From “Not exactly roughing it” to getting roughed up by it

Forget about the thoughts running through the guests’ heads. Working at Beaver Creek is, to cop Vail Resorts’ catchphrase, the true experience of a lifetime. Where else is the motto of a training ground for a sport that people associate with high speeds and gravity-defying stunts “Not exactly roughing it”? Where else can you get lobster tacos for lunch–and that’s just at one of the cafeteria-style dining establishments? And delicious lobster tacos, I might add. I’m not sure which dark gods Spruce Saddle’s chefs sacrifice to, but it must be an effective one to keep the source meat fresh and tasty in spite of Colorado not having possessed any beachfront property for the past few hundred million years.

But there are times when I miss the flavors associated with the bare-bones, no-nonsense sort of atmosphere that still lingers around Colorado’s oldest ski areas, even if the rope tows have been replaced with chairlifts. Okay, so the chairlifts in question are other ski areas’ sloppy seconds and were old enough to merit replacement at their home resorts, but that’s beside the point. There ain’t no lobster tacos for lunch here. Hell, even regular chicken or beef tacos merit the designation of “Special!” with perhaps an extra exclamation mark or two for emphasis.

I’m talking specifically about lovely Loveland. Which is why I was eager to flash my Professional Ski Instructors of America card for a lift-ticket discount last Thursday under the pretext of taking pictures for a ski area guide I’m writing. The true reason for my ascension to the Great Divide was the opening of Chair 8, with its promises of snow yet untouched this season. Because attending Chair 8’s opening last year went so smoothly.

But let it not be said that a few electrical issues with the lift are enough to stop the intrepid heart of a powder hound. I waited patiently for Ski Patrol to drop the rope at 9:30, and I blazed ahead as the front of the pack when the anointed half-hour arrived. My breath froze in my lungs, although not literally–the sun gleamed through the blue sky and warmed the glistening snow, promising one of those powder days that even we residents of the true Sunshine State (fuck you, Florida. We don’t have hurricanes, so there) can only fantasize about. As I got off the top of the lift, feet itching to feel silky softness beneath them, I bit my lip to quell my squeals of anticipation. I flew down the groomed track. Unable to resist the call of untracked, ungroomed snow, I darted off to the side as soon as the rope would allow, my body surging triumphantly into the brilliant whiteness.

*  *  *

Maybe I should simply stop trying for first tracks, I thought woefully as I removed my head from the snow in much the same way an ostrich would remove hers from sand, or a Warner Bros. cartoon character his from solid rock. After all, my last attempt to chart seasonally new territory hadn’t gone so well, either. This time, however, I placed solid blame on conditions rather than operator error. I’d been in a forward-leaning athletic stance, a position from which to attack the hill, just like my trainers at Beaver Creek had pushed. They emphasize this stance because it works on 99.9% of all terrain you will encounter.

Chair 8’s snow, whipped by gusts which create an effect not unlike day-old cake frosting spread across sand dunes, was solidly among that 0.01%. Lunging forward in my boots caused the front of my foot to break through the cake frosting and go straight down into the snow below, sending my head and torso over the tip of my ski and straight into the ground. It was less a faceplant than a headplant, and as I looked up to make sure I’d dumped all the snow out of my goggles, I noticed it had garnered an audience of about one-third of the now-packed chairlift.

This photo was taken rather easily from the lift. The giant smear mark in the snow represents my literal fall from grace.
The giant smear mark in the snow represents my literal fall from grace. It was visible for enough of the lift ride that I was able to take photos from several angles and focus settings, even tinkering with the f-stop. I didn’t know you could do that on an iPhone.

Well, I thought cheerily as I retrieved my ski, at least it’s all downhill from here!

*  *  *

In spite of Loveland not fucking around when they posted signs advertising “Variable Conditions,” the next run went better. So did the run after that. I dared to think I was learning what to do on the cake-frosting-sand-dunes, and I knew I was having one of the best times I’d had all year. After all, first tracks! Even if they were pretty wobbly!

And I’d also forgotten how friendly people are at Loveland. Granted, it’s the Colorado way to strike up conversations with perfect strangers on a trail or chairlift, but there are occasional times when your chair partner is heavily engrossed in music or in engaged with his buddy in a contest to see who can say “dude” the most times in a single sentence.

Not so here. I found out a little backstory on everyone I rode up the chair with, including, to my delight, a snowboard instructor at the Luv.

