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Can You Learn to Ski Later in Life?

Instructors at the Snowsports Ski School in Taos, New Mexico are teaching old dogs new tricks.

Courtesy of Taos Ski Valley

The slopes of Taos Ski Valley were an odd place to question the laws of physics. But that is precisely what my fellow ski schoolmates and I did when we saw our instructor ski down towards us. It just did not make sense. The slope was steep, and the powder was fresh and dry. He should have been traveling fast. Yet, down he came gently, slowly, turning his body and skis with effortless motion. When he finally arrested his momentum with total finesse, he stood before us and said, “Yes, man. Look down the fall line and rock [twist] when you want to turn.” In unison, we voiced our disbelief that we could imitate his moves.

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I have been skiing for over 50 years and have seen the sport change dramatically. Except for the snow and cold, it is almost unrecognizable. Ski equipment has evolved through five generations, and so has the on-mountain experience. What was once a primitive seat on a slow double chair lift with a frozen wool blanket over you is now a ride in a high-speed gondola. Ski lodge cuisine used to be chili dogs. Now, offerings like quinoa with roasted vegetables are served on white tablecloths. 

In an attempt to avoid the opulence and privilege-signaling of Aspen or Sun Valley, New Mexico’s Taos Ski Valley is my favorite area. The romance is longstanding, about 35 years. Yes, the mountain has changed. In 2013, hedge fund billionaire Louis Bacon purchased the resort. His upgrades are many, and his pro-social for-profit impact B Corporation is planning an expansion with new lifts, upgrades to existing ones, and a new mountain-side restaurant. Three hundred million dollars is the number bandied about in the ski press.

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Along with the lease came the Snowsports School, founded by the legendary Ernie Blake, the original developer of the mountain. As far back as I can remember, the Taos snowsports school was the best of the best. The techniques were the most advanced; the instructors were culled from the top skiers in the country or beyond. Blake passed away in 1989, and the current director of the school, Burt Skall, told Worth, “Each year, we teach over 20,000 students of all ages and skill levels. Sixty percent are new, the rest returning. We hope Ernie is watching with approval.”

Ski Sports director, Burt Skall; Courtesy of Taos Ski Valley

From its inception, the intent of the school was to make everyone comfortable on the mountain. The innovative heart of the program is Ski Week, a six-morning, 2.5 hour daily  intensive. Beginners are treated as such, and probably the best gift you can give a child is to enroll them in the program when they put on skis for the first time. Burt added, “We also get lots of Baby Boomers. They bring their kids and grandkids to increase their on-mountain knowledge.” There are classes for snowboarders too, freeing the afternoon for practice or exploring the wider magic of the Taos Ski Valley.

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Skiers have long known that  Taos is very challenging. For example, one of the trails is aptly labeled “Psycho Path.” There are plenty of black and double black (very difficult) trails, plus numerous narrow ones featuring rocky outcroppings that are excellent for jumping off and flying through the air. Luckily, there are several wide-open, blue (intermediate) areas. 

Having the desire to advance past blue trails, where I’ve been stuck for decades, I thought it was high time I enrolled in the Snowsports School. Most years, I only ski five or six days a season, so it’s difficult to get better. Plus, not being athletically coordinated makes it even harder. So, I was really curious to learn and hopeful that I could improve enough to feel a difference. 

Courtesy of Taos Ski Valley

Along with lessons, I brought the best equipment I could. My lessons were made measurably better by the new Bomber skis I demoed (paid trial before purchase.). These Italian hand-made beauties come in a variety of models, customized for terrain, levels of accomplishment, and snow conditions. They responded better to my commands than my just-ok skis by stopping faster and more securely, and tracking better on the catwalks. Since skiing is about balance, all of the above are integral to a better day on the mountain. The lesson learned is to buy or rent the best skis you can. Don’t let equipment diminish the experience of improved performance. Bombers cost approximately $2000.

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The class assignment process is like a chorus line on the mountain. Students assemble at a given location and ski a small segment toward the instructors, who are conferring amongst themselves. One waves their pole in the air, signifying this will be the skier’s initial teacher. If teacher and skier are not a good match, swaps occur after a day or two to better align skill levels. My pole waver was Derek. He was, at 79, even older than me. However, his 43 years as an instructor instilled confidence that he knew a thing or two. Turned out he knew everything. 

One word of caution: When you sign up for the school, you don’t get to choose the weather! As long as the lifts are operating, school is in session. Normally I cherry-pick the sunny, warm days to ski. Now I had the misfortune to be on the mountain in fog, driving snow, and cold winds. I toughed it out, and skied outside my comfort zone, adding to the sense of accomplishment I had at week’s end. 

There were four of us in Derek’s group and we were somewhat matched. Perhaps I was the weakest as the others wanted to conquer the moguls (bumps on the slopes requiring a different technique). 

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The six days of lessons had four components. First, we watched Derek so that we could imitate him. Then, he asked us to follow him down the mountain, skiing in his radius, turning when he did, and matching our body’s movement to his. Derek often yelled, “Patience, man!”—his plea to have us not execute the next turn until we were facing uphill. Third, individually, we skied towards him as he watched and shouted observations and criticisms. Last were tutorials in the lodge, on the slopes (often using his pole to map out a turning strategy), and on the chairlift. These were very detailed discussions of gravity, anticipation, body awareness, edges, fall lines, and what he termed ‘schmeering’ (twisting your body and skis uphill while planting poles). Derek was careful not to overwhelm us, while simultaneously wanting to use our time together to the fullest. 

Courtesy of Taos Ski Valley

By day three, I had internalized his guidance; ringing in my head were his litany of shouted instructions on how to ski properly. I sensed the first two days were coming together because I was able to execute turns faster while maintaining control, not an easy task because I had to unlearn how to ski. Sixty years of improper and outdated techniques don’t completely disappear in three days. 

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I polled my fellow students on their takeaways and levels of satisfaction. Responses were uniformly positive; real progress had been made. Many were returnees. With annual touch-ups, bad habits don’t become engraved; good ones are learned and reinforced. 

As an added bonus, après ski, Taos is a magical and very real place to explore. 

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