Lessons Learned Beyond Skiing.

When I told my companions I was going to take a lesson in the middle of our three-day ski getaway in Maine a couple of weeks ago, they uniformly said, “What a good idea!  So should I.”  But it was just me signing up for an hour-and-half with instructor Fred (not his real name) whom I was to meet at the ski school hut at 10:00 am the next day. Regardless of the expense, a private lesson, I conjectured, would erase years of skiing almost okay.

Confession:  I never took a real ski lesson.  I got some tips from Ginny Pfeiffer at Hunter Mountain when we had a SKIING Magazine outing one evening back in 1971 or so (yes, evening).  I watched ski instruction videos from time to time, read articles, but never really a bona fide lesson. I just learned vicariously.

But, I had the feeling that an important experience was missing.  Not to mention I couldn’t really carve a turn.  I mean really, neatly carve; I couldn’t match those clean, incised, parallel arcs I saw people making under the lift line.  I could skid a turn, I could stem christie a turn, I would have a great run and then five un-great runs.  My new shaped skis were not being optimally used.

Fred was a veteran instructor.  “What do you want to focus on?” he said when we met.  “I want to carve these skis. The perfect turn is eluding me.” So up we went to a nice wide blue cruising trail.  “Ski down fifty yards or so, I’ll be right behind you,” said Fred. I did, I was self-conscious and tight, nervous, but nevertheless, I wanted Fred to see what he was dealing with.

“You are skiing with your feet together,” Fred said as his first lesson. “Keep them shoulder width.” Hmmm, I thought, I knew I did that, but only sometimes.  Is sometimes okay? After all, couldn’t sometimes be okay? Resistance was emerging.

We went another fifty yards.  “Now, watch how I link my turns. Try that and don’t take such long traverses.”  He showed how with me tagging in his tracks. Ah, linked turns. Then, I went down with him behind, watching.

“Okay, you’re not putting pressure on your front edges. Feel your shins pressing on the front of the boot.  The toe of your outside ski and the pinkie toe of our inside ski need to do the pressing.”  Ah, pressure, okay.

I tried. It was hard. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t like it. It was uncomfortable. I was incompetent. I wanted Fred to go away and stop watching.

More conferences on the side of the trail.  More advice and demonstrations. “I will try harder,” I said to myself, thinking I paid a lot for this. But I am not liking this.

Another couple of runs, Fred skiing behind, and I finally felt it.  I felt my big toe pressing, I was linking, my feet were shoulder width apart.  I was doing it.  I was far from proficient, by a long shot, but I had the idea.  I was linking my way down a long blue trail, non-stop, with Fred behind. I was learning. I found it was hard to learn, I resisted the new physical move, but eventually I learned at least something. I was surprised at how hard it was.

We talked at the bottom at the end of the lesson.  On the lift, we learned we had sailing in Maine in common.  I realized I hadn’t actually seen Fred’s face since we started as we were both goggled up and helmeted.  He took off his goggles.  “How old are you?” I asked, just curious. “Sixty six.  How old are you?”  “Seventy two”, I said.

“No dust on you,” he said, shaking hands.

That made my day.


  1. A good teacher will always focus on a particular exercise that will benefit the skier at the time. ” You are skiing with your feet too close together” ” Watch me link my turns” ” You are not putting pressure on your front edges?” These are statements that are not conducive to easing the angst of a student and really instructing them on a positive task. Why should you ski with your feet further apart can be discussed on the chair lift. Watching linked turns does nothing if one does not understand the concept. What reason is there to put pressure on the front of the ski? Again- something that can be discussed on the chairlift.

    I always watched the student, thought about what he or she wanted to learn, and then started with an exercise to help them achieve that goal. Not focusing in with comments on what they are doing wrong. But working with them to achieve something “right”. Ski instructors need to help the student discover instead of putting them in a situation where they are intimidated.

    • Michael Maginn says:

      Hi Pat: I think the intimidation was mostly my own mind game, not so much the instructor. Good points, nevertheless. And I did come away from the lesson with new agenda for practicing.

  2. Sherm White says:

    As someone who teaches full time, and has for 45 years, it’s,great to see you trying a lesson. My question to you ( and to all my students) is:
    Tell me one thing you got out of the lesson that you will remember, and will help you with your goal in taking the lesson

  3. Tamsin Venn says:

    I agree with Pat, that the instructor sounded a little negative, with focus on what you’re doing wrong. Also, with senior skiers, it’s good to talk about what USED to be the technique, which many of us have ingrained, and how it has changed and is much easier now.

  4. Peter McCarville says:

    Great comments so far about instructor attitude and teaching style but nobody really commented on what he actually said to you in regards to skiing. Skis shoulder width apart is the stuff PSIA teaches and is questionable as most of their ideas are (unfortunately they have the monopoly on ski instruction at 99% of the ski mountains in the US). Yes, be comfortable in your width. However, as an exercise, stand still and try to tip (put skis on edge) with your feet shoulder width apart. Now try it with feet closer together. You can be in the parking lot (on dry land) without skis and demonstrate the difficulty with tipping that a wide stance creates. It is virtually impossible to get a good edge angle of the ski (or tip) when your feet are wide apart. Getting the skis on edge or tipping is the way to carve a turn and is the beginning of skiing. The more modern skis have made this much easier to achieve. Softer snow makes tipping easier in that it gives or dents with the skis on edge. Skis do not turn themselves but once on edge (tipped) they do. It is the instructors job to come up with ways to get you “on edge”!

    I work with so many seniors who slide every turn that it looks more like being on a saucer or plastic toboggan than skiing. Their stemming (the stem christy) is another remnant from the past and can be removed from peoples movements. So how to tip or get the skis on edge in order for the skis to carve a turn. Fred’s comments about big and little toe and edges were on the right track but he quickly got into pressuring edges and a bunch of other junk. If you get the skis tipped, the ski will do the carving (the turning). But how does one get the skis tipped? Teaching THAT is the basics of a carved turn. Most of my seniors have skied for years, have the strength and athleticism but just need someone to help them with the basic movements of skiing. Skiing is not a bunch of tricks to accomplish the turns. It is not “do this in this snow situation, and do this in that steepness situation. Find an instructor who breaks down the 5, or so, basic movements (primary movements) to skiing. Always go back to the primary movements no matter the snow depth or quality, steepness, etc. The key is finding the instructor with the patience, personal skills, and then knowledge of those movements and how to convey them thru his or her bag of tricks.Happy skiing!

    • Steve Shyne says:

      Hey Peter, Reading this I pulled my copy of Harold Harb’s , “Essentials of Skiing” off the shelf! Great skiing with you at Snowmass this winter, and will be looking for the 2018 schedule. Have a great summer. Steve

  5. Marilynn Christensen says:

    Great story–too many people think they are too old and miss out on allot of life’s experience due to that.

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