Like most recreational skiers, my season consists of two parts: December through march, when I ski erratically enough to consider hurling my Salomons into a Dumpster, followed by April, when everything finally clicks. I've got my ski legs. I'm linking turns effortlessly on tough terrain. I'm confident. I'm in control. And I'm spending all of my time on the chairlift trying to figure out how I can telecommute from Vail.
Then the season ends. I toss my gear in the back of a closet, and I lose whatever edge I've gained during those last heady spring days. Come November, I never hit that first run with the effortless grace I attained on the previous season's final day. Once again, I'll grind through till April, when hopefully I'll regain my groove.
This is skiing as usual for adults with real jobs who are lucky if they can log in 30 days a year of snow time. We waste days lurching cluelessly from run to run, hoping that if we just "attack the mountain aggressively" (or whatever the current insight du jour is), we'll at last transform ourselves into the experts we know we are meant to be.
No wonder we're frustrated.
"Skiing isn't for people who think that all they need to get to the next level are a few tips and hotter skis," says Chris Fellows, 40, director of the North American Ski Training Center (NASTC). "I wish I could report that there are shortcuts. There are no quick fixes, but there are fixes. They're called practice and patience."
A senior examiner and the head of education for the western division of the Professional Ski Instructors of America, Fellows is at the top of the recreational-skiing food chain: He's so good, he instructs instructors. And while he can't recommend any shortcuts, he does suggest NASTC's Jump-Start Ski Program to give you a jump on the ski season. The program is a weeklong thigh-burning, confidence-boosting, ski-training extravaganza that features six hours of coaching daily, individual video analysis, and evening clinics that run the gamut from dryland training to technique analysis.
In the Age of the Coach, when everyone from corporate execs to shell-shocked parents hires experts to show them the ropes, Jump-Start makes sense. To get better, get hooked up with a top-flight trainer. So I sign up for the program and find myself at Whistler-Blackcomb in British Columbia on the first weekend of ski season, staring down at Buick-size moguls on a run called Choker.
There are 18 students in the workshop. All are intermediate or advanced skiers; all are hoping this time to get a head start on the season. The day is cloudy and mild, the snow unaccountably good -- ultradry powder, more like mid-January stuff. Fellows leans over his poles, waiting for me to take off. You'd never peg him for an expert skier. He's unprepossessing, of medium height and build. His coaching style has no frills, no gimmicks, and no buzzwords. His method is straightforward: He reads your body language, he watches you ski, and he guides you from there.
At the moment, my body language is unequivocal: Choker is making me choke.
"Trust your skills," Fellows advises me. "Don't try too hard. Relax, and let gravity win."
This is reassuring banter, and Fellows knows it. He's just trying to calm me down so he can see what I can do. I can ski this run. I just don't think I can ski it well. My feet are cramping in my boots. Fellows simply waits.
"Fellows's real job is to get you to face down your monsters," says Fred Wee, director of product marketing for Hyperion Solutions, a Silicon Valley software company. This is Wee's third Jump-Start ski vacation.
Every skier has at least one monster -- a confidence-devouring gremlin that's roused by the sight of a steep, icy chute or a mogul field studded with trees. Like a grizzly that's drawn out of the woods by the scent of blood, our monsters are awakened by the bumps, by the steeps, by the downright scary. Here, then, is how the experts at Jump-Start helped four of us brave our inner demons.
The Monster: Fear of Wiping Out
Unleashed by: The Steeps
Ralph Deadwyler, 44, is a tall, taut technical specialist at IBM who lives in Fremont, California. He's one of those people who seems to put in 48-hour days. Besides racking up overtime, he works out four or five times a week and gets in lots of skiing at Tahoe. Growing up in Cleveland, he played plenty of basketball, to which he credits his agility, coordination, and balance.
Still, he suffers. Early in his skiing career, he got stuck at the top of Mammoth Mountain on terrain that would have made even Picabo Street shudder.
"Riding up the chairlift," Deadwyler recalls, "I looked down and saw a nicely groomed run that appeared to have just a little angle to it. Then I got to the top of the run, and it dropped like the side of a building. I was frozen there for half an hour. I would have made a deal with God, the devil, anyone who would have gotten me off of that mountain. Basically, I fell all the way down. It was an awful experience, and it left me overly cautious, even now."
