First time on skis? No problem for students at local School Ski Days

School Ski Days bring kids throughout the Roaring Fork Valley onto the slopes

Word of the day: Pizza (verb). To create a wedge shape with one’s skis to slow down while heading downhill.

As in, “Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!” universal ski instructor code for “slow down,” heard frequently Friday on Panda Hill at Buttermilk for the latest iteration of School Ski Days.

The program brought busloads of the Glenwood Springs Elementary School third-graders to the hill for ski lessons, patrol pup meet-and-greets and a presentation from local industry leaders as part of Aspen Skiing Co.’s efforts to introduce kids throughout the valley to the sport.

Even Smokey Bear made a surprise appearance for a lesson on fire safety. Patrol dog Zara was a hit with the audience but had to cut her appearance short after sniffing out one too many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

“It’s chaos, but it’s somewhat organized, and hopefully engaging and fun for the kids,” said Hannah Berman, Skico’s sustainability and philanthropy manager.

About a dozen of the students had never skied before they arrived Friday at Buttermilk; others were a bit more steady on the snow. And just a few hundred yards to looker’s right, high above smiling kids snacking on sandwiches, some of the best freestyle skiers and snowboarders in the world were sending big air for championship titles.

“I looked at all these kids, you know, one girl is in legging pants since she didn’t know much about snow pants and there’s someone else who has totally never done any of this before and is overwhelmed looking at all these skis on the rack, and then you’ve got these amazing athletes ripping backflips off the halfpipe,” Berman said. “But that’s great — I want them to be able to see that and get stoked about it.”

The resort offers comped tickets and rentals, as well as discounted lessons, to every K-12 class in the Roaring Fork Valley, according to an email from spokesperson Xanthe Demas. Skico also supports the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club in efforts to get more downvalley kids into the club’s long-term programs.

“It’s awesome to take kids skiing one day a year, but we’re also trying to figure out, ‘How do we make that more sustainable?'” Berman said. “How do you make it … something they can genuinely participate in in the long haul?”

Outreach has mostly relied on “word of mouth” in the decade or so since former director of Corporate Sustainability Matt Hamilton launched the program, Berman said.

She hopes to get more teachers involved throughout the valley.

Skico already has hosted 18 School Ski Days with attendees from more than half a dozen schools so far this season; there are four more dates on the calendar in March and April, according to an emailed schedule from Berman.

This particular outing also was sponsored by the Sports Business and Leadership Association, a nationwide organization that aims to provide its chapter communities with the resources to help underprivileged kids attend sports camps and other unique sports experiences.

Skico is a partner with the organization, and Rana Dershowitz — Skico’s chief operating officer of the mountain division and chief legal officer — is an adviser for the Colorado chapter of the organization.

“We know this is a hard sport. … It’s daunting,” Dershowitz said in an interview Friday. “We’re just trying to make it as accessible as possible.”

For now, the association’s local work is focused on skiing outings like these, but Dershowitz said the broader aim is to forge a connection between kids and the abundant outdoor recreation opportunities in the Roaring Fork Valley.

“As long as they get out — whether it’s here or there or anywhere — I just want them to know that these opportunities exist,” Dershowitz said. “That’s a win.”

Exposure is just one part of the equation, though. So organizers are trying something “completely new” in the form of pep talks from a diverse group of industry leaders, Berman said.

Dershowitz was one among Friday’s lineup, which also included Senior Vice President of Mountain Operations Katie Ertl, Limelight Snowmass General Manager Lindsay Cagley, patroller Liz Bergdahl and Neema Kassaii, director and president of the Sports Business Leadership Association’s Denver chapter.

“‘We want to show young people, boys and girls that they can grow up and land as leaders in the ski industry regardless of their gender,” Berman said. “To be able to see someone that looks like you — we’re also doing this with some of (Aspen Skiing Co.’s) leadership of color — in roles like ski patrol, in mountain operations, that historically have been male-dominated and white, we want kids to know that they can land as leaders in these departments.”