A ‘family’ of 1,600 kids " and growing | AspenTimes.com

A ‘family’ of 1,600 kids " and growing

Steve Benson
Aspen Times Staff Writer

It’s 3 o’clock, and high school students across the country are fleeing campuses like a sinking ship. For some reason, students at Aspen High aren’t in such a hurry.

As the afternoon bell rings at AHS, hundreds of students casually stroll across the school parking lot, where a curious building marked by an enormous ski-pole sculpture and a snowboard-shaped roof overhang is bulging with activity.

Out front, a few students mingle on the steps as another group piles skis and gear on the roof of a van.

Inside, a large room encircled by lockers resembles a ski and snowboard swap in the wake of a tornado. Alpine racers, freestyle skiers, snowboarders and nordic skiers commingle in the spacious locker room, which is really more of a comfortable, carpeted lounge. Trophies, old photos and memorabilia line the walls and kids and gear are everywhere. Some dress for training while others stuff candy bars into their mouths, awaiting their turn at one of the two foosball tables near the back door.

Out that back door, maybe a hundred feet away, a private ski lift ” Five Trees ” is running, providing access to Aspen Highlands.

Welcome to the clubhouse of the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club ” the center of the universe for Team AVSC athletes, coaches, parents and executives.

Hard to believe, but this buzzing activity hub is only one slice of AVSC, which is more of an open-armed family than an exclusive “club.”

More than 1,600 Roaring Fork Valley kids participate in AVSC’s various programs. Roughly 250 are involved in the competitive side, the rest fill the recreational programs. On weekend mornings, more than 1,350 children from all over the valley descend on Snowmass, Buttermilk and Highlands like a swarm of little snowsuited bees ” a sight worth seeing.

Basically, if it involves kids sliding on snow in the upper valley, AVSC is there, and has been for more than 65 years.

A growing concern

Founded in 1937 as the Roaring Fork Winter Sports Club, AVSC has undergone a number of name changes over the years, but its inherent mission has never changed: to provide quality skiing programs for the valley’s youth.

Well, it’s changed somewhat ” snowboarding has become an integral part of the club, and the teaching/recreational component has grown significantly. AVSC continues to grow ” this year’s enrollment of more than 1,600 is a record high.

But enrollment numbers aside, AVSC is massive purely in the scope of its many programs. This little “club” takes $1.7 million annually to run. It’s a wonder how the men and women behind the scenes keep it all together.

The recreational program, directed by Susan Blakney and known as Base Camp, has seven different categories based on interest, age and skill level, from the Aspenauts alpine skiing program for preschoolers to advanced alpine and nordic programs like RidgeRunners and Mountain Explorers.

There’s so much to choose from that AVSC’s 30-page program guide has an entire section devoted solely to helping parents select the best program for their child.

The competitive program has five different categories, ranging from the SnoJourners ” introductory training in a fun and relaxed atmosphere ” to Team AVSC, which requires a 100-day commitment involving intense training for the most serious competitors, some of whom will eventually turn pro.

Making it all work is a tireless staff of executives and coaches devoted to upholding the club’s mission. There are five full-time staff members, but during ski season the organization swells to about 40 people, including coaches and administrative help. At the center of it all is Mark Cole, the club’s executive director.

Cole came to AVSC in fall 2001, after a 17-year stint with the National Outdoor Leadership School in Wyoming, and his love for the mountains is as strong as his goal of providing every child in the valley with the opportunity to slide on snow.

“Making our programs accessible to anyone who wants to participate is one of the underlying tenets of our mission,” Cole said last month. “It’s also about helping the kids excel, connecting them with the spirit that shaped the character of this valley and giving them a personal connection to the mountains.

“[Children] are going to test their limits one way or another, and there are a lot of destructive ways they can do that. We give them a real healthy, positive way.”

In recent years, AVSC has expanded its outreach to include less fortunate children. While the club relies on donations for roughly 40 percent of its budget, and struggles constantly to make financial ends meet, it still finds a way to provide scholarships for children who could not otherwise participate.

Blakney has been largely responsible for the intensified efforts, meeting with parents and teachers all over the valley to spread her message: We want you to participate. As a result, hundreds of children who never dreamed of skiing or snowboarding now hit the slopes every winter weekend.

“We’ve always been trying to reach out to families in need in the valley and give kids these opportunities to participate,” Blakney said. “It’s harder for these families, any family in need, to take the time and come to us.”

Of the 300-or-so members on financial aid, roughly 150 are Latinos. Cole said he’d like to see that number grow to 200.

Most members in Base Camp ski with the same group and instructor for the entire season, some for several seasons.

One of those groups is “Chicks on Sticks” ” half a dozen 9- to 11-year-old girls who have been skiing with instructor Shannon Roberts for several years.

Roberts is one of about 170 professionally certified instructors who devote their Saturdays to skiing and teaching children. They’re paid, but significantly less than what they’d make teaching privates on the weekends. For Roberts, who grew up skiing in AVSC’s recreational program, it’s worth it.

“I love coming out and skiing with [the Chicks],” he said. “They ski their pants off, they ski expert terrain and double blacks ” they don’t mess around.”

No, they don’t.

A day with the Chicks

A couple of weeks ago, I joined the Chicks for a day of skiing at Snowmass. Upon meeting me in the morning, one of the Chicks turned to Roberts and asked, “What if he can’t keep up with us?”

