Back to School: North American Ski Training Center reinvents ski schools |

Back to School: North American Ski Training Center reinvents ski schools

The ski industry and ski schools have been slow to evolve from the rigid confines of age-old teaching practices.

Many ski schools continue to offer massive, one-hour group lessons, which fail to address the individual and instead follow a stringent pre-determined lesson plan. Rather than asking the skiers what they would like to learn, the instructors dictate how the hour will be spent, and as a result alienate many first-timers, some even permanently.

Criticism of traditional ski school practices has grown not only from the frustration of the skiing public, but also from seasoned instructors and professionals. The massive number of young employees – ski bums in the minds of many – who receive $8 to $10 an hour for teaching and are fairly inexperienced is a growing concern among ski school participants.

This year, over 25 percent of Squaw Valley’s ski school teachers are first-year employees, and the numbers at many resorts are even higher. In addition, the shelf life of ski instructors is often less than a box of Corn Flakes, resulting in less senior staff on the mountain and more indifferent youth leading the way.

The exodus of experienced instructors from the snow into managerial positions is also a widespread epidemic. Seasoned veterans of Professional Ski Instructors of America are not blind to these inadequacies of the traditional ski school system and are working to create a new learning environment for novice and advanced skiers alike.

Resorts like Squaw Valley are slowly shifting the focus of their programs to student satisfaction in an effort to increase retention.

“Rather than turning students over after an hour, we are extending the length of lessons until they have achieved their goals – whether this takes one hour or three,” explained Squaw Valley USA Ski School representative, Sheryl Elder.

Alternatives to traditional teaching have sprung up over the last few years, in an effort to revive the learning process. One such innovation is the North American Ski Training Center, based in Truckee, and run by some of the most experienced skiers and instructors in North America.

Chris Fellows, former head of education for the western division of the PSIA and former instructor and supervisor at Squaw Valley, Mt. Rose and Heavenly, had run the gamut of ski teaching before attending the Austrian Bundessporteim in 1989. An advanced training academy in St. Christof, Austria, the program involved intensive, all-encompassing ski instruction on and off the snow. This experience and the feeling that “something was missing from traditional instruction” spurred an idea that eventually became the basis of NASTC.

In 1994, Fellows joined with his wife, Jenny, and fellow Squaw Valley supervisor Mike Sodergren, who died in 1997 in a mudslide in Australia, to form NASTC, thus giving birth to an entirely new ski instruction experience. NASTC is an “intensive immersion ski school” according to Fellows, designed to take skiers out of their comfort zone and give them the skills and tactics to ski more challenging terrain and conditions.

For many skiers who have been cruising the slopes for years, it is difficult to move to the next level in their skiing.

“Advanced and intermediate skiers often plateau. They still have plenty of room to improve, but need to break out of bad habits and fears in order to do so,” Fellows said.

This is where NASTC steps in. Students in the three to eight-day courses participate in a total immersion, ski training/vacation experience that includes indoor tech talks, all-day clinics, video analysis, lodging, transportation and more.

Fellows and his highly qualified staff of guides teach year-round and world wide and challenge students to “face their demons,” as Fellows puts it, whether those demons come in the form of bumps, powder, steeps, chutes or trees. While there are no quick fixes, according to Fellows, practice and repetition are sure ways to break down mental and technical barriers.

Judging from the number of students who return every year to join Fellows’ program as they travel to places like France, Chile and elsewhere in search of the endless winter, the program is an immense success – a far cry from a one-hour lesson with 20 strangers.

Fellows admitted “ski schools have gotten a bad rap.” He does, however, believe the system can work if experienced instructors “get out there and teach” rather than dictate from behind a desk.

NASTC is the perfect environment for professional instructors to take back their position on the mountain in a constantly changing skiing adventure course.

When asked what his favorite part of the NASTC course was, Tom Coneely of California reported, “The hug I got from Jenny after I negotiated (Kirkwood’s) The Wall for the first time!” That kind of response, Fellows said, is what lets his team know they have something special.

“That is the key to the program,” Fellows noted, “We get tough, but are also personal.”

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