Aspen ski instructor retires after 51 years on the slopes
Lavelle Saier has quietly accomplished a remarkable feat in Aspen’s illustrious skiing history.
Saier is among the longest-tenured ski instructors ever at Aspen Skiing Co., according to company officials. She is retiring at the end of this season after 51 years on the slopes for Skico.
“When I first came here, I never thought I’d last this long,” she said. “It was a great lifestyle and kept me physically fit. I was so lucky to have experienced it and would never wish to have done anything else.”
Given that she taught for five decades, it is ironic that her entry into ski instructing was due to circumstances beyond her control. The Montana native started working at Whitefish ski resort in the late 1950s, first as a waitress, then in the ski shop.
The resort was inundated with guests at one point while she was working in the ski shop. Her boss greeted her by saying, “Guess what you’re going to be doing? Ski instructing.” When she informed him she had never taught, he replied that she would catch on quickly.
Instructing came naturally to Saier, but she also went through countless hours of training over the years and became fully certified. She taught for five seasons in Whitefish before her then-husband was recruited to Aspen by former ski school director Curt Chase in 1964. Her husband and Chase had worked together so Chase offered them both jobs as he started building the ski schools of Aspen.
Saier recalled being snubbed when she met the ski school employees for the first time. Many begrudged her for being handed a job rather than earning it. The ski school was significantly smaller then. There were 20-some instructors at Buttermilk and even fewer at Aspen Mountain. Snowmass opened a few seasons later. Aspen Highlands was independently owned by Whipple Van Ness Jones.
She said she initially thought she made a mistake leaving Whitefish, but the cold shoulder they received in Aspen didn’t bother her husband in the least. They stayed, and she eventually made some good friends.
“We were all so close,” said Linda Harlan, a former kids’ ski school director at Buttermilk who later worked at the private desk. She has been Saier’s friend since 1968.
“She is very, very caring,” Harlan said. That quality carried over to Saier’s students. Like many good instructors, Saier created a bond with many of her students and they returned year after year.
Saier also managed to avoid the ski bum lifestyle that burned so many people out.
“She’s never been a loud partier like me,” Harlan said with a laugh.
Skiing in Aspen required a few adjustments for Saier. Growing up in western Montana, she was used to copious amounts of snow and loved to ski powder. When she informed colleagues at Whitefish that she was leaving for Aspen, one of them told her she would learn what the edges were for on skis.
In addition, bluebird days were nearly non-existent at Whitefish, so the conditions in Aspen were easy to take.
Saier immersed herself in ski instructing. “I use to teach seven days per week, six hours per day,” she said.
She initially was assigned to Buttermilk to teach classes but soon got into private lessons and would ski whatever mountains her clients preferred.
When asked if she is a good skier, the soft-spoken Saier replied, “Not as good as I’d like to be.”
She said she started teaching at too early of an age before she really had a chance to do much free skiing. To be a good instructor, she said, you have to be patient and put the needs of your students before your own skiing, she said.
She is apparently too humble about her skiing abilities. She was selected in 1968 to be part of a demonstration team when ski schools from around the world were invited to Aspen to show their teaching techniques.
One of her most rewarding experiences was teaching with Lito Tejada-Flores, who perfected a simplified method of instructing. He taught classes in Aspen and also wrote books and produced videos about the technique called “Breakthrough on Skis.”
Tejada-Flores departed in the mid-2000s, but students still demanded his technique of skiing. Saier and fellow instructor Mike Romanus took over that niche of the ski school for the next several seasons.
“The people that came here really wanted to learn,” Saier said.
All four Aspen-Snowmass ski areas hold their particular charms for Saier. She was in awe of all the terrain available for beginners when she started at Buttermilk. Back then there were two lifts on Main Buttermilk and a T-bar at lower Tiehack.
Aspen Mountain became her favorite mountain, but she shied away from it after her friend, and longtime former ski instructor, Sue Kern was plowed into and severely injured by a skier.
Aspen Highlands provides unbeatable views. She likes Snowmass for its variety of terrain.
Saier took only one season off after starting in Aspen in 1964. Her career abruptly ended in February 2015 when she was on a rare cross-country ski outing in Ashcroft and took a spill. She broke a hip. The injury prevented her from teaching this season. She formally retired this year and was recognized for 51 years of service at the Aspen Skiing Co. party for longtime employees last month. Among active employees, only lift operator Jimmy Gerbaz has more years of service at 54. Buttermilk ski patrol director Robin Perry has the same number of years of service, at 51.
From 1965 through 2000, Saier traveled to California to teach private swimming lessons. Upon retirement, she will still spend considerable time in Aspen, she said, but also in Montana.
Saier said she misses the camaraderie of the ski school and mingling with longtime friends. The experience changed over the years, she noted. The ski school used to be small enough that everyone knew each other. Despite the changes, she said there’s nothing she would have rather done.
“I owe my whole career to the Aspen Skiing Co.,” she said. “I just really loved it.”
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