Tagging along with NASTC
It starts as most multi-day ski clinics with the North American Ski Training Center do: with a group of strangers assembling slowly at a designated meeting place, not quite sure what they’ve signed themselves up for.
In this case the place was Bar 6 at Squaw Valley USA last week, and there were four students ” five if you include me ” sitting at separate tables and waiting for NASTC founder and lead instructor Chris Fellows to start telling us what we could expect the next four days to be like.
George Gordon had traveled from Portland, Maine, for this clinic, his fourth or fifth NASTC course. Fellow East-Coaster and New York City girl Sarah Katt was at Squaw for her first time skiing with NASTC. Ski instructor Cindy Wiseman was here from her home mountain of Badger Pass (in Yosemite) because she was studying for her Level 3 certification (the highest a ski instructor can get), and wanted to learn from the best. And Truckee local Sarah Reynaud, a former snowboarder, just wanted to improve her technique before a ski trip to Japan later this season.
“Squaw Valley is a perfect playground, and the snow is perfect,” Fellows said, warming his students up for the four days ahead of them.
This was the All Conditions/All Terrain clinic ” NASTC’s “bread and butter” course, according to Fellows ” and it was supposed to help all of us ski the impressive, and sometimes intimidating, terrain that Squaw Valley has to offer, hopefully better than when we first got here.
I wasn’t going to be able to ski with the group for the full four days of the clinic, but rather, just get a peak at how the athletes started out and finished up by joining them for the first and last days; however, I was still looking forward to skiing along and learning what I could.
There is something amazing about watching really good skiers ski, and Chris Fellows and Kevin Mitchell ” the other instructor for the four-day clinic ” are nothing if not two of the best skiers you will ever see. Both have been members of the prestigious Professional Ski Instructors of America National Demo Team, which is made up of those instructors who are good enough and knowledgeable enough to train the very best instructors (and of course, students). And it shows.
Oh, how it shows.
Back in Bar 6, Fellows lays out a general plan for the day and the entire clinic, explaining the learning curve and the four phases students should expect to go through:
“The beginning stage is: There are things you don’t know, and you don’t know that you don’t know it. Then, you know that you don’t know it. Then, you know that you know. Then, you don’t know that you know, because it’s a natural part of what you are doing.”
Essentially, they are going to be breaking down everyone’s technique and tactics before rebuilding them in a way that will take our skiing to the next level. Then hopefully, with enough repetition, those new movements will become automatic and natural.
It sounds great, but it can be extremely frustrating along the way.
“The learning curve is a stair-step,” Fellows said after the clinic was over. “So [students] will have a breakthrough, and then they’ll plateau. Sometimes they’ll take a couple steps forward and then a step backward. They feel awkward, they feel like they can’t buy a turn … Because what they used to use doesn’t work, and the new stuff is not ingrained enough yet.”
This can be even more the case for the advanced skiers ” who often make up the majority of NASTC’s clients at any given course ” because the bad habits they have developed over the years are so deeply ingrained.
This is definitely the boat I am in, and as we finish warming up on the slopes of Shirley and start working on drills designed to improve our balance and stance that first day, I feel as if I can hardly make a turn anymore ” at least not the way Chris and Kevin are asking me to.
But the other students are struggling as much as I am, so at least there is a camaraderie building amongst the group, based on mutual awkwardness.
In contrast, Chris and Kevin amaze us all by arcing beautiful linked turns down the perfectly groomed slopes of Shirley, before announcing that it’s time to take the drills into the bumps.
“We saw that people wanted to go off piste,” Fellows said (again, after the course was over). “They didn’t just want to work on groomers all day. They wanted to get good technique so they could go ski bumps and ski chutes and ski some steep powder, and everything that’s out there. So we developed this concept based on those topics: technique and tactics, equipment and fitness. And that is the methodology we use to take people from where they are comfortable ” and they have to be able to ski blue terrain with parallel turns at least ” and then from there, depending on how open they are, we can take them to the next level.”
