Keen observers of the human experience have long noted that a gulf exists between successfully doing a thing and successfully teaching someone else to do it. Nothing drove home the truth of this idea so well as trying to teach my 11-year-old daughter to ski.
A Colorado native, I’d spent my fair share of time skiing throughout high school and was fairly good, a moderate-blue to easy-black skier. In college, I managed to ski exactly once when I convinced my girlfriend to join me for a day on the slopes. I’d teach her everything I knew! She’d love it! She wasn’t particularly athletic, had never been skiing—nor ever wanted to—and agreed to go only reluctantly. I was over-eager to be skiing again, cluelessly unaware of my girlfriend’s limitations, hadn’t prepared her for what to expect, and had spent not a moment thinking about how I would convey my knowledge to someone else.
It went about as well as you might imagine—which is to say that it was quite nearly the last date we ever went on.
I’m happy to say that we somehow overcame that disastrous outing and that that college girlfriend is now my wife of nearly 23 years. I’m unhappy to say I hadn’t been skiing since.
We moved to Washington DC after graduating, and while ski resorts certainly exist east of the Rockies, I was too much of a mountain snob (and too broke as I started my career) to consider any of the local terrain. And given the traumatic experience of our first attempt, my wife understandably had no interest. When we moved back to the Centennial State, we agreed that our daughter could hardly call herself a Coloradan without knowing how to ski. Truth be told, though, I had to question my own Colorado credentials: could I still call myself a skier? Twenty-five years, not a few gray hairs, and a knee surgery later, former skier seemed a far more apt description.
Goodbye Sled, Hello Skis
My daughter reaches for her sled at the first sign of flakes, so she was eager to put the local hills behind her and experience the real deal, an actual mountain. We discussed it quite a bit as a family: did Layla want to take formal ski lessons, or learn from her dear old dad? Of course the tale of my epic failure as an instructor came up—but I was older, wiser, and far more introspective now. Fatherhood does that to a guy. I’d successfully taught my daughter to use a spoon, ride a bike, and execute a double leg takedown when I coached her peewee wrestling team. Surely, I thought, I could be a better ski instructor to my daughter than I’d ever been to her mom. But wanting to present both sides of the question, I shared my internet research on teaching a family member to ski. The results were unanimous: don’t.
We all agreed that an actual ski instructor had the potential to do a vastly better job than I could—of course—but a lemon of an instructor would be disastrous. We didn’t have all that many ski weekends available to us and it would be painful to lose any time to a bad teacher. So after thoughtful deliberation, Layla opted for the devil she knew over the devil she didn’t. Here was my chance at redemption. I would teach someone I love to ski.
It went about as well as you might imagine.
An Auspicious Start
The Aspen family of resorts was celebrating its 75th anniversary, and that seemed a good place to begin my daughter’s skiing journey, but with nary a beginner green hill in sight—and definitely no bunny slopes—Aspen Mountain itself was right out. Luckily, the Aspen complex comprises four resorts (Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass, and Buttermilk) and Buttermilk is widely regarded as one of the best places for novices to learn the sport. Unexpectedly, it’s also the home of the Winter X Games, where gravity-defying athletes perform their spinning aerial stunts. I had my daughter believing for a good three seconds that the enormous halfpipe ski jump we saw being groomed in preparation for the games is what we were going to tackle.
In reality, our destination was Panda Hill, a broad, gently sloping bunny slope where beginners of all ages learn under the tutelage of innumerable instructors in distinctive red parkas.
We’d watched instructional ski videos before leaving (man, what a difference YouTube makes for the amateur instructor!), talked about the mechanics of skiing, practiced clipping into our skis and releasing the bindings, and Layla practiced her snowplow technique before sliding up to the Panda Peak lift. We were both filled with anticipation as the open-air chair moved up the slope at a kid-friendly pace. We watched as youngsters with skis no longer than my forearm dutifully followed their red-coated instructors in orderly fashion. Surely my daughter would nail this and we’d be off to more challenging slopes by lunchtime.
We were not off to more challenging slopes by lunchtime.
