Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Instructor Knowledge

When I tell people that I work as a snow sport instructor, many of them assume that I must be an amazing skier or snowboarder. What they don't realize is that most instructing isn't with seasoned clients, but rather new or intro classes where the very basics are repeated on a regular basis.

In fact, the really great instructors typically have absolutely nothing to do with being a fantastic rider. Instead they are amazing communicators and visual listeners. It just so happens that many of these same instructors work full time and receive down time to free ride, which in turn makes them better riders.

My best example of this came over the summer during a pre-season refresher regularly held. In the class, the instructor asked the class to run through the basics of teaching a wedge for stopping. Each of us took a section to explain while the instructor acted as our student who would consistently do things wrong. The fun part was seeing how wrong our instructor could make each movement, and also how each student in the class would come up with creative solutions to undo a movement. The crowning glory came when the instructor pointed out a very significant detail...

When making a pie wedge to stop, we often teach push down on the toes and out with the heels. What each of us missed was that pushing with the heels, while functional, is not the correct solution. Instead twist the entire leg and then position yourself for the stop. Why is this huge? Most beginners try very very hard to keep their knees pinned together, creating an almost perfectly imbalanced platform through twisting at the knees only. Having a student twist their entire leg releases much of the tension on the kneed, while also returning a sense of balance to their stance.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Cost of a day

Vail raises lift cost.


Talk about a barrier to entry, this makes it almost impossible for anyone to learn. I guess this was part of the initial appeal of snowboarding. And maybe even why many boarders continue to hike up hills.

Thursday, December 21, 2006


We like "shorty" skis for teaching. A shorty is a ski anywhere up to a 133 cm length. Being a relatively larger person, I use the longer 133 style. Each ski is fitted with the quick binding adjustment system that is color coded. I actually don't know what size my ski needs I just memorized the colors that it needs to be set to. This is really nice.

The big change with shorties is, you're often in the beginner area. As such the DIN setting is really really low (3 instead of 8 or 9). This allows your ski to pop off with much less force if needed. The problem is when you forget about this.

I had a series of 4 and 5 year old instruction classes for the morning, which opened to a chair lesson with two people I've worked with once in the past. They're both doing exceptionally well on their skiing, but wanted just a few more tips. This of course means heading up the chair lift. A excitement of a few moments of snowy bliss were all I needed to forget everything else for the day.

On the way down the run, we hit a powdery area that I decided to play in a bit. Hitting the snow, I had a few bumps and a little air at times. Unfortunately the last air time my skis did not join me, and I proceeded to meet the ground face first. My students were worried about me, as I layed in the snow laughing at myself. After that, getting down the rest of the run took awhile for me.

Lesson learned, always remember to reset the DIN strength before heading up the chair.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Not Uncommon

It's not uncommon to see some truly random sights on the slopes. On the resort is a mid-mountain lodge with food and drinks, which often needs refreshing (you mean I get to ride up the lift with milk crates again?).

This past week was a new sight for me. With a series of loud whooping yells, one of the instructors was flying down to the main lodge carrying what appeared to be two kegs (presumed empty). This brought an awful lot of excitement to the class I was teaching, and gave a few students the incentive to actually get up on the lift faster.

Behold, the power of beer...

Edges and care

At the end of my shift the other night, I went to talk with the guys in the pro-shop for a bit. Mainly because I wanted to wax my boards up a bit for the next day, but also to wait out the traffic jam of cars leaving the resort and talk to the guys in the shop a bit. While in there, a customer came in asking for a file.

In what can only be described as a Kenny Blankenship's "Most Extreme Elimination" moment. All of us proceeded to watch as the kid took the file to the edge of his board, and in the most hap-hazard way de-tune the edges. It sounded rough enough to make my hair stand on edge. I understand why it was done, the less of an edge the better to grind a rail with, but watching the process with which this guy took... it was just painful.

The really sad part is knowing that his board will never be useful on any other part of the mountain again. Once you've detuned like that, you'll need to get a new board to enjoy the rest of the mountain. Call me old fashioned, but the park is only fun for a short while, the rest of the mountain provides many other challenges that also need to be conquered.

