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First Time on the Hill

Step 1: Gearing up...

I honestly believe -- and this opinion is shared by thousands of ski instructors -- that the "graduated length" (GLM) concept of beginning with super short skis does more harm than good. Instead, pick a ski length that falls somewhere between the skier's chest and chin. While this is indeed shorter than what they will eventually ski on if all goes well, it is close enough to a legitimate length that the pupil will learn good habits rather than bad ones.

Leave the poles on the rack. Yep, leave 'em there. The only time the beginning skier needs poles is to move around in lift lines; you just have to lend a hand in those areas.

If you are teaching a child, the only other piece of equipment you may want to consider is a hula hoop. You, the instructor, carry it to give your little skier something to grab when they need a hand, something to hold in case they need side-by-side assistance, and something to put around them if you need to pop them up after a tumble. Kids understand hula hoops, and they are a lot easier to grab than your extended, pointy ski pole.

Step 2: The basics...

The basics begin with putting the skis on. Have your protege try this a few times, make sure they line up heel and toe properly, etc. Point out that skis should be across the hill when putting them on. Newbies will throw down their skis, the ski brakes will hold them on the hill, then wonder why the ski suddenly flies away when they start to put their boot in. Go over all the functions of the ski. Explain what the bindings do, the brakes, the edges, the bases...You can't ski without skis, right?

The next lesson is getting up the hill. When they look at you quizzically, explain that you can't go down a hill unless you've somehow gotten up it first. Teach them to sidestep up (save other methods of climbing for later).

Once the skier is at the top of the hill, have him or her lay down carefully on the snow. Help them down gently, then tell them to get up. Only let them flail for a moment or two. Remind them of the importance of getting their skis acclimated across the hill. If necessary, help them take their skis off. They need to understand that falling and getting up is part of skiing. It also equips them for when they need to fall, they've had a trial run and will better know how to "dump out" when circumstances require it.

Step 3: Pizza, French Fries

the first lessonNow your student knows how to put on the skis, move around, and get up once they've fallen. All of these things are part of skiing, and once familiar, they're ready to go downhill.

Tell a seven-year-old that they are going to learn snowplow and parallel technique and they will promptly tune you out. Instead, try something like this:

Do you like pizza? [yeah!!] OK, then, make a slice of pizza with your skis! (snowplow) That's how we learn to a big slice of pizza going down the hill!

Before we go anywhere, we gotta point the way with our hands. Make two "snow guns" (pointing index fingers, thumbs up, other fingers folded) Hold your arms out in front (loose, elbows bent) and point your fingers together (forming another vee). Wherever we point our snow guns, that's where our pizza will go.

Alright! Let's turn our pizzas down the hill...we're pointing our snow guns toward that shed over there...(instructor turns at an appropriate spot) and now I'm going to point to those people over there...I moved both my arms and pointed...see how I did that? Ok, you're at the same spot I was...point your snow guns at those people...see how you turned?! Let's do another...point our snow guns this way...see the pizza turn? Now we're going to stop...we're going to point right straight down where we want to stop...lean over a little....point it down, follow the pizza around. Congratulations! You're skiing!

"High fives" are a good idea at this point. Keep in mind "Three E's" a ski instructor needs: Enthusiasm, Exaggerated movements, Encouragment. (No, "exasperation" is not one of them.) Kids will match your level of enthusiasm, mimic your movements, and thrive on your encouragement. After they've mastered the snowplow...French Fries!