The Jump-Starters have broken into three groups: high, medium, and low volume -- "volume" euphemistically referring to skill level. Though he lacks the expert's ego, Deadwyler is in the high-volume group. For six days, he follows the lead of his trainer, Steve Smart, 37, arguably one of the best skiers in Canada -- a guy who can carve perfect grand-slalom arcs with his feet crossed at the ankles.
The fourth day, Team High Volume skied along a ridge off of the Seventh Heaven Express chair. Nothing up there but double-black-diamond bowls and couloirs, and the rocky, seemingly unskiable cliffs of the "permanently closed area." They skied behind Smart, heading toward a ski patrolman who was putting up ropes to warn of a sheer drop.
"We went right under the rope," says Deadwyler. "All the other guys in my group launched, and they got maximum air. All I got was that frozen-knee feeling. I kept hearing my mother's voice saying, 'If everyone else jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?'
"But everyone made it," Deadwyler continues, "and now they were waiting for me. Steve led me over to the side of the drop, where it was a little less drastic. I launched myself with minimum air, hit the slope, and somehow got to the bottom. Then we did it again. We nailed that jump over and over -- at least six times."
The lesson learned here? When you're taking on impossible-looking terrain, take it one piece at a time.
"Ralph has all the skills he needs," says Fellows. "Now he's got to build his courage. He doesn't have to be superaggressive, but he does have to be superconfident. That's why we took him to a place on the mountain where he could experience success, and brought him back there six times. People think that once they've nailed a big run, it's time to up the ante. But it's critical to build on that one run before you begin to show off for your buddies."
The Monster: Fear of Losing Control
Unleashed by: Unpredictable Weather
Marvin Davis, 53, is the principal engineer of Marvin E. Davis & Associates, in Reno, Nevada, and an outdoorsman's outdoorsman. He raises Missouri foxtrotters (horses, not ballroom dancers), has taught junior skiers in a community program for nearly 20 years, and scuba dives. He's got a nose that looks as if it's been rearranged once or twice, and last year he tore his ACL -- anterior cruciate ligament -- a skier's most common knee injury, which usually requires surgery.
He tells us how he got it: "I called a business meeting up at Squaw. Most of my clients are skiers, and I figured we could get some runs in, then have the meeting in the afternoon. But I wasn't concentrating on my skiing, I was thinking about the meeting, and suddenly a skier was in my way. I steered clear of him, but as I turned, I heard the 'pop' that signals the end of your knee. I was out for the season."
Davis calls himself "living proof that you can't let anything distract you while you're skiing." Still, he sometimes loses his focus. The culprit: changing weather conditions, such as fog, flat light, and the low visibility brought on by a snowstorm. "I freely admit that I'm afraid of this stuff."
The mutable weather of mountainous British Columbia taxes Davis. It's dazzlingly bright, foggy, and blizzardy -- sometimes all three in the span of an afternoon. You can't do anything about it but ski on through, taking each situation as it comes.
"When the light gets flat, you've got to key into your other senses," suggests Fellows. "Let your poles drag in the snow, which gives you four points of contact. Feel the terrain through the bottoms of your skis -- and respond. The key in any kind of weather is to anticipate. Don't be tense; be alert."
There is a lot of talk among the Jump-Starters here about Fellows's uncanny ability to find people's discomfort zone and have them hang out in it. But Fellows disagrees. "I never strive to make anyone uncomfortable. My goal is to challenge people without freaking them out. But I do try to make people feel secure enough with my coaching so that they'll want to push themselves."
"To improve, I know I've got to be comfortable with being uncomfortable," says Davis. "Chris knows how to push me."
The Monster: Fear That Strength Will Fail
Unleashed by: Mogul Fields
A computer technician from Aetna, Steve Marino, 29, is more ripped than the rest of us. He runs and lifts weights five days a week and considers his athleticism his major strength. He's been skiing for just three years, but the Connecticut ski club that he belongs to has already taken him to Banff and Lake Louise, both in the Canadian Rockies, and to Mont Blanc, in the French Alps.
