From a small ski town in the North Eastern US to a world class Swiss ski resort. Are there any lessons learned for me as a ski instructor?
Looking out of the Hidden Valley Four Season Resort ski school office at 6 a.m. on a crisp winter morning in February, I started to think about the differences I experienced over my four years of Eastern skiing and teaching. It would be my last year as the ski school director of this wonderful small ski resort. When I started the job as the ski school director I made sure I would learn a thing or two before going back to my native country, Switzerland. In the upcoming 2005-2006 winter season, I will begin to work in Engelberg-Titlis. With the slogan “it’s heaven” I guess I will like heaven, Switzerland, one of the most accessible backcountry ski places in the world according to Skiing Magazine. Sure, I will take more than just memories with me. Just thinking about leaving “my” mountain makes me a little sad, especially when the mountain started to grow on me while rebuilding the ski school from scratch.
Initially I was concerned I would not be taken seriously as a 29-year old ski and snowboard school director, as an outsider, and on top of all that - as if that was not enough - I was also a Swiss national. I learned from a very good friend of mine Franz Stehr, former assistant ski school director of Seven Springs Mountain Resort and a native of Austria, that in fact, most Eastern ski schools were founded and/or managed by Nordic European Directors in the early days. Convinced that I was in the right place was one thing, but could I ever become an Eastern skier?
I am still standing in the ski school office after finishing my first cup of true ski school coffee - I will give you the true ski school coffee recipe at the end of the article - before I will make the first step outside the office to work on the race course for the Pennsylvania Alpine Special Olympics. Well, I guess a second cup of coffee cannot hurt before I take the snowmobile out to the course and wait for Mark, full-time ski instructor, and Mike Cordell, ski manager, to arrive. My thoughts are still on the differences I learned and experienced. I learned more than I ever could have thought about teaching the art of skiing on a hill under a different teaching system (PSIA) than the one I was used to, the Swiss Snowsports system. I also made wonderful long-term friends over my four years. After 14 years of teaching in Switzerland I did not expect to be taught a lot more in this part of the world in just four years at Seven Springs and Hidden Valley, PA. I guess the phrase “you’re never finished learning” definitely applies in my case. In my view, a well-diversified instructor is open-minded about new schools and different professional ski organization’s philosophies.
Please read the next statement with caution and thought, and you will understand why Eastern ski instructors are among the finest in the world.
The given condition and the flow of harmonic and optional efficiency is an important part of teaching. The technique taught is only ideal when all the mentioned events are in place. In many cases we do not have such “ideal” conditions in the East. My non-scientific findings at small and big ski resorts are a reflection of my 17 years of personal teaching experience. The Eastern ski instructor is a highly motivated and creative teacher. The reality for most Eastern instructors is that they do not have the conditions, mentioned above, needed to teach in the most efficient and productive way.
An ordinary teaching segment is made of two to four parts. I guarantee the Eastern ski instructor will make three to four runs with the student. The instructor will outline the lesson plan at the beginning, and then show the student the moves. Did I say show? Well the ideal way to teach is to show. Let’s say you are going to learn one segment from your certified PSIA instructor. The instructor will take you all the way up to top of their mountain, which has a vertical of 600 to 900 feet and a pitch of maybe 10-20 percent. In many cases I observed that nearly all instructors talk a lot. I guess they try to make up for the short teachable slopes they can use for their segment. I presume talking a student through the steps will make it a little easier to guide the student down the slopes in an efficient way. The disadvantage of talking is it makes most students confused, lost, and bored. In other words the instructors will lose the student’s interest and possibly a skier in the long run.
It takes longer to teach someone on such short slopes - just as a side note many ski schools sell one-hour lessons - not enough time regardless of the student’s ability in my opinion. Just the trip to the top will consume an average time of four to five minutes. In Switzerland we do not have one-hour lessons, not surprisingly, since it takes an average of 15-20 minutes to go to the top. Coming back to the one-hour lesson, you need the right slope to teach on. In my experience I saw many instructors adapting to the conditions fairly easily. I presume most of the instructors never taught at a “big” mountain of 4,000 vertical feet and a 40 percent drop, which makes it a little easier to choose the right and appropriate slope for their segment. For me it was a steep learning curve to get used to it. On top of all that, I needed to teach instructors in this new environment for me. I used the phrase “quality verses quantity runs” more often than I wanted. Sure the phrase is accurate, but I felt it was definitely applicable to small mountains like Hidden Valley, PA. I also felt out of place with my Atomic Metron on this mountain. Just to keep your mind going, the ski was voted by Skiing magazine as best performance in powder and worst performance on groomed slopes, still a top of the line product on all type of conditions. Needless to say, it was not easy to come from a big teaching mountain to a small teaching mountain to teach people to ski DOWN hill.
Move your mind for a few moments into the heart of Europe’s best known ski town - precisely, my ski school in Engelberg, Switzerland. Imagine an impressive mountain range with a gigantic glacier on it. As an instructor in Engelberg, you meet the student at different places throughout the mountain. You rarely meet the students at the ski school office. The instructor is just like a guidebook for almost everything from the local atmosphere to the Après ski scene. In the early days ski instructors were more mountain guides than teachers. Things changed with the introduction of artificial slopes or as most people refer to them, groomed slopes. Average resorts in Switzerland have about 30 percent groomed slopes; Eastern US resorts have about 80 percent groomed and sometimes 100%.
An insignificant challenge for a well-defined ski instructor is to have more segments then just one; remember we said a segment can have four parts to it. You also need to take the student’s physical condition into account when taking a trip more than 8,000 feet above sea level and skiing 2,500 vertical to the mid station. I never had such issues on a 600- to 1,000-foot vertical mountain with a lower altitude. The students get a lot of rest when riding the chairlift. In most Swiss resorts we have a lot of T-bars. There is no rest for a majority of students. They are inflexible on these efficient and purposely placed T-bar lifts. In many cases the T-bar lifts are located on places where the wind can pick up extremely quickly and on glaciers where the towers need to be adjusted on a weekly bases. So therefore, they can not jump off the ropes nor need to be on hold like gondolas or chairlifts. Coming back to the student, many students are very tired when reaching the end of the lift.
Despite the differences at small and big resorts, a well-defined instructor will adapt to her or his surroundings in a fashionable way. My biggest discovery working in the East was that instructors talk more than Swiss instructors during any given lesson. Eastern instructors also talk more about ski equipment than their counterparts. Eastern instructors can make things happen with little or nothing to work with. I wish more ski instructors from big mountains would take one year to teach on a small mountain. Good luck to most of them but just like Franz said, “It’s a matter of attitude.” Warren Miller should keep a camera on them.
I guess I will go to set the course for the Special Olympics. Did I mention that it started to snow? Well it just did. Mark and Mike just arrived to help me set the course. I guess I will need another cup with them before we head out into the snow storm.
I still owe you the recipe for my ski school coffee:
Next time I will touch on founding an Eastern Mountain Division certified USSA racing team at Hidden Valley, PA. Visit the HVRC site at www.hiddenvalleyracingclub.org.
Iwan F. Fuchs is a certified Swiss ski instructor and the former Ski and Snowboard School Director of Hidden Valley Resort. He has 17 years of experience teaching, and has also served as a USSA racing coach.