After two wonderful seasons at the Ski and Board School in Engelberg, Switzerland, one of the top ski schools in Europe according to www.skiareatest.com, a goodbye was reaching closer. Working for a year-round ski resort was a great experience for my family and I. Living in a country where skiing is more of a lifestyle, my son Johann became a bilingual ski expert by five… at least for me. Leaving Switzerland means leaving an innovative and traditional alpine nation. At the same time it means a new opportunity for me to bring all of that experience to a new beginning. I will have the fantastic chance to be a Snowsports School Director at one of the top 50 ski resorts in the USA.
There are many reasons why my family and I moved back to the States. Some of them are family, culture, and the potential that the ski industry has to offer. I love the US ski community due to its unique combination of European and US ski resort styles. And of course DCSki is a great informative web site for the entire ski community, not just for the Eastern ski scene.
This will be my last report from Engelberg as a ski instructor. Just a few weekends ago on August 12, 2007, I visited Engelberg with its 10,000-foot Mt.Titlis, 3,000-foot base elevation and its glacier, sharing the slopes with some friends from California, who are now living and working in London, England.
What will I miss the most? Well, it’s not that easy to describe but if I had to say it in one sentence: A magnificent mountain with all its dangers and nature makes it a wonderful mixture for a great ski day. In addition I will miss the languages spoken at lesson times and at Swiss-Snowsports events (the Swiss Ski Instructor Organization). It’s always a great learning process for a ski instructor. The knowledge shared in such events is incredible and only seen at ISIA (International Ski Instructor Association) annual meetings. Also certified Swiss Snowsports schools are managed on a more professional level then most schools in the East. I guess there are many reasons for it. One is that most instructors were alpine race members and grew up in a culture where snowsports are a very respected part of society and because its instructors are mostly full-time pro members.
Besides many good memories I made over my two seasons, we had some very bad news at the ski resort as well. Last season we had over six deaths at the mountain. Most accidents happened when skiers didn’t follow the signs and crossed some fenced off slopes. In one incident one of our ski instructors was the group leader for a local youth race team. It was a beautiful Saturday when the group decided to take a closed route. The route is a well known off-piste but at the time it was very icy due to the wind, which is why the route was closed that day. You cannot always see some exposed portions of the slope from the top. The route has some 35-40 percent rock-line pitch. Just a few minutes later, four girls lost their edge control on the steep icy slope and went about 200 meters down the slopes covered with rocks. One girl died on the scene and three other girls went to the hospital. All the girls were wearing a helmet and a back protector. That was the worst day in my 17 years of being a ski instructor.
I guess we make decisions as instructors and guides with our best knowledge and experience. Discipline is something that comes in handy in the mountains especially when it is a beautiful day and anything looks good. We do have to keep in mind that skiing is a sport with some risk attached to it. Should I go on a backcountry tour with no fear? I believe as a pro skier you calculate the risk to a minimum but there is still the pure risk in any given day. I never have given and never will give my family the feeling I am anxious about my work. I need that for my own security to keep me from being worried of the potential risk. One of our most skied tours is the one over the glacier, which has many traps. You don’t think about those as much as you think about the client. In most cases you see a ditch in the snow, which concludes that a glacier crack is beneath. I guess you learn to deal with your own fear and respect with time. I suppose the beauty of the view and the kick of cruising through the snow will keep me going back.
Missing a great snow day with some great customers will make it difficult to leave such a beautiful landscape. Customers come from all over the world to ski at Engelberg, which was voted second best backcountry ski place in the world by Ski Magazine. There are many challenges that result from such cultural differences but this also tests its resort management to offer the best service possible on a global scale. I am not sure if I could ever not miss it. I assume my new mountain will have its own great snow days and great customers. I do know that the people at the resort will be very supportive in any way and are as excited as I am for a new era of Snowsports School.
There are many signs for a change in how snowsports schools are managed these days. Programs need to be reorganized in their overall setting, not in their fundamental system. We saw many notable changes the past five seasons at many snowsports schools and ski organizations around the world. New programs were created especially for kids, who represent the majority of snowsports school clients. International events such as the INTERSKI event or the cooperation between different ski organizations make it more of a cohesive snowsports world. The Swiss Snowsports and the AADIDES (Asociation Argentina de Instructores de Esqui y Snowboard) have had such cooperation over the past 25 years. One of the big differences I personally saw is with the kids programs such as 2- to 3-year programs. Another affecting factor is the obesity of many kids these days around the world. The equipment-related changes are also on the way… again (for all of us old folks who learned the old way to ski). V.I.P. programs will start to take a more important place in all snowsports schools as well as park, pipe and rail programs.
I also believe that snowsports schools need to keep up with surrounding developments such as consumerism. Consumerism is becoming a new factor for pricing and consumer rationality is what is given from the market. Prices need to be looked at more in the future. A greater variety of improvement is a must to a growing concept for all ski resorts around the world. The approach and reasons are different from culture to culture.
Coming back to my last visit to Engelberg: Having my wife’s friends, my best friend, Andreas alias Murli and my family in such a great place was a wonderful way to say goodbye. My entire family will be a big support for me to be successful in what I love to do… teach alpine skiing.
If you hear someone yodeling in a gondola and/or chairlift it could be me. My heart believes I made the right decision and I hope I can make a difference in many aspects of how we experience a lesson and ski our beloved resorts with style.
Iwan F. Fuchs is a certified Swiss ski instructor and the former Ski and Snowboard School Director of Hidden Valley Resort. He has over 17 years of experience teaching, and has also served as a USSA racing coach.