5 minutes reading time (939 words)

RealSkiers: If I Were King For A Day - Free Lessons

John Clendenin Ski Doctors of AspenAt realskiers.com, we emphasize the connection between technique and equipment, as the two elements are inextricably intertwined. Skiers who learn to tip and pressure a ski can apply this skill set to all sorts of terrain, opening up their gear selection options.  

Until they have this foundation, almost any ski of an appropriate length and shape will suffice. As one’s skills develop, so will the desire for better skis that will expand one’s horizons.  

In other words, better skiers want better skis. It’s their quest for a new pair of dance partners that helps keep a ski equipment pundit like myself in business.  So what I’m about to say may appear, upon not very deep reflection, to be utterly self-serving. All can say in my defense is that my motivations, however murky, include among them a desire to serve the public good.

If I ruled the ski world for a day, among my first decrees would be that ski lessons for all entry-level and lower-skill skiers would be free. Rental skis would be adapted to the goal of skill progression and rental boots would be light, supportive and fit within reason. (If the equipment is utter crap, no amount of instruction, free or not, is going to help.)

The new skiers will learn slope safety and basic skills without feeling fleeced.  While many would no doubt never take a lesson again after my all-too-brief reign, if they were shown a good time that first day, some just might keep buying lift tickets. They might even learn to appreciate the value of instruction and sign on for a more intensive session where we, the greater ski community, can really set the hook into another lifelong skier.

Free Lessons

My kindly decree about free beginner lessons would not be the first occasion that instruction freebies have been dangled before the non-skiing public. It’s been tried, and abandoned, before, the victim of its own generosity: if the instruction is free, how good could it be? So we allow the Laws of Nature to prevail, which winnows the herd of uninstructed new skiers very effectively.

One might think that the payback in slope safety alone would be worth an investment in new skiers, but the reason my reign would only last for a day is that’s how long it would take the investment bankers who own so much of America’s lift-serviced terrain to behead me.  

It’s more profitable in the short term to attract existing skiers than to try to create new ones, but it’s not like the suits couldn’t afford my plan. They squeeze out a fortune on rentals, on retail (after buying out or throwing out the local specialist), on “food;” enough, apparently, to buy up other ski resorts with the zeal that Michael Jackson applied to acquiring million-dollar knick-knacks for Neverland.

Around where I live, it’s the smaller areas that bundle instruction with the budding skier’s price of admission. Sky Tavern’s raison d’être is to make skiing affordable for low-income families in the Reno area; free instruction is an intrinsic part of the program. Among local resorts with a more typically diverse clientele, Homewood’s come-hither hook is the offer of free instruction from qualified staff. That’s amore.   

Most Americans never take a ski lesson – or at least one worth taking – and boy, does it show. We’re raising a generation of unguided missiles. As skis have become wider, shorter and more de-cambered, they’ve become easier to point sideways by doing everything but setting them on edge.   

Not Much Steering

You’ll note I don’t use the word, “steer,” because very little steering actually takes place. If you’ve ever driven on black ice, you know that throwing the wheel side to side doesn’t obligatorily result in a change in direction.  

I confess I don’t know the actual statistics, but anecdotal evidence suggests there must be dozens of skiers who are severely injured every year in potentially life-altering collisions.  A few, I’m sure, were unavoidable, but from what I’ve seen over the years, most were probably eminently avoidable if both parties had skills commensurate with their rate of speed.  A little common sense and some awareness of the wide world around us that we share would also help avert some of these tragedies.

As skiers, we live in precarious times. I’m not referring to the Zeitgeist, but to the time of year when the natural snow cover is thin and the jones to get out there and slide can’t be contained. A lot of excited skiers are going to have to share a very limited menu of terrain. Every ability level will be on the loose, each with their own notions of speed and trajectory.  

Many will be in a world of their own, music blaring in their ears, essentially shutting down this source of sensory input. The open slopes will be akin to a zoo without the cages on the inside, but with a brutal force field – often called, “forest” -  guarding the zoo’s perimeter.  

This is not the time or place to run hot and then throw ‘em sideways. Instead, it’s a wonderful opportunity to learn some skills, like how to avoid your fellow slope-mates, and acquire some social graces, like not strafing those less skilled.  Wouldn’t it be awesome if everyone were taught some fundamentals before throwing us all together?

But that might require giving away a service, something margin-hungry corporations aren’t keen on, even when they’d be the prime beneficiaries of their largesse. Which is why we need a king, if only for a day.

Photo: Instructor is John Clendenin, chief of ski medicine at Ski Doctors of Aspen (Realskiers.com)
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