Teaching beginners | AspenTimes.com

Teaching beginners

Eben Harrell
First-time skier Gim Teng is all smiles as she takes the Poma lift during a Beginners Magic lesson at Snowmass. Aspen Times photo/Mark Fox.
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They congregate in a circle outside the ticket office in the Snowmass Village Mall. They are strangers about to undertake a strange endeavor. They are a little nervous, and their nerves make them giggly. It’s a diverse crowd. There’s a businessman taking a break from a conference, an au pair let loose by her boss, a Miami-based Playboy model visiting friends, a 35-year-old from Florida who saw snow for the first time a week earlier and so booked the trip. They have assembled with the same goal in mind: To learn how to ski.It’s called Beginner’s Magic and it’s the Ski and Snowboard Schools of Aspen’s program to teach adults who have never skied before. Because Aspen has so many strong-skiing locals, and because promotion of the town usually features pictures of men and women joyously hurtling down snowy slopes, it is easy to forget that a good portion of the town’s visitors are total beginners, approaching the sport hesitantly and without the slightest clue how to begin.

Skico hasn’t forgotten about them. At 9:45 a.m., under “Beginner’s Magic” signs at Snowmass and Buttermilk, groups like these meet every day to learn to ski. After all, beginners are crucial to the health of the sport. Avid skiers will always ski. But if a newcomer leaves Aspen instilled with a newfound competence and love for skiing, then the sport has grown, and Skico has likely found itself a return customer.So Skico has developed an adult instruction program aimed at making the transition from novice to skier as comfortable and efficient as possible. Recent equipment advances – short, shaped skis that are easy to maneuver – have made that task a lot easier. In fact, the Ski School is so determined to ensure beginners have a good time (and so confident in their instruction program) that they offer a guarantee: If a pupil feels he or she hasn’t made adequate progress in a day’s lesson, they can return for a free lesson the next day.”In the past ages we taught on long skis which made it very hard for us to hook people on why we love the sport,” Snowmass Ski School manager Julian Gregory says. “Now with shorter skis and our proven instruction progression, our students are learning faster and seeing what skiing is all about.” At the core of the program is Skico’s discovery that, within a certain range, most adult beginners progress at roughly the same rate. So the school has developed a set lesson plan that doesn’t push too hard or coddle too much. In fact, there’s nothing spontaneous or magical about Beginner’s Magic. It’s a highly regimented three-day program of instructional steps that’s performed over and over again.

Of course, the beginners gathering at the Snowmass Village Mall don’t know this. With skiers whizzing down nearby Fanny Hill, they don’t know what to expect – one man worries about getting on the chairlift, even though such a step will likely not happen for another day.The group is relieved to learn that the first portion of the lesson takes place right where they stand, on solid ground. Instructor Christopher Condon shows the group how to flex in their boots, bringing attention to muscles they will use when they move to the snow.”Our whole program is based on repetition,” Beginner Magic coordinator Jen Jakobs explains. “They’ll do the same exercises on concrete, using the same muscles, as they will on snow. Often the students will develop muscle memory without even realizing it.”After some basic balancing exercises, Condon shows the group how to fasten their boots and carry their skis – even the most basic details can’t be overlooked -and moves them to a lightly sloped, snow-covered staging area.

There, the group practices sliding on one ski, then on two, before being taught to make some turns.Condon’s task is twofold. He must teach the entire group, but he and other instructors also evaluate each individual. This is done silently, but both the ability and attitude of the skiers are considered. Later in the day, the group is separated by ability.The evaluation process relies mostly on instructor intuition, but it’s not exactly a guessing game as to which beginners will have the most success.”Man, this is fun!” the businessman says enthusiastically as he teeters down the slope.”I have do this on my own?” the Miami-based model asks. “I thought I’d get a caddie or a personal assistant or something.”

Although none turn up in this group, skiers with severe coordination problems or paralyzing fear are singled out almost immediately as “TLC” students – those requiring a little Tender Loving Care. Although paying for a group lesson, TLC students receive one-on-one instruction. “Our biggest goal is to make sure everyone has an enjoyable experience,” Jakobs explains. “If we need to designate an instructor to a TLC to make sure that person has fun, we’ll do that.”While most traditional instruction programs teach beginners to “snowplow” or “wedge,” Beginner’s Magic uses a “straight to parallel” approach for all but its TLC students. Beginners are taught to slow down by turning uphill or, for the more athletic, by hockey-stopping. “Parallel skiing is the eventual goal, so if we teach them to wedge now it can be tough for them to unlearn it later,” Condon explains.Instructors say it is far more difficult to teach adult beginners than children. Not only are children faster learners, but they rarely have preconceived notions of what good skiing should look like. One of the beginners in Condon’s group, for example, immediately goes into a racing tuck the first time she starts to slide.

“All the adults watch TV and want to look like Bode Miller,” one instructor explains. “That’s only going to hurt your skiing early on.”By late morning, beginners are moved to Poma 1, a short surface-lift in the beginners’ area. After lunch, they usually progress to Poma 2, a similar lift that serves slightly steeper terrain. Some advanced students ride up the Fanny Hill chair by the afternoon of the first day, but many wait until day two or three.None of Condon’s particular group makes it to the chairlift by the end of the day. But a quick check with them as they walk off the slopes shows just how much they’ve improved. From having to be taught how to buckle their boots, they now turn and stop at will. Beginner’s Magic has done the trick.”I had a great time,” Amanda Cobb says. “I had never seen snow until two weeks ago and now I’m learning how to ski on it. I can’t wait to come back.”

Magic? No. But no longer a beginner.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com


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