I guess that's the advantage of having wealthy parents though.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The Bad Guy

While teaching the other day, I had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the more dangerous yells on the mountain is "BOARD!", meaning someone has lost their snowboard and it's currently heading down the mountain. While fairly easy to avoid, the free board can pick up speed rather quickly and has no control over it's direction. But you say that's what a leash is for! I agree, but many leashes aren't very strong and most boarders don't actually ride while using them (it looks uncool).

In this particular case, the escaped board clipped the back of my boots while my class and I were stopped. The contact sent the board into the trees on the side and disrupted the class session. I went into the woods to retrieve the board and hold it until the owner came to reclaim it. That or I made it to the bottom with my class. Shortly thereafter came a guy running down the hill claiming the board to be his.

As an employee of the mountain I'm obligated to follow the rules and inquired the whereabouts of his leash. He claimed it was in his car, and I suggested he go get it as it was required to ride on the mountain. He asked if everyone had a leash, and I calmly pointed out that their boards have yet to go running down the hill without a rider. Like speeding on the highway, everyone does it, but the time the cop pulls you over you can't do much other than grin and take it.

His friends have now arrived and surrounded me. Each accusing me of being a corporate sell out and for being a total ass. His friends point out that they don't have a leash either, and I suggest they not tell me such things at all. What idiot actually tells the cop, "Yep sir, I'm speeding."? I pointed out I'm not the bad guy here, but each disagreed. I pointed out that by using the lift ticket they agreed to have a restraint on their snow board, and by not having the restraint (leash in this case) I am well within my rights to clipping his ticket. I explain the leash is only a $4 purchase, and the deck they're riding on costs easily $400, it makes sense to protect it. The damage done by hitting me and the trees split the front of the board making it essentially useless for the night anyways. They then threaten to beat me up, wherein negotiations are now over.

I tell my class we need to head down to the bottom quickly (thankfully the class was a black diamond session) and turn the board in, and since they're my last class for the day we'll head up again for overtime at no charge. Turning the board in at the pro shop, I explain the guy will be here for his board in a few minutes and would like to purchase a leash.

Word from the pro shop is the guy asked for my name (it is on my name tag) and went out looking for me or my car to "destroy it". The guys in the pro shop explained that the resort is on a US National Forest area, thus not using a leash can be considered a federal offense. This didn't calm the guy down any. A second explination was made a little more directly. Because he just used a credit card, we had his name and address. If anything were to go wrong, not only would we have direct knowledge of his whereabouts, we could now easily blacklist him from any of the local resorts. Regardless of the (lack of) truth to that statement, the guy quit his grumbling and left with his leash.

My question is, when in this did I become the bad guy?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Advances Slope-side

When starting a new sport, people often take lessons in an effort to achieve a level of comfort before embarking on their own. At that point they ditch their instructor and move on to continue at their current level or begin learning through trial and error. Snow sports are no different. Once a student feels comfortable on a basic hill, it's not often they come back. I have been no different.

I learned to ski while I was much younger, taking only two lessons before I decided I could do better on my own. I learned how to accomplish a lot in that time, compensating with youth and strength where form would have done better. I've been spending the past few years trying to undo a lot of what has become a bad habit.

Enter the biggest advantage of instructing, the lessons. No, not the lessons you end up teaching on a daily basis to little Johnny or Susie. It's the lessons the PSIA or AASI sponsors with a DCL (District Clinic Leader), or those moments of free riding time with your fellow instructors.

For example, I tend to naturally sit in the back seat on my skis. Everyone does, it's one of the worst habits to get into. It happens for me because I drop my shoulders when making a turn. When free riding with other instructors, it's often pointed out that I'm being lazy and should fix things up. I don't often hear that from friends while skiing.

Another issue I have is my dynamic turning, or bend and flex, especially when in the bumps. I don't do it often enough which throws me off balance. Granted with enough practice on the bumps I'll eventually correct my movements, but there is only so much abuse a body can take before it snaps.

Or while snowboarding, I'll ride too heavy on the downhill foot causing the control to just be lost completely.