"I can muscle my way down a mountain, but I'm pretty inelegant," he admits. "I came here to work on my technique -- to learn how to carve consistently and how to do a pole plant. Skiing seven days straight will force me to get efficient. And that's what I need."
The other thing that he needs is a way to get down a mogul field without forgetting everything he's just learned. "I get in those big bumps, and I just lose all the stuff I've been working on. I try to use my strength to get by. And that doesn't work."
Marino's got a monster in the making. "Steve's fear of moguls is pretty typical," says Fellows. "He's worried that as soon as he skis into really big bumps, he'll have to apply even more force. He needs to work on finesse. I learned that teaching rock climbing. I'd get a student who could easily bench-press 300 pounds but who couldn't make his way up the rock because he'd try to force things instead of working with the rock face.
"The same goes for skiing," Fellows continues. "You can't muscle your way through a big field of bumps. The instant you apply brute force, you limit your range of motion, which limits your options. A good exercise for someone like Steve is to stand really tall while going over a smallish mogul. Once you see and feel that your thighs are flexible, you can move up and over a big bump quite easily. You just need to practice feeling long and loose."
The Monster: Fear of Mediocrity
Unleashed by: The Mere Sight of an Expert Run
On my first day, I ski Choker all morning long. I'm whipped after the third run, but I keep going. And I keep reverting to all my old, bad habits: I hug the mountain. I focus on the tips of my skis instead of where I'm going. I make short, skidding turns, getting my ass down the mountain as fast as I can, just to get the run over with.
By the time we break for lunch, my feet are freezing, while the rest of me is sweating as if I've fallen asleep in a sauna. I hate this. Instead of jump-starting my ski season, I've merely managed to drum up my usual mid-February urge to throw my skis into a trash compactor.
Fellows, on the other hand, looks as if skiing Choker is no more strenuous than walking across the living room for the channel clicker. At lunch, he leans over the table, as if he's about to tell me some secret. "Your biggest problem," he confides, "has nothing to do with your technique and everything to do with being too hard on yourself. Your basic skills are fine. Just shut down the part of your mind that's always judging."
"How do I do that?"
"Don't think when you ski -- feel."
He's right. My skiing has everything to do with my mental state, both an advantage and a curse. I'm an "intuitive" skier, meaning that I only know I've mastered a technique when it feels right. But on Choker, my intuition loses the war to my intellect. After lunch, I resolve to try harder.
As I push off the top of the run, I'm aware that I'm failing to shift my weight to the inside ski early enough in the turn. My shoulders are swinging when instead they should be still. And where are my hands? I'm overanalyzing, which makes me overly cautious.
The result: I take a whimper of a spill. There's no yard sale, no tumbling down the slope like a cartoon skier, where I turn into a snowball with my arms and legs sticking out. One ski simply slides out from under me, and I let it go. Suddenly, I'm on my back with both ankles turned inward. I feel a twitchy pain in my left knee. My week is over.
I've torn my medial collateral ligament, the one that runs down the inside of my knee. This earns me a trip down the mountain in the toboggan of a genial ski patrolman named Charlie. I sit in the waiting room of the Whistler Emergency Clinic for three hours, parked in the corner in a wheelchair with all the other ACLs and MCLs, while the head injuries and dislocated shoulders get seen first. We drink Fruitopias bought from a nearby machine, watch a rerun of Petticoat Junction on the TV that's bolted to the ceiling, and trade war stories. My knee aches, but it's not serious enough to ruin my season -- just the next four weeks.
That night, my leg in a brace, my mind fuzzy with painkillers, I ask Fellows, "Now what?"
What I really want is a bon mot, a witticism, a mantra -- a quick fix to mend my wayward skiing. But Fellows won't dish. "Just get better," he says, "and try again."
Karen Karbo (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a contributing editor at Condé Nast's Women's Sports & Fitness. Fast Company Research Editor Charles Davis (email@example.com) contributed to the sidebars.
Action Item: On a Roll
With the aid of the cheapest gizmo in skiing -- PTmart's Half-Circle Foam Roll ($5) -- you can hone your balance without hitting the gym. Shaped like a half-moon, the Roll is 12 inches long and 6 inches in diameter and is made out of high-density ethafoam.
