By R. Scott Rappold
In a perfect world, we would have all been on skis by the age of 4.
We’d master pizza wedge and French fries before learning to read. We’d be making parallel turns on steep slopes before we had our permanent molars. We’d be jumping cliffs and rocking the terrain park before we stopped believing in Santa Claus. And we’d be well on our way to a career as a ski patroller or maybe even the next Olympic skier.
Alas, we weren’t all born into skiing families or the luck to live somewhere near a ski hill. But whether you’re new to Colorado, planning a vacation or just deciding that it’s time to see what all the fuss is about, it’s never too late to learn.
“Someone who wants to start skiing at a later age, especially if they have the ability to commit the time and patience to mastering it, can become a strong expert skier as an adult for sure,” says Andy Docken, general manager of the ski school at Aspen Mountain, who has been teaching people to ski for 24 years.
He’s even taught first-time skiers in their 70s.
Thinking of having a good friend or a spouse teach you to ski? Think again.
“Hiring an instructor is cheaper than going through a divorce,” says Docken. It’s a joke, but there’s some truth in it.
“We don’t discourage people from trying to teach themselves how to ski but we know there’s value in having us teach them how to ski.”
Instructors are trained to help new skiers conquer the obstacles, and the first is not getting on the chairlift or clicking in the heels. It’s fear.
Sliding on snow can be scary and awkward for anyone who has never done it. Get going too fast and those trees, rocks and other skiers can seem like deadly obstacles and your head can be acutely aware of just how far it will fall to slam on the snow.
“Physically, I think most people can pick it up just fine. I think it’s mostly just an emotional and a fear-based thing,” Docken says.
Docken says that instructors try to find some other experience in the first-timer’s life to relate to skiing, such as horseback-riding or cycling, to help them adjust to the disconcerting experience of gravity pushing them downhill.
Adults are usually taught in all-adult classes, to avoid the feeling of learning next to a 2nd-grader, that also allow them to progress into other groups if they seem to be picking it up quickly. As for gear, they usually start on short skis for easier turns, progressing to longer, wider skis as their skills develop, so Docken recommends renting, not buying, skis for those first times.
When teaching kids to ski, it’s all about progression, getting better while their bodies are still made of plastic and muscles can easily adapt to the awkward moves skiing requires. Theirs is hopefully a lifelong journey to being better.
For an adult, you’re on vacation on the slopes or just have the weekend off work and you want to enjoy yourself. So Docken urges people to make sure they’re having fun and keeping their senses of humor, patience and humility, as well as setting realistic goals. You’re not going to be going all over the mountain and skiing double-diamonds three hours after learning to turn the heels.
Embrace the learning, accept small failures with a smile and have fun.
“When adults can transfer their ability or desire to playing as a kid, they will learn faster and appreciate the learning more,” he says.
It must work. Docken says 70 percent of skiers who learn at Aspen come back the next winter.
I can still remember the face, but not the name, of the kindly old gentleman who taught me to ski at the ripe old age of 31.
I moved to Colorado from the East Coast in 2004, never having been on skis in my life. Sure, we had a small hill that was open a few weeks a winter with machine-made snow, but it never seemed worth the effort.
I spent my first Colorado summer climbing mountains and enjoying the trails, and when winter arrived I was not ready to huddle away from the cold and await spring, as they do elsewhere. So I went with a group of friends to Monarch Mountain and booked a lesson. At the very least, I would enjoy the mountain views and strong drinks in the lodge.
Gliding on snow was incredibly awkard. I fell again and again scooting in circles on the bunny hill. The first chairlift deposited me ungracefully on my face, for all to see. I fought the frustration welling inside of me. This was how I was spending my hard-earned money and a precious day off work?
But the instructor, who had probably taught thousands – tens of thousands – over the years, kept by my side, and somehwere between pizza wedge and parallel turning of the heels, it clicked. I was doing it. This was freedom. After lunch he turned me loose on the mountain. I skied my first blue (acccidentally.) I had my first epic crash. I laughed. I cursed. I felt the wind blast in my ears. I was truly seeing the Rocky Mountains for the first time. I skied so late my friends in the bar grew worried.
The next winter I had my own skis and a pass. Now I live for winter. Whenever I am hiking or camping in our great Colorado wilderness areas, the snow is never too far from my mind.
Ski instructors may not have the most glamorous job on the mountain, but when they’ve introduced you to a sport you will love, they’ve given you a gift.
It’s a gift you’re never too old to receive.
R. Scott Rappold is a journalist with more than 20 years of experience, including 10 at The Colorado Springs Gazette, where he wrote about skiing, hiking, camping and all the things that make Colorado great. He is now a full-time ski bum who writes when he needs money for beer or lift tickets. He lives in Colorado’s beautiful San Luis Valley. Read more of Scott’s stories here.