What brought this about? While sitting exasperated in the ski school lodge the other day, the owner pointed out if we were doing this just for the lift ticket we'd do better in Ski Patrol. One of the other instructors pointed out the lift ticket might be what wet our appetite for the job, but the clinics and advancement in skiing is what keeps us there. They're both right of course. Eventually, I'll make it down the bumps in a world class form and be happy to never do them again.

Thursday, December 7, 2006


People who work at an outdoors job are an interesting mix. Typically they fall into two crowds, those who do this for a living and those who do this because they enjoy the outdoor nature of the work but have a regular job the rest of the time.

In the area of snow sport instructing you have a further breakdown of those who enjoy teaching and passing on the knowledge of the sport vs those who are in it for the free lift ticket. I didn't take part in the recruiting process this year, but the free lift ticket is certainly one of the more heavily pushed options to lure in new recruits. Added a little gravy to the mix, the prospect of having the chance of free runs throughout the day just makes this seem like a no brainier. I was promised both at the start too.

What they don't tell you in this process is that while you may receive a free lift ticket on the day you work, your ability to enjoy the ticket is directly tied to number of other instructors the resort was able to employ this season. In other words, if the school is lacking instructors, you'll be booked all day long, teaching classes, while looking up longingly at the mountain remembering what it felt like to ride on your own.

By the end of the day, your legs are typically shot and your knees tired. Rope tows are the worst invention ever, I'm fairly convinced of that.

The odd outcome from all of this though is when you do get a chance to free ride on the mountain. Your skills are amazingly in tune. You find your own stance and ability have increased dramatically from having to demonstrate these forms all day long.

I got a good night of riding in last night, maybe that's what brought this revelation on. Few classes, lots of free rides. I could stand a few more days like that.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Mascot updates

In a previous post, I made the comment that our mascot was killed by a hit and run driver. Turns out this is only slightly true.

The driver was sitting in his car idling while waiting for some friends. From all accounts he switched gears to reverse and started moving without seeing another car behind him. Our mascot though didn't notice the car moving and was sadly backed over.

We've buried him on the mountain and plan to have a memorial plaque setup on his favorite rooftop position. I hope it'll be a giant snowball.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Training and Carelessness

Every so often a moment occurs that reminds you how important training is and how careless some people can be. Even with a job as simple as a lift operator. To break this job down to the essential bits, all you really need to do is stand outside in the cold, clean off a seat, and in some cases help people onto the moving chair. If things go wrong slow it down or stop the lift. Or at least that's what it would seem.

The part that regularly gets forgotten is the after lift portion, once the chair is leaving the berth. Outside of the exit moments, this is the chance for anything bad to happen. For example a chair can be pulled off track due to skis or boards. A rider may not be properly sitting and fall off. A ski can come off, or a lost pole.

During a recent ride, a relatively new lifty was at the chair base maintaining everything on a two person chair. He did everything right helping a mom and child onto the chair, but forgot to watch the next step. Right before complete lift off, the child slipped from the chair and the mom caught him. The lifty didn't stop the lift and the child went dangling away somehow pulled up by mom onto her lap. The child lost a ski in the process and left it at the base of the chair. Grabbing the ski as I went up, I arrived at the top to an irate mom and dad who proceeded to yell at me for the improper running of the lift.

It's hard to explain to outsides that I'm not a direct employee of the resort as an instructor, I'm more a contractor. Thus I've got no real influence or ability to change the operation at all. In this case, the irate customers really weren't interested in hearing that either, they wanted to yell at someone and I unfortunately became the object of their hatred. 10 minutes later, I explained that talking to information to get the lift manager for the day would be the best course of action and we parted ways.

I met up with a few other instructors and proceeded to get in line for the advanced terrain lift. At the top of a black diamond run filled with bumps the 6 of us took a great run down and stopped 3/4 of the way down. The bumps were mixed with powder and just exhausting after the earlier lessons. One of the instructors points to the top of the run with a look of exasperation.

Coming down the run was the father and son from my lift altercation earlier. The father, skiing the bumps, cradled his son in his arms. Yep, this guy was real worried about the safety of his son.