“Yeah, snow’s not as soft as I was expecting,” he said mournfully after we talked shop a bit.

“Tell me about it. My first turn in the powder resulted in my head getting stuck in the snow.”

“That was you?!” he yelped. “I saw that! Hell, I think the whole lift saw that!”

Seeking some snappy first aid for my bruised reputation, I quickly cobbled together my theory about there being some times where you need to sit back and let your skis do all the work, using enough references to joint flexion to automatically win a contest for who can cram the most PSIA terms into one sentence. Thankfully, this led us back to talking shop. I reassured him that working at Beaver Creek was pretty legendary (did I mention the lobster tacos?!), and he reassured me that all conditions, even the ones we were seeing today, were much more easily managed on a board. It was with a bit of sadness that I got off at the top.

“Have a good run, Beaver Creek!” he shouted as he headed fearlessly for a grove of trees. I waved back and went in search of more variable conditions of my own.

It took more traversing than honest searching to find some. As I paused at the top of a small pitch, looking into its not-particularly significant depths in search of the smoothest route, a snowboarder cut smugly into the snow to my right.

“Hit it, Beaver Creek!” my fellow instructor called out. “This is one of my favorite pitches back here!”

My bluff called, I shot down after him. My fearlessness guided me through three sharp turns so even and so shapely that even Warren Miller would turn the color of the blinding snow with sheer envy.

Second verse, same as the first.
Spoiler alert: Second verse, same as the first.

A pity it was a four-turn pitch. At the top of my grand finale, still in view of the Loveland instructor and still with something to prove, my foot sank through the snow and I found myself neck-deep in snow for the second time that day. Alas, just like the first time around, “neck-deep” was top-down rather than bottom-up.

I’ll say the snow was really deep where I was skiing, I told myself as I shook snow out of my hat, goggles, collar, pants, and bra. Nevertheless, I sternly lectured myself, I’m done trying to prove anything to anybody on this hill. Let them come to Beaver Creek and experience the, uh, experience of a lifetime for themselves under my steady guidance!

I made another two runs back there. And wouldn’t you know it, given the conditions back there, they were the most impressive sets of turns I made all year. I only wish I’d been close enough to the lift or that snowboard instructor for someone besides myself to take note.

At least I got some good pictures. And the pork green chili served by a man who called me “hon” and was short-staffed because he’d sent all his employees for a lunchtime run or two was just as well-deserved and tasty as any lobster tacos.

If I ever start dating again, this is totally going to be my OKCupid profile picture.
“Wait, aren’t ski instructors supposed to set an example and wear a helmet at all times, especially in situations where they might get their heads stuck in a snowbank?” “Uh, yeah, the snow was so hard that it, uh, really compacted my helmet.”

Ski slopes: the best classroom I’ll ever teach in

This is the first season I’ve worked on the slopes. After spending a week post-Christmas guiding guests across varied green-to-blue-to-easy-black slopes, all I can think is, “Why didn’t I think of applying years ago?!” My dad likes to crack, “The worst day of skiing is still better than the best day at work,” a saying he probably lifted from a fellow snowchaser on the lift. I’m not entirely sure where I fit into that dynamic, since I’ve been in uniform or in training to wear that uniform for most of the days I’ve been on the hill this season, but I can say that my work involves skiing. Which is pretty awesome. Extreme to the max, even.

I’m now doubly kicking myself for not hopping on the free (imagine that word surrounded by roses and sparkles, if you will) train to SkiPassVille as soon as I moved back to Colorado. My first job after returning to the Centennial State was teaching remedial reading and writing to incoming community college students. And while I have nothing but admiration for the students who come back after years of being away from school and the instructors with stronger guts than I who come back year after year to teach them, I noticed a few differences in attitude toward teachers and students alike that make me more willing to be on my feet for up to six hours in an environment that can range from -10 to 50 degrees Fahrenheit on any given day than stand for two hours in a climate-controlled room.

For one thing, the students (or guests, as Vail Resorts prefers to call them) are given different approaches to reaching their goals. At Beaver Creek, it’s not so much that failure is not an option–the word doesn’t even exist. Even the guest who’s never been on skis and ultimately wants to beat his World Cup-racer father down Golden Eagle, the double-diamond race course, leaves at the end of the day feeling like that goal is within reach. Today the green run from the gondola, tomorrow the groomed intermediates, next year’s vacation the Super-G race course!

