Woody Allen, in his Oscar-winning film “Annie Hall,” memorably told Diane Keaton: “Relationships are like a shark. They have to keep moving forward, or they die.” Likewise, life is a continuum, a series of events that either keep us engaged or frustrate us.
Skiing and snowboarding can be seen in the same light. Even though I’m no longer the skier I once was — yes, Father Time catches up to all of us — I still enjoy the challenge of pushing myself, to see what my body and my surgically repaired hips and back can do as I carve my way into my sixth decade. Each day out is another test, and as a favorite college professor once told me, “Another chance to excel.”
Peter “Webbie” Weber, the snowsports director at Waterville Valley Ski Resort for the past 17 years and an instructor for 34 years, said he knows how I feel.
“Because I’ve been at this for so long, and have been a teacher and lifelong learner myself, the best piece of advice is always the last one I’ve just received,” said Weber. “It’s rare that I don’t hear something or pick something up, almost on a daily basis, that sparks my inner learner and teacher and makes me feel like I’ve never skied better.”
The concept of “lifelong learning” is a natural fit for skiers and snowboarders. So we went back to our panel of instructors from last month’s Tackle the Terrain column on “Getting started the right way.” Not surprising, everyone on our esteemed panel agreed that instruction is key to a seamless transition from beginner to intermediate terrain.
“Take a lesson with a PSIA/AASI-certified professional,” said Robin Calitri, head alpine trainer at Gunstock Mountain Resort who has been teaching the finer points of skiing for 54 years. “Learn to make smooth, round turns on novice terrain. Learn to control your speed through shaping the turn.”
Similarly, John “Johnny Mac” Macdonald of King Pine Ski Area said, “Don’t stop periodically taking ski lessons. Your instructor will have you comfortably skiing the blues and looking for more terrain challenges.
“Too many skiers stop refining their skills with professional guidance, and it’s too bad,” said Macdonald. “Most skiers out there are capable of skiing terrain and conditions that they currently avoid, and enjoying it.”
The reason why many skiers and snowboarders hit a plateau in their development is that they feel like they’ve maxed out on the benefit of lessons, even when there’s still room for improvement (fortunately, unlike Allen’s shark, such dead spots are rarely fatal). Snowboarder David Binford, assistant director at Ragged Mountain’s Snow Sports School, said the first thing he tells anyone going to the top of the mountain, whether it’s a green, blue or black trail, is “that their measure of success has nothing to do with the trail.”
“The success is about enjoying the sport, taking steps each time they’re out to improve on the techniques that were given to them in their initial lessons,” said Binford. “It does no good to get to the top of an intermediate trail and forget everything that was taught on a beginner trail, then fall back to using bad technique to get down the trail, such as constantly staying on your heel-side edge.
“Of course, we all want to get to the top, experience new trails, but if we wipe out everything learned previously, we’ve actually only done ourselves harm,” he said. “Work to get the techniques down, then gradually make the move up the mountain in order to challenge yourself and hone the skills you’ve mastered on the beginner trails.”
Keep in mind, however, that the terrain is different when you’re moving up from green circle, or beginner, trails to blue square, or intermediate, runs.
“The first thing our skiers moving to intermediate terrain quickly realize is that it is in fact steeper,” said Jeannie Masters, a PSIA Level 3-certified instructor at Pats Peak and Waterville Valley. “And, because it is steeper, they will accelerate quickly if they don’t complete their turns.
“Our skiers moving to intermediate terrain might react to speed increases by bringing upper-body movements into a turn, quickly pivoting their skis, throwing them sideways, and leaning up the hill,” Masters said. “This feels safer to the skier, enabling them to move away from committing to go down the hill. But, this does in fact have the opposite effect on safety.
“I always remind my students that if they continue to use their legs to turn their skis, and focus on a nice round turn shape, they can ensure a progressive, incontrol descent, and the skier stays in control. I will often lead my students on this path, to give them a sense of what this feels like, until they can repeat it consistently on their own.”
Weber agreed, stating: “Once someone understands that making turns is not only the way to maneuver around the hill, but is the way to control your speed, you are on your way to intermediate land and beyond.”
That makes perfect sense, given that fear, or at least nervousness, is a major limiting factor for beginners trying to reach the next level. Being able to manage your speed, and stop when you want, helps erase, or at least minimize, those doubts. Just don’t expect those changes to happen immediately. Be patient. If you make the commitment, the improvements will come. But they may come gradually. Remember, little victories are still victories.
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The Loon Mountain Ski and Snowboard School offers group and customized private lessons to help you advance to intermediate and expert terrain at the New Hampshire resort, which features a 2,100-foot vertical.
“Start small, use the whole hill, work your way across the terrain,” said Sean Norton, director of Dartmouth Skiway’s snowsports school.
In the same vein, Rob Bevier, director of Snowsports at Loon Mountain, recommends that fledgling intermediate skiers experiment to determine what feels best.
“Change your timing of movements, the intensity of those movements and the duration of moves on all types of snow conditions and see what works best for your desired outcome,” said Bevier.
It’s also wise to remember that venturing into intermediate trails means more obstacles, including those that go beyond the contours of the terrain. Expect the trails to be more crowded trails, with a wider variety of skiers and snowboarders (some of whom, we need to point out, won’t always behave with others in mind).
“Be aware of your surroundings on the mountain while staying in balance and completing round turn shapes to control your speed as you begin to explore new areas,” said Karen Dolan, director of Cranmore Mountain Resort’s Snowsports School. “Ski the mountain as you own it, and have fun.”
Ah yes, fun, the most important ingredient of them all. And it plays a crucial role in our final piece of advice. Macdonald encourages improving skiers and snowboarders to mix it up, and embrace the adage that “variety is the spice of life.”
“Pursue versatility,” said Macdonald. “Learn to ski bumps, the woods, the race course, the ice, the powder, steeps, flats, corduroy, death cookies, all of it. Most skiers have the capability, and skiing gets more fun every time you ‘figure out’ the next challenge.”