Resource for Intermediate & Advanced Skiers

  • Warren Smith Technique here's a terrific site with some quicktime movies that do a nice job of teaching the basics for moguls, powder, and other conditions. is obviously pitching the video, so you only get the tip of the iceberg so to speak, but that's fine. Even this condensed version is a nice online primer.
  • On steeps, lead with your chin. Many developing skiers have trouble making the jump from rolling groomers to steep drops. Skiers with otherwise excellent skills stop and stare when they arrive at some pitches. Point your chin down the fall line. Lean forward...and lead with your chin. The goal is to go down, not side to side. If you look to the side for safety (and your chin goes that way) you will clumsily ski to the side. You're a hack. Point your chin down, let it lead your way down...go, go, GO!
  • Sharing the lift with NOVICE snowboarders Alright, you're in line for the quad, you and your two buddies, and the liftie sends a kid on a snowboard from the singles line to join you. The kid struggles to get to the chair, so it's reasonable to anticipate problems at the top. Couple things to help you deal with this. First, hang back for a moment at the summit. Chances are the kid is going to rush off, arms flailing, an accident waiting to happen. Second, novice snowboarders tend to "sweep" the ramp. Whatever side he gets off on, he's probably going to angle across the ramp to the opposite side. Very few beginning boarders have the expertise to actually go straight, with their board straight. Third, anticipate that he is going to fall, and eyeball your route around him. This is why "hanging back" is a good strategy. If he falls ahead of you, you can ski around. But if he falls next to you, he's taking you down too. Remember, the kid spends a lot more time falling down than you do, so he'll handle it a lot better than you will. This of course pertains to novice boarders, not skilled riders. A skilled boarder will probably leave you in the dust on the off ramp. Then of course they'll plop down in the middle of the trail before the first pitch so they can fiddle with their bindings, but at that point it's merely an annoyance, not usually hazardous.

  • Don't look at the hood ornament Before litigation and inflated bureaucracy knocked the legs out from under our school budgets, we had a thing called Driver's Ed, usually taught by a gum-chomping gym teacher. Behind the wheel at age 16, I made the typical mistake of looking at the road right over the hood, and steered constantly and nervously to adjust to the ever changing road. "Rick, look down the road...your eyes are right over the hood ornament, and you're adjusting constantly...look way ahead, and you'll be able to anticipate better." So I did as I was told, and immediately the jerky, video-game immediacy of the road fell away to a ribbon of highway that stretched out and was much easier to adjust to. My driving immediately became was the best advice I ever received. Many people do it instinctively, some never learn (and their driving shows it). Why then, do so many skiers keep their eyes looking right over the tips? With your eyes "right over the hood ornament" you have to adjust to infinite and immediate changes and obstacles. If your inner voice is a constant chatter of "where do I turn where can I turn too many things gotta turn go around that there's a bump gotta turn..." -- then you are probably focused a few yards ahead of your skis. Try "looking down the road." Your feet will adjust to where you are -- because you've already seen it -- and obstacles will no longer be a sudden surprise that you have to compensate for immediately. You'll plan your line well in advance, and your motions will be a lot smoother.

  • Stand on one leg Carve! Carve! Carve! It's all the rage now, so you might as well get used to it: Using the ski to make the turn for you. (Would you care to guess how many people I know that own parabolic skis but have no idea how to use them?) You can tell people "pressure on your outside foot, unweight your inside foot" till you are blue in the face. Why don't they do it? Probably because they have no idea what the heck you're talking about. Instead, take your protege (or you, if that's the case) to the bunny hill. Relatively flat, easy slope. Ski down...and lift your left leg off the snow. See how you turn left? With weight on your right ski, the parabolic shape is pressed into the snow -- on the left side of the ski -- and you naturally turn left. Now put your left ski down, and lift your right ski...and see how rapidly you steer to the right. Soon you can begin to just slightly lift the "inside" ski off the snow...and then simply unweight the ski while pressing on the other. Eventually this will become a fluid motion, second nature.

  • Hands out front! Stab that mogul! If you're the type that stays away from the moguls because all your efforts end in out-of-balance disaster, watch mogul skiers carefully next time you're riding up the lift along Outer Limits (Killington) or Beartrap (Mount Snow) etc. Notice that the mogul skiers "running the zipper" have their hands out ahead of them. Now look at the uncoordinated bozos who don't belong...their hands are back. Now notice how the real mogul skier swings his or her poles way out in front -- almost exaggerated -- like a pendulum, then stabs the top of the mogul where they'll begin their turn. Notice how the klutz flails with his or her poles in a fruitless effort to maintain balance.

Copyright © 2003-2010 Slackpacker
I shan't be gone long -- you come too.
-- Robert Frost