: If you don’t pay teachers enough and elevate them to positions of respect, you end up with callow, disgruntled or unmotivated employees. Unfortunately, instructors in this country are often type-cast as “ski bums.” And some resorts encourage the stereotype through their bottom-line mentality.

An entry-level ski teacher may earn $8-$10 per hour during his first winter. But he is not going to be assigned many hours. A fully certified Level III instructor with, say, five years’ experience, may command $20 per hour and work about 450 hours a season. Still, that is only $9,000 for a solid five months work, which won’t pay many bills, especially in a ski town.

Perhaps part of the answer is in competition, like they have in Europe. Go to La Plagne, France, for example, and you can sign up with the classic red sweaters of the national school, the Ecole du Ski Francais, or if you want less rigor and more spoken English, with Ski Ecole International.

In this country the only competition to each area’s school comes from a smattering of successful independent programs, such as the “Breakthrough On Skis” seminars with Lito Tejada-Flores or Kim Reichhelm’s “Women’s Ski Adventures” or the “All Conditions/All Terrain” weeks given by the North American Ski Training Center (NASTC).

Steve Marlowe, a physician from Santa Rosa, Calif., started skiing in 1990. A good athlete, Marlowe says, “I went as far on skis as attitude could take me,” which was to an advanced-intermediate level. He tried traditional ski schools, but found “they had the same pre-fab lesson for the whole class.” So he enrolled in a three-day NASTC program four years ago. Unlike in his earlier lessons, he wasn’t coddled. “If you’re skiing in a comfort zone, you get pushed out of it-fast,” he says.

Many alternative instruction programs recognize the importance of immersion skiing-the return, in a sense, of the venerable ski week. Tejada-Flores says that traditional ski schools “don’t work for established skiers because if you don’t change skiers’ habits, you don’t change their skiing. And you can’t replace one set of ingrained motor movements with another fundamentally different set in anything short of a week.”

Some established schools have never given up the ski week. Taos, N.M., and Gray Rocks, Que., have stuck with theirs and retain near-religious followings. The Ski and Snowboard Schools of Aspen have rethought their beginner program and now offer a three-day “Beginner’s Magic” package, which includes high-end gear rentals, alignment, canting and specially trained (and bonus-paid) instructors. It doesn’t come cheap, costing $249, but the success rate-almost 80 percent return-indicates it must be working.

Other schools are recognizing the need to put some of their best instructors, and not just their newest, on the beginner beat. Wages are inching up, if barely. There is new awareness that ski schools and PSIA share in the failure to budge the sport’s stagnant numbers. As there also is awareness that too many skiers have gone soft and are satisfied with achieving a moderate and unpolished skill level.

“Skiing is magic if you’re an expert,” says Tejada-Flores. “And I believe there is an expert inside every skier.” But it takes a mentor in most cases to help that expert emerge, whether you are hellbent on becoming a great skier or you just want to stand blissfully in balance at the end of a great day.