At the community college, I was warned that some, if not most, of my students would fail. Bachelor of Science in Nursing? Yeah, nice goal. Too bad you can’t pass this reading class. Granted, most of the students who failed deserved those Fs; no matter how many times they begged and pleaded, turning in zero of the homework assignments wasn’t going to result in a passing grade. But the students who convinced me I didn’t have the stomach for community college were the students who stayed after class, attended tutoring, tried their damnedest, and still couldn’t muster up an understanding of the material. As much as I wanted to give them credit for trying, the standards the state’s community colleges set were unwavering, and as much as it pained me to adhere to them, I knew deep down that I wouldn’t want to be admitted to an ER where my nurse hadn’t been able to puzzle through a basic biology textbook.

Of course, mastering Beaver Creek’s Talons Challenge runs and getting your first shift at a prestigious hospital aren’t on the same level in most people’s eyes. The former is only a worthy career goal for true obsessives like me. For most people, it’s a source of personal pride, an addition to an impressive list of accomplishments already attained in the work and family arenas.

But personal pride must have some meaning for people to keep coming back and aiming for figurative and literal new heights. Which is why happy instructors are essential to the operation.

I don’t mean just the base wages, the tips, the free ski pass, the discounts at ski shops, and the unlimited free classes and clinics that most people would have to pay the cost of a group lesson to receive. These are all great perks, to be sure. But Beaver Creek also cares about its instructor-guest relationships. On one of the last days I was scheduled to work over the holidays, I noticed I was scheduled for a 3-hour private lesson. The notes said I could expect a “4-years [sic] old boy, beginning alpine skier.”

I turned as green as the signs advertising those beginner runs. I work out of the Adult Ski School for a reason. As I’ve mentioned in my other blog, I’m not particularly fond of pre-elementary-school-aged children. With older children, I can ask about favorite sports (a really good conversation-starter, as I can frequently relate skiing concepts to other athletic activities), books, or singers. Once they’ve warmed up to me, I might murmur sympathetically at a story about a nasty teacher or, since my sense of humor hasn’t matured much past third grade, guffaw appreciatively at a fart joke. Young children don’t have the coordination for team sports, usually can’t read, have a limited understanding of music, and would make their parents livid when they chirp, “Mommy, I learned all about farts from Miss Bree today!”

The best-case scenario I could imagine from teaching a four-year-old was my back screaming in agony while I pulled the student down by his Edgie Wedgie while he stared stolidly ahead with a look of bovine complacency. Worst-case was me smiling moronically at parents and other instructors in the area while the kid had a fists-and-feet-flying, top-of-the-lungs-shrieking temper tantrum as I mouthed, “I was only trying to get him to put his skis on!” while the onlookers stared murderously and wondered what particular variety of hell-bound child abuser I must be.

Fortunately, I found out about this assignment two days before it was to take place. I walked into the Ski School desk, voiced my concerns to the indoor supervisor, and was reassured with a friendly, “Thanks for seeing that and letting us know. We’ll put you on something else!” And indeed, I was rewarded with an eager ten-year-old boy who appreciated my lowbrow humor and was game for every suggestion I made.

In a classroom setting, there is no screening. If you and your students clash, you’re stuck with them for fifteen weeks unless they decide the aggravation is mutual and switch out. And even if you and a student bond as people and seem like you’d be great beer buddies, that still won’t prevent you from noticing how few assignments and tests have been completed and doling out the dreaded F. Only this time, you feel like Lando Calrissian for having no choice but to turn your buddy over to the ravages of the Colorado Community Colleges system. In skiing, every day where your guest has fun and learns some new trick, no matter how small, is a successful day.

I’m not entirely sure what lessons ski instruction could give to the traditional classroom. The fact that ski instruction is purely for-profit naturally affects the balance of power–when I phrased my concerns about teaching a four-year-old in terms of the parents not wanting to pay for me to test my possibly non-existent nurturing skills on their child, I’m sure I saw better results than I would have if I’d come in with vague terms of uncertainty. But I can’t advocate for such a model in higher education, since it needs to be accessible to anyone with the determination and drive to attain it. As much as it pains me to say it, with so many other healthy activities out there, skiing is not, nor does it need to be, a universal right.

Still, one would think there has to be a way to make sure the needs of both students and teachers are better met in a traditional classroom. Until somebody figures it out, however, I’ll maintain my office hours on the sweet set of bumps located in Chair 9’s new run, Kestrel.