Luckily, I managed to keep up.

I intended to ski with the Chicks for a couple of hours in the morning before meeting friends in the afternoon, but it was hard to pull myself away. Two hours turned into three, three into four, and before I knew it, I had skied the entire day with the Chicks.

Maybe it was their contagious, never-ending energy, which had me laughing all day. Maybe it was the sound of their chipmunk voices chirping across the hillside. Maybe it was the sight of six 9- to 11-year-old girls hauling their skis up to the Headwall between groups of large bearded men and then ripping down the chutes. Or maybe it was being with young people who thoroughly enjoy being outdoors, on skis, on a beautiful day, taking full advantage of their natural surroundings.

Whatever the case, at the end of the day I found myself standing at the base and wishing it didn’t have to end.

And it dawned on me that this feeling ” the joy of sliding on snow, the beauty of the mountains, the confidence to tackle them ” is what AVSC is all about. It’s why the AVSC staff works so hard, why there are some 350 volunteers, why all those instructors accept lower pay to teach children on Saturdays, and why the program continues to grow and evolve.

The competitive side

While Base Camp is designed to provide ski instruction in a fun and laid-back atmosphere, it can also be a pipeline into AVSC’s competitive programs.

Don’t be surprised if you hear the names Devon Briggs, Delany Conner, Tayler Quist, Kayla Menendez, Liesl Bellack or Bailey Everhart ” all members of Chicks on Sticks ” in the future.

While they’re still young, and may eventually pursue other activities, there is definite potential for these girls to develop into highly competitive skiers.

“There are some Olympic hopefuls [in AVSC],” Roberts said. “At 16 or 17, some of these girls will be at that level … Five years down the road, look out.”

X Games competitors Steele Spence, Gretchen Bleiler and Peter Olenick all participated in AVSC’s recreational or developmental programs. Simi Hamilton, a 16-year-old junior at Aspen High and a member of AVSC’s nordic team, won the nordic skate event at the U.S. National Championships in Rumford, Maine, in early January.

And the AVSC coaches have a few accolades themselves. Casey Puckett, winner of the 2004 X Games Skiercross and a 12-year U.S. Ski Team racer, is now an alpine coach at AVSC.

Chris Karol, AVSC’s snowboard director, is an icon in the snowboarding world. A professional snowboarder from 1982 to 1993, Karol won the snowboard World Downhill Championship in 1983, the North American Overall titles in 1984, 1987 and 1991, and a slew of individual medals. Furthermore, he’s been a pioneer in the sport, digging the first halfpipe on Mt. Hood, creating summer snowboarding camps, and establishing one of the world’s first snowboarding schools at Loon Mountain, N.H.

Two of the snowboarding coaches ” Miah Wheeler and former X Games gold medalist Travis McLain ” have also taken the program to new levels. In 2002, AVSC’s freestyle snowboard team brought home two medals from the United States of America Snowboard Association nationals. Last year, they brought back more than 35.

There are children as young as 8 years old participating in the competitive programs, but as Cole points out, there’s no pressure to compete.

“If someone’s excelling in the recreational program, we try to find out about that, and try to see if they might be interested in one of our competitive programs,” Cole said. “We offer a spring race camp, and they have a chance to get a taste of three or four days of what some race training might be like. For a lot of them it’s just a natural thing.

“But they don’t have to [compete].”

An AVSC family

For many who develop in AVSC’s recreational programs, the toughest decision is not whether or not to compete, but what discipline to focus on.

Nancy and Weems Westfeldt have killed three birds with one stone. The parents of triplets, all boys and seniors at Aspen High, the couple enrolled their sons in AVSC’s recreational programs at an early age, then watched as they all chose different competitive paths. Packy is an alpine racer, Wallace a snowboarder, and Ben is a park and pipe skier. Packy and Wallace are members of Team AVSC, while Ben has decided to train on his own.

While not officially a member of Team AVSC, Ben said the coaches are always willing to help and offer advice. “They do help a lot,” he said. “They’re nice to have out there.”

And it’s that type of coach-athlete relationship that many AVSC members have come to expect.

“They’re just some fun guys; they’re pretty good friends [of mine],” Wallace said. “They keep things positive.”

Said Packy: “They’ve really just worked hard with me and spent a lot of time and effort ” it’s definitely one of the top-notch clubs in the state … It’s opened a lot of doors for me.”

For Weems and Nancy, AVSC has made it easier to raise triplets.

“As I told Mark Cole, it’s become a home away from home for all of them,” Nancy said. “It’s been a wonderful program.”

Weems feels the club has given his boys an added sense of gratitude and appreciation for their natural surroundings.

“They’re really aware of where they live. They know that this place is special,” he said. “The club in the early days helped that.”

Furthermore, it has shaped their lives.

“The concept of the clubhouse on the slopes is enormous. It’s an alternative place for our kids to go after school, [it keeps them] from getting into trouble,” Weems said. “It’s what a club should be: You hang out and ski, meet people and travel with the other kids.

“It’s also opened up all four mountains to our kids in a real powerful way. The mountains are our kids’ back yard, and the coaches taught them how to use that back yard pretty well.”

Steve Benson’s e-mail address is sbenson@aspentimes.com