How to get the family started on the slopes
by Brion O'Connor/
God bless my parents. My in-laws too, for that matter. I honestly don’t know how they did it. These days, my wife and I think a family outing to the ski slopes is akin to an Everest expedition. And we’ve only got two girls. My folks had six kids! My wife’s folks didn’t have things a whole lot easier, with four. Yet both my wife and I enjoyed a childhood — mine in the Northeast, and my bride in the Midwest and Rockies — that included skiing. Often.
So how did our folks make those ski adventures happen, and what lessons can we apply to today’s ski-and-snowboard market? How did we manage, growing up in New Jersey, when the closest ski area was a good 90 minutes away, and the Shangri La slopes of New England meant a six-hour haul? It meant more than having a big old vehicle — in our case, a classic Ford LTD wagon — or the financial wherewithal. It meant having the right mindset, and a few practical ideas about transforming curiosity into aspirations. We wanted to ski, and that was not only because of the natural allure of the sport but also my parents’ gung-ho attitude.
Mom and Dad are no longer with us, but the advice they imparted four decades ago still resonates in the back of my gray matter when we plan to head north. But they weren’t the only ones to tap into wealth of downhill know-how. I’ve found there’s plenty of additional advice available for those families just getting started, both from veteran skiers and ski area employees. Here’s some of the best:
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When, exactly, is the best age to start? OK, that’s a trick question. There’s no single answer, because every child is so different.
“Ability depends on the child, so gauge your child’s athleticism, balance and interest in new things,” said Harley Johnson, ski school director at Smugglers’ Notch in Vermont. “One way to do that is to go to a ski shop and find boots that fit, and then allow your child to clomp around a bit. Are they happy and interested, or cranky and complaining? If a child already has equipment, wearing the equipment at home in a familiar setting can help children overcome the foreign feeling of this new equipment before they get on the slopes.”
My friends who ski echo those sentiments.
“In days of yore, we started when you could find a pair of boots that would fit with no more than three pairs of socks and you could endure the tear of the rope tow as it dragged you up the bunny slope,” says Paul Erhard, a 40-something father of two boys. “Endurance criteria before being allowed on the big hill, as judged by our hardened Yankee parents, was being able to take at least three runs in sub-freezing weather with two-part wool-and-leather mittens before you started crying for hot chocolate. Now, there are magic carpets, inflatable gates, fleece, Gore-Tex and friendly instructors from Sweden. Kids can start when they can stand.”
Most skiing parents prefer to start their offspring early, before they know any better or can even think of a reason to complain. That’s what Lauri and I did with our two girls, Maddi and Brynne, when they hit their third birthdays. However, we always made a point to personally contact the area’s ski school, and even more importantly their day care, before finalizing trip plans. That extra peace of mind was essential in the two of us, and by extension the entire family, having a good experience.
“We’re on our third go-around with teaching the ski-bum lifestyle to our kids,” said Kevin Burke of Massachusetts. “We have three boys, 11, 9 and 6. All three of them ski the whole mountain, the two ‘big’ boys ski trees, bumps and steeps. The little guy gets ticked off when his brothers get permission to take the blacks. I asked Tish if she had any pointers on teaching our kids to ski, and she said ‘No. D’uh, we can’t teach our kids to ski. That’s what ski instructors are for.’
“She was right, and that’s coming from the wife of a former kids ski instructor,” Burke said. “I worked in the kids’ vacation program at Steamboat in my former life. We decided early on that we would put the kids in ski school. Free ski time is cherished; we have removed the majority of the tension of teaching from our time with the kids on the slopes. Fun family time is the goal. We take our teaching moments, but we do so in a fun way if possible.”
Burke is spot on. My folks were more than happy to take all of us along, but that didn’t mean we were all attached at the hip. Mom and Dad made sure they made time for, well, Mom and Dad. That applied to slope time and après ski time. Lauri and I try to do the same. And the kids, invariably, make a ton of new friends — from other kids to instructors — whom they would have never met if we had been dragging them around the hill ourselves.
“Take it slowly and read your child and how they are doing,” Johnson said. “There are lots of instructional options that can be matched up to the child’s level of interest and ability. For instance, rather than trying all-day camp, perhaps a shorter amount of time in a private lesson would be better.”
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Remember, first and foremost, that if you start your youngsters early, be considerate enough to start small. Sure, the hills aren’t that challenging for you, but that’s not the point. The kids should be your focus.
I have good friends who are tremendous skiers, but they spend most of their time at tiny Powderhouse Hill in South Berwick, Maine, which redefines the concept of “quaint.” Tickets are only $5, and for that princely sum, you get three trails and a hefty 175 feet of vertical — which, for kids 6 years old and younger, is ideal.
“Don’t plan to ski yourself. Go for the magic carpet areas … your kid gets to ride up while just standing there, and you can either ride with them or walk along next to them,” said Lindsey Strong, a Massachusetts mother of two. “Find the places that don’t charge for use of the magic carpet, since you’ll only be there for an hour max at a time, including hot chocolate in the lodge.
“Then graduate to lessons maybe at 4-5. Find a young, patient instructor who is nice. Great little mountains we’ve enjoyed when the kids were young included Ski Bradford, Gunstock, Sunapee, Bromley and Suicide Six. Then we moved on to the bigger ones, including favorites like Sugarbush, Sugarloaf, Okemo, Sunday River and Cannon.”