My daughter’s first fall occurred seconds after dismounting from the chair. Even after years spent playing in the snow, I think she was a bit surprised by just how slippery skis could be. Not a problem, I thought. She’s dressed for it, her attitude is great, and we’ve got nowhere to go but up.
I’m proud to say that she was grasping the basics. Her turns were slow in coming, but she could initiate them and bleed off speed as she coasted across the slope. Time after time, though, she would hold the turn too long and start turning too far uphill. Invariably the tips of her skis would splay out, the tails would cross, she’d slide backwards and downhill for a moment and then fall. As long as her speed was in check, she could occasionally string together a series of broad s-turns—but far less regularly than either of us would have liked.
Despite the years spent away from my beloved mountains, I was delighted to find that I was able to make these turns myself, but I quickly realized that I lacked the knowledge to understand what was going wrong for Layla, or even the vocabulary to explain to her if I did. I was staring into that gulf between doing and teaching.
A Little Guidance From a Pro
Luckily, a little bit of karmic payback—the good kind—was coming our way.
Despite the dozens of instructors on Panda Hill, they were well outnumbered by their charges. With each chair on the beginner’s lift able to accommodate only two riders, the instructors relied on kind-hearted adults to accompany their young learners up and meet them at the top. My daughter was comfortable riding the lift alone, so I had been a lift buddy several times throughout the day. By happenstance, I’d helped the same instructor several times and after a bit of internal debate, decided it was morally justifiable to ask if he might provide a word of guidance for my daughter.
He readily agreed and after watching her for a moment, his brief advice to Layla seemed to help—that was the first run she made it to the bottom without a fall. Alas, it wasn’t quite enough; she continued to have trouble initiating turns and was often skiing at the ragged edge of control. My little thrill-seeker
had no problem blasting straight down the mountain—it was just those pesky turns and stops that kept tripping her up. Sometimes quite literally.
We skied until the lifts closed for the day and then headed to nearby Snowmass, the largest of Aspen’s four resorts, for some après-ski enjoyment.
Goodbye Skis, Hello Skates
We had a little time as we waited for it to get dark—more on that in a moment. First up was ice skating in the Snowmass base village. The ice rink is free of charge, as was the skate rental. Somewhat surprisingly given its free nature, we were offered the highest quality loaner skates I’d ever seen. And an oversized apple crepe while nestled up to an outdoor fire pit afterward was just the thing my daughter needed to unwind.
Finally it was dark enough for Luminescence. Through February 27, Snowmass is hosting this colorful and free nighttime display of light. A series of glowing art installations runs alongside Fanny Hill between Snowmass’ base village and the Village Mall. We found the best way to experience Luminescence was by taking the short skycab trip from the base of the village: we got to enjoy the lights from our elevated gondola position on the way up and then more closely as we walked among them on the way back down.
Our choice of comfortable winter boots was a good one as we were hiking down a snowy mountainside. Be aware that while the ski lifts will have long since closed by the time you’re enjoying Luminescence, you may still encounter skiers and boarders making their last run down the mountain.
We might not have made a skier out of my daughter on Day One, but we certainly made for some good memories.
Down But Not Out
We came back to Snowmass the following day and took the high-speed, enclosed Elk Camp Gondola to the mountain’s beginner slope. Our second day went much like the first, unfortunately. It seemed that confident mastery of the basics was just beyond Layla’s grasp. Much of the advice I’d read about not attempting to teach a loved one to ski centered around the heartache, frustration, and tears that often resulted. While I’m disappointed I couldn’t make a skier—even a novice one—out of my daughter in a weekend, I have nothing but respect for her determination to keep trying and a deep appreciation for her great attitude.
As we made our way back to the parking lot shuttle bus, we shared a skycab with an instructor whose nametag noted she was from Washington DC. We struck up a conversation about the place that we’d until recently called home. I mentioned my inability to teach my daughter to ski and with a sly grin, the instructor replied, “Well, you know what I’d say to that.
Yes. Yes I do. We’ll be back for more, but next time we’ll leave the teaching to a professional.