Skiing is one of those true lifetime sports. You can enjoy it at any age, and there’s always room for improvement. Even as you get a little longer in the tooth and your physical skills begin to wane, you can continue to tweak your technique to stay on top of your game. Perhaps even more importantly, skiing is a sport that, with the right attitude, you can pick up at almost any age.
“It’s a fraternity/sorority that loves to welcome new members,” said John “Johnny Mac” Macdonald of King Pine Ski Area. “It’s a great family activity, and it’s a lifelong activity that gets better as you keep ‘figuring the next thing out.’ “
The same holds for snowboarding, though I can say with relative certainty that those early falls (and there will be falls) are going to have a bigger impact if you’re north of 40. But snowboarding training has improved dramatically in the past two decades, to a point where it now equals professional ski instruction. Long gone are the days — as an old friend likes to tell me — when you ask your fuzzy-faced instructor about the particulars of the sport and he looks at you quizzically before saying, “Dude, you just do it.”
“When I first learned (in 1988) out in the Pacific Northwest, there weren’t any instructors for snowboarding,” said David Binford, assistant director of the Snow Sports School at Ragged Mountain Resort. “A group of us hiked up past Paradise in Mount Rainier and listened to another buddy give a quick demo of how to go straight, turn left and right and stop. He then said, ‘See ya at the bottom,’ and left us sitting there looking at each other while saying to ourselves, ‘What?’
“We eventually slid, tumbled and crashed our way down the mountain to the parking lot,” said Binford. “So the biggest lesson I’ve learned is to ask my students about themselves, what are their hobbies, what sports do they play, et cetera, and then find something within their experiences that relates to snowboarding so that I can correlate the two in hopes of helping whatever technique I’m teaching translates into a positive experience on the hill.”
If you’ve been entertaining the notion of trying skiing (or snowboarding), or getting back to the sport after a long hiatus, January is prime time to take action. Due to school vacation schedules, many resorts are offering package deals that include lift tickets, rentals and, most importantly, lessons.
“Relax and prepare for the healthiest addiction ever,” said Macdonald. “Keep learning, and skiing just keeps getting better.”
For this column, we reached out to a number of New England instruction experts to provide a basic blueprint for beginners. Next month, we’ll rely on the same instructors for advice on how to graduate from beginner to intermediate terrain.
Beginners should be wary of well-intentioned acquaintances.
“Don’t let you friends or family take you to the top of the mountain until you’re ready,” said Peter “Webbie” Weber, snowsports director at Waterville Valley Ski Resort. “You don’t build expert skills in one day, and overchallenging yourself can have a real negative effect on someone. Plus it can be downright scary and dangerous for the person and others.”
No matter what your age, those first outings on the hill can produce a challenging mix of being thrilled and being terrified. My memories of my own first outings are pretty foggy, but I do remember being anxious (see the Ski Life column in this issue). And I clearly remember seeing those pinballing emotions in my two daughters when we first brought them to the hill. So my wife and I did exactly what most instructors suggest: Head for the ski school.
“I encourage anyone starting out to take a lesson,” said Karen Dolan, director of Cranmore Mountain Resort’s Snowsports School.
There are myriad benefits of taking lessons, ranging from basic technique to developing the right mindset.
“I always tell my students that the first goal when learning to ski and snowboard is to have fun,” said Binford. “If the lesson isn’t fun and full of excitement, then learning comes hard and often ends in frustration. We don’t want a lesson to feel like work.”
Patrick J. Doherty, a PSIA-certified instructor and weekend supervisor of the beginner area at Pats Peak, said that “before offering any advice, I try to create a positive learning environment where the students are acknowledged for taking the lesson.
“Ultimately, they are taking a chance, the risk, (in trying) something new. They are putting their trust in Pats Peak and in me,” said Doherty. “Once that atmosphere has been created, ‘Breathe,’ “Look ahead and not down,’ and ‘Let’s have fun’ are among my early instructive statements to students.
“At our beginner area, all of us work hard to make that connection during initial contact or ‘triage,’ ” he said. “We assemble a group lesson of adults from countries and even continents, all over the world. This reaps huge dividends when we interact with our guests after the lesson or see them on the beginner area terrain laughing, even when challenged.”
Doherty’s colleague, Jeannie Masters, a PSIA-certified instructor and staff trainer at Pats Peak and Waterville Valley, said her lessons start even before her pupils snap into their skis.
“For my beginner skiers, I focus a good deal of time on boot drills, prior to putting on skis,” said Masters. “This time enables them to isolate the movements they need to learn in order to use their feet and legs to turn their skis, versus their hips, shoulders and upper body.
“Using the hips, shoulders and upper body to turn is a very common crutch of beginner skiers that have not focused on leg rotation,” she said.
A pre-lesson “checklist” also allows instructors to inspect your gear to make sure you’ve got the correct boots, skis or snowboard.
“We make sure they have the right equipment set up for their size and experience level,” said Binford. “There’s nothing worse than having ill-sized equipment and trying to learn. Properly sized equipment responds best and cuts down on the frustration of learning a new sport.”
In addition to a top-notch ski school, look for a resort or ski area that offers adequate teaching terrain.
“We’re fortunate at Gunstock to have built a consequence-free, terrain-based learning area with sculpted features to make stopping, turning and sliding fun and easy,” said Robin Calitri, head alpine trainer at Gunstock Mountain Resort. “I was part of the design team to build the terrain and to develop a teaching approach that has people skiing very quickly.”
Likewise, Dolan said Cranmore’s beginner area creates something of a safe space for neophytes.
“You will learn faster and have much more fun from the start in our Terrain Based Learning program,” she said. “TBL lets a beginner feel the sensations of sliding on snow in a safe environment, allowing success and confidence to built quickly.”
Then, once you’re feeling more confident in your abilities, branch out a little.
“Learn something on the flats and try to perfect them on your normal terrain,” said Rob Bevier, director of snowsports at Loon Mountain. “Start slow and work your way up to steeper terrain.”
Which brings us to next month’s topic: Graduating to intermediate terrain. Tune in.