Other “small” hills (an admittedly subjective term) that got high marks in my thoroughly unscientific survey included Nashoba Valley and Wachusett in Massachusetts, The Balsams, Black Mountain, Ragged Mountain, Pats Peak, Crotched Mountain, Granite Gorge and King Ridge in New Hampshire, Mount Abram and Shawnee Peak in Maine, and Magic Mountain and Burke Mountain in Vermont. Comparison shop for the best packages, including ski school and rental prices.
Another friend, Che Elwell, is an avid skier from the North Shore of Massachusetts who prefers to ski Vermont areas such as Sugarbush and Mad River Glen. But when his daughter Ashley started making turns, he looked much closer to home.
“We put her in an evening program at our local hill, Ski Bradford (in Haverhill), which offered 45 minutes of lessons on a rope tow with five other kids,” Elwell said. “The parents were required to stand at the bottom of the hill. It was cold for the parents, but amazing for my daughter. Just the improvement of her confidence was worth it.
“First day, the lesson ends and she decides she is going to keep skiing. Over an hour later, its past 8 at night, I am the only parent standing out on the hill, as Ashley was still going strong, and so proud of herself for skiing alone at 4. That will remain one of my most memorable ski moments with my daughter. Doing the programs at the local mountain was by far the best thing to jump-start her skiing.”
Another plus regarding smaller local areas is that they’re, well, local. That means you don’t have to go through all the machinations of preparing for a long road trip. Those require serious planning, and lots of diversions. Lauri and I have never had a DVD player in the car, but always made sure the girls had plenty of snacks and entertainment options.
“When we were doing the weekend trips on Friday night, the kids would be in their pajamas for the car ride and we would listen to a great book on tape,” says Steve Decatur, a season-pass holder at Attitash/Bear Peak who lives close to Boston. “‘Redwall’ (by Brian Jacques) was excellent. Now people probably have the video.”
That’s probably true, but I’ll add one personal thought on movies (or other video productions): Don’t overdo them. Engage your kids for at least a portion of the trip. You won’t regret that time together.
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Remember the Steve Martin flick, “Cheaper by the Dozen”? Well, that speaks to the time-honored “economies of scale” formula. And that works for skiing, as well. Skiing is expensive, no question. A single day on the slopes (travel, lift tickets, rentals, etc.) can be almost prohibitive. Weekend and weeklong packages are a little bit better, once you divvy the cost up on a per-outing basis. But if you’re bold enough to make a commitment to the sport, and pick up season tickets for yourself and the clan, the costs (again, per ski day) begin to plummet.
“When we first started out, we made it affordable by renting a share in a ski house,” Elwell said. “We found a house that was kid-friendly and near the mountain. When you do the calculation — assuming 30 days of skiing — skiing becomes a lot cheaper. If you do it right, you can get a full season of skiing in for the cost of one big trip out West.”
Buying a second home in ski country is an option for some, but today’s uncertain economy makes the “investment” portion of the equation particularly dicey. In a depressed housing market, you might find a steal, but be willing to assume the risks. For example, the family and I recently made the trek to Ascutney in Vermont to check out the quintessential fall foliage season, and I couldn’t help but feel for all those condo owners who had invested at the shuttered ski area.
On the equipment front, buying vs. renting also is an important decision. Again, this often comes down to how often you expect to be on the hill. Less? Rent. More? Buy your own.
“For us, the number of kids in the family determines whether we buy or rent ski equipment, and even then we still try to buy used whenever possible,” said Heather Ryan, a Massachusetts mother of three and long-time member of the White Mules Ski Club in North Conway. “Then the equipment typically serves three kids. The trick it to stay away from gender-oriented equipment, such as no pink skis or helmets.”
“Find some family or friends that have kids a little older than yours so you can borrow/buy their outgrown equipment,” Decatur said. “Also, have friends with kids younger than yours, so you can return the favor.”
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Lastly, though we’ve said it a number of times, it bears repeating. In fact, the emphasis on pure, unadulterated fun can’t be overstated. And that responsibility falls squarely on your shoulders.
“A major key to our success on the slopes has been total immersion into the mountain lifestyle, or at least as total as every other weekend will afford,” Burke said. “This has made it a consistent but not overwhelming transition into heading north, now the boys pretty much ask to go every weekend. We try to keep it fun, and we do not always ski; we snowshoe, we explore, we sled and sometimes we just hole up in the house and sit in front of the fire with the dogs.”
Take lots and lots of photos. Those keepsakes someday will become family heirlooms. Decatur’s ski house by Attitash/Bear Peak is festooned with ski passes of the entire family (Steve, his wife, and three children) that serve as a fabulous winter retrospective of his clan’s commitment to winter. Decatur also recommends keeping M&Ms handy, for both those long chairlift rides and to sooth a bruised ego after the inevitable fall.
On that note, another precious piece of advice my mom left me regarding kids and skiing was simply, “Don’t give it a life.” That meant if the kids are cranky, and complaining about the weather or the snow conditions or their equipment, don’t give them an excuse to wallow. Winter can be a harsh season, but it surrenders its gifts to those who embrace it. If your kids see you having fun, they’re much more likely to jump on board.
“The best part is after you put in the time and money, it is one of the best ways to spend family time together regardless of their age,” Erhard said. “And, maybe they’ll be with you on (Mad River Glen’s) Paradise before their head is above the seat back on the single chair.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of New England Ski Journal.
Brion O’Connor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org