Place it on the ground, curved side down, and balance yourself on one foot that's positioned lengthwise on the flat side, with your other foot raised slightly off the ground. The longer you can hang on the Roll, the less likely you'll wipe out on the season's first run.
Coordinates: PTmart, 800-331-3829
Improve Agility: The Step-Up Exercise
"In a workout of any duration, do the agility drills first, followed by weight lifting, and then cardio exercises," says tough-girl trainer Emily Miller, who was responsible for getting freestyle skier Jonny Mosley in shape to take the gold at the Nagano Winter Olympics. "People usually do the trickiest stuff when they're the most fatigued. Reversing that order can improve your performance."
The Drill: Stand in front of a thick phone book. In rapid succession, tap the top of the book with one foot, then the other. Tag it as quickly as you can while staying as light on your feet as possible. Do this for 30 seconds, and count how many times you can step up without losing form. If you toss your foot up instead of tapping it, you're fatigued.
Improve Flexibility: The Hip-Flexor Stretch
In skiing, legs are everything. Your legs have to be strong enough to do the work and limber enough to help you recover from those bumps and turns. You probably already stretch your quads, but how about those hip flexors?
"Almost no one pays enough attention to their hips, and they pay for it when their legs won't bend enough," says exercise physiologist Emily Miller. "No matter how strong your legs are, if they're too stiff, they won't work right."
The Drill: Lie on your back, and bend your right knee while keeping your right foot flat on the floor. Place your left ankle against the front (not the top) of your right knee. Gently push your left knee away from you. You should feel the stretch at the spot where your leg meets your torso. Do this for three minutes; then switch legs.
Build Balance: The Single-Leg Squat
The importance of balance in skiing is obvious. "That's why it's doubly unfortunate," says trainer-to-the-pros Emily Miller, "that our sense of balance deteriorates as we grow older."
The Drill: Stand on a step so that one leg can hang over it and your hips are level. Hold your arms in a skiing position. Raise one foot several inches off the ground, as if you've just finished kicking a ball. Keeping your abdominals tight, squat as if you're about to sit on a chair. The bend in your knee should form a 90-degree angle. Dip down as far as you can without losing your form. Hold that position for 5 seconds, then forcefully push yourself up to the beginning position. Do this 10 times; then switch legs and repeat.
Sidebar: Put Your Season on the Fast Track
These days, smart skiers aren't just getting their skis tuned up, they're also getting themselves tuned up. Lessons are now called clinics. Instructors are coaches. And you, believe it or not, are an athlete. Here are three schools that will give you a jump on the season.
Beaver Creek, Colorado
Cory Carlson, head of Technique Week at Beaver Creek and a former member of the U.S. Ski Team, can help you start the season on the right ski, no matter what your level of ability is. Carlson and his team of top-flight instructors rely on small classes, individual instruction, and après-ski video analyses to help you develop sound technical habits that you can build on throughout the season.
Coordinates: Double rooms start at $1,650, including instruction and some meals. Hyatt Regency, Beaver Creek, Colorado, 970-845-2849, www.beavercreek.hyatt.com
Sugarloaf USA, Maine
The chairlifts begin running in mid-November at Sugarloaf, and the resort's Perfect Turn Ski School, for beginners on up, features packages for both group and private instruction. Sugarloaf also offers women-only clinics that are taught by female instructors. You can also throw in some dryland training at the resort's on-site health club.
Coordinates: Weeklong ski packages start at $250, which includes instruction and lift tickets. Sugarloaf USA, 800-843-5623, www.sugarloaf.com
The North American Ski Training Center's multiday, total-immersion clinics run from August to April on some of the very best slopes on the planet. NASTC's professional ski instructors guide intermediate and advanced skiers down some of the world's most challenging terrain, including Portillo, Chile, and Whistler-Blackcomb in British Columbia. NASTC provides one-on-one instruction all along the way.
Coordinates: The six-day program at Whistler-Blackcomb costs $1,295, including airfare from San Francisco and accommodations. NASTC, 530-582-4772, www.skinastc.com