That’s what we’re all at the course for. So yeah, let’s get into those bumps …
We jump on the Siberia chair and Kevin, who also happens to be director of the ski school at Sierra-at-Tahoe Resort on Tahoe’s south shore, explains that he enjoys teaching with NASTC because students really get to make a lot of progress in a four-day immersion course versus the typical two-hour ski lesson. Not that a two-hour lesson is bad, you just don’t usually get the group dynamic kicking in, which brings everybody’s skiing to new levels.
We get off the chair and start incorporating the techniques we were practicing on the groomers into our tactics for skiing the ungroomed slope beneath the Palisades.
“We all have different specifics that we’re working on,” Cindy says. “But everything that we are doing on the more challenging terrain we started on the groomers.”
As Fellows says: “As a good coach, you’ve got to be able to create trust with your athletes; and that trust bond is going to make them receptive to change. But without that trust, they’re not going to give up what’s been tried and true for them.”
And unfortunately, with my limited schedule, I would not be able to see the entire process play out.
But returning on the last day of the clinic did allow me to see some of the hoped-for changes starting to take root in the participants’ skiing, and even more so, in their attitudes:
“My comfort zone is better … I’m skiing more marginal snow that I ever have before,” said George. “I still don’t like it, but I can ski it.”
Indeed, George is looking good and linking his turns much more smoothly. Sarah Reynaud is following much more closely behind the two instructors and they arc turns through the crud. Cindy has refined her technique through subtle but perceptible changes. And Sarah Katt, the girl from New York City, is skiing steep, off-piste slopes that she would never have chosen before. Probably ever.
Everyone is tired ” four days of concentrating on movements that still don’t come entirely naturally to a skier will do that ” but in good spirits, and feeling happy with the changes they’ve made.
Even Fellows is impressed with his students: “The thing with that group is, because it was so small, it was really intense. With a bigger group, people can get a little break from being under the microscope. But with these guys, they were under the microscope the whole time. So that was the challenging thing for them and for me.”
– All Conditions/All Terrain at Northstar-at-Tahoe, March 17-19 ” Three days of training with national demo team members Chris and Kevin at one of Tahoe’s premier resorts. Lift tickets, video analysis, tech talks and a banquet dinner at one of Truckee’s fine dining restaurants are included in the price of the course.
– Spring Backcountry Day, May 3 ” Come out away from the hum of the resorts and enjoy breathtaking views and the amazing Sierra corn snow on this one-day backcountry adventure.
– Mount Shasta Climb and Ski, May 31-June 2 ” This is an overnight course, where you will basecamp on Shasta, climb up to the summit and ski down. This is an ultimate mountaineering adventure offered exclusively through NASTC and the Shasta Mountain Guides.
– Chris Fellows, NASTC Director and Trainer: Director and founder of the North American Ski Training Center (NASTC). 22-year ski teaching professional; PSIA National Demo Team member 2000-now, in his second term as a Team Member; Level III ski instructor/trainer/clinician, Education VP for PSIA-W 1998-2000, PSIA-W Board of Directors since 1995; has been a ski school trainer at Squaw Valley, Mt. Rose, and Heavenly; attended prestigious Austrian Bundessporteim in 1989 (chosen by Austrian government to attend); started NASTC in 1994 with wife Jenny and Mike Sodergren.
– Kevin Mitchell, NASTC Trainer: Kevin Mitchell moved to the North Lake Tahoe area in 1989 to give skiing a try. After two seasons at Boreal, Mitchell moved over to Northstar-at-Tahoe in search of a strong training program in which to grow. At Northstar, Mitchell achieved his Associate, then Full Certification as well as a Level I Nordic and became a Snowboard Examiner with AASI. Off-seasons were spent further dedicating time to his trade by teaching at Coronet Peak/Remarkables in New Zealand. When Alpine Meadows opened to snowboarding in 1996, Mitchell left Northstar to help develop a teaching program at that mountain. Upon returning to Northstar in 1997, Mitchell assumed the role of Level III staff trainer for both skiers and snowboarders and achieved the position of PSIA Examiner for Level I and II. In 1999, ten years after moving to Lake Tahoe, Mitchell qualified for the Western Regional Demo Team. He is also a National Demo Team alum, on the team in 2000-2004.