Ski teacher tricks pay off in teaching offspring
By Bob Berwyn
A few days ago, during my first early morning scan of the news on Twitter, I saw a photo of the train station in the Austrian town of Bischofshofen, posted by a fellow who apparently travels extensively around his home country by rail, providing links to information about interesting art and historic exhibitions.
The train station is no big deal — just a few sets of tracks and platforms — but the backdrop, consisting of the massive Dachstein, is sublime and the scene instantly brought back an avalanche of memories. It was here, back in the late 1970s, that I took a rigorous week-long ski instructor training course as a first stepping stone toward what I thought would be a lifelong on-mountain career. It didn’t quite turn out that way. I did teach skiing for several seasons, but discovered along the way that, as a ski instructor, I didn’t really get to ski as much as I thought I would.
But I did enjoy my teaching years, and have nothing but the greatest admiration for all those instructors who stick with it for the long haul. After that initial ski academy in Austria, I returned to my academic, Frisbee and beer-drinking pursuits (not necessarily in that order) at the University in Munich, knowing that, someday, I’d put that training to good use.
My first opportunity was in northern New Mexico, where I spent a few winters in the early 1980s at Angel Fire and Taos, the latter still under the iron hand of founder Ernie Blake, who would march up and down the morning ski school lineup like a general, inspecting fingernails and occasionally asking us to remove our sunglasses. If your eyes were too red, you might be dismissed from teaching duties for the day, which wasn’t always a bad thing, especially if the snow was good. The drill at Taos was, turn your instructor jacket inside-out, and you were good to go free skiing.
We had a good crew at Angel Fire, too. The small area on the other side of the Sangre de Cristos was a haven for Texans and Oklahomans, a high-spirited bunch who always enjoyed being in the mountains and snow. It was nice to work with people who appreciated the experience, whether it was a powder day or not.
One season, management decided that it would be fun to include the guests in the annual New Year’s Eve torchlight ski procession. It turned interesting when we realized up on the hill that several participants had enjoyed more than just one apres-ski drink before joining us for the run down the beginner hill in front of the lodge. Hard enough to ski in the dark, without poles, holding a burning flare in each hand. Add some alcohol into the mix, and it wasn’t surprising that one fellow burned a hole in his skis, while another woman set her parka on fire.
I also remember teaching an incredibly frustrating beginner class, where there were one or two cowpokes who just couldn’t quite master the basic wedge. I was discouraged because I prided myself on almost always being able to shepherd those first-timers through the basics, so they could at least go out on their own and make it down the hill safely. But this day, it wasn’t to be. Joe-Bob, as his friends called him, was a big guy, and every effort he made to set his edge and steer across the hill was counter-acted by the mass of his body wanting to move straight down the fall line.
That afternoon, I was riding up the lift with another one of the students in that morning class when we saw Joe-Bob, still trying. My lift-mate yelled down at him: “Hey there, Joe-Bob! Jes’ hunker down and get a little more that hill.”
When he heard his friend’s advice, Joe-Bob crouched down a little more and flexed his knees and ankles just enough to where the edge of the downhill ski finally took hold, driving him across the slope.
That was the moment I fully realized that ski teaching is not about how good you are, but how well you communicate. I immediately incorporated the phrase “hunker down, and get a little more of the hill” into my ski teaching vocabulary — at least when teaching people from the Southwest — with great success.
A few years later, teaching at Mammoth Mountain, I tried a different approach, but based on the same philosophy of talking to people in language they understand. Each day, I started my beginner lessons by telling a joke to get people to loosen up, and then doing a five-minute stretching routine that I jokingly called ski yoga. I figured those folks for SoCal could relate to that, and it seemed to work well. I had discovered that getting people to relax and enjoy themselves was more than half the battle.
Only problem was, the ski school was run by Max Good, an old-school gentleman of Swiss descent — a contemporary of Ernie Blake, I believe. I didn’t often see Max out in the school yard, but his lieutenants were definitely on the prowl, and adhering to the PSIA curriculum seemed to be a high priority. I saw them watching curiously a few times, shaking their heads and jotting something into notebook. A fews after that, I was called into the ski school office, where I was told that my, ahh, unorthodox teaching style was not in conformance, and could I please stop and follow the protocol.
All instructors have a bag of tricks, and while I didn’t teach for very many seasons, I knew I would need them all when I started teaching my son to ski. He’s been stubborn and headstrong from a young age, and heck — I’ve taught him to question authority, so it probably shouldn’t have surprised me when I found it quite difficult to “teach” him, in the formal sense. Which is just as well, because skiing is really about fun, and what could could be more fun than a game of chase down a snow-covered mountain?
Every now and then I’d try to throw in a quick pointer, always keeping in mind that, if it came across to much like a lecture, it would be rejected. I was pretty psyched when he started skiing the steeps at A-Basin a few years ago, and on one of our first ski days together this year, I suddenly saw that he has been listening, at least subconsciously, the whole time.
Dropping into Pali, I watched as he made a few careful turns to get a feel for the snow. Then he kicked loose a small snowball with the edge of his downhill ski. I saw his eyes follow the ball; then, without thinking, he pointed his skis into the fall line, and chased the loose bit of snow right down the center of the face, completely relaxed and centered on his skis, and, for once, not worried about whether his jacket was “cool” enough, or whether his friends were watching from the lift. It was just pure, fluid skiing — the exuberance of the fall line, and I’m so glad I was there to see it.