Fun fact: Olympians often eat chocolate covered waffles between Super G runs.
At least, that’s what I tell my kids, Cooper and Addie, when we reach the top of Snowshoe Mountain and I spy the Waffle Cabin just to the right of the lift. I’ve come to believe that family ski trips are as much about the chocolate breaks as finding powder stashes. They typically need the combo of carbs and high fructose corn syrup to stay energetic on the mountain, but this time, they shrug off my suggestion for a waffle break. They want to keep skiing.
“Sarah’s gonna show us some moguls,” my daughter says, before scooting off towards the sign that suggests only experts should keep going.
We’re half way through a day of private lessons at West Virginia’s Snowshoe Mountain and it’s going better than I expected.
My kids, at the ripe old age of nine, have reached the point where they know everything and no longer need my help. Every father outlives his usefulness, but I was hoping it would take longer than nine years in my case. While they might not take advice from their dad anymore, my kids still need ski lessons. They’re solid skiers, able to handle every blue slope and some black diamonds they come across, but they have the same bad habits that plague most skiers who’ve never been taught by professionals.
They sit in the back seat. They’re not aggressive. I could use a little help myself, and my wife is always game for improving her form, so I figured hiring a private instructor to ski with us for a day could be the key to a successful family ski trip. We could spend the day ripping powder together, but also improve together. Kind of like a family therapy session.
But on skis. I envision learning how to do backflips off of tabletops while my kids realize they still have much to learn from their dear old dad. In this fantasy, they’d ultimately beg me to teach them how to do backflips off of tabletops and promise to keep skiing with me even when they’re in high school and all of their friends refuse to hang out with their parents. In short, I’m trying to ensure family solidarity through downhill improvement. I’m playing the long-con here.
Our instructor’s name is Sarah.
She’s from Ohio and she has an almost supernatural ability to see straight through all of my posturing to reveal my faults. When we met, she asked each of us what aspects of our skiing we’d like to improve. My kids want to ski moguls better. My wife wants to ski steeps more aggressively. I told her I wanted to learn how to do a Double McTwist 1260—Shaun White’s signature trick. Never mind that it’s a snowboarding trick and I’m a skier, or that it’s a half pipe trick and I’ve never skied a half pipe in my life.
I want to be a badass and I want Sarah to help me.
After watching me take turns down a blue slope, Sarah has different plans. She strips me down to the basics. My feet are too close together (because I was raised in the ‘80s and that’s how people skied back then). I’m too far in the backseat. I need to push my shins forward, but loosen up my upper body. Be more aggressive, but relax. It’s like some sort of Zen Buddhist riddle.
Sarah is really good at small talk. Within a few runs, she knows all about our dogs and the other sports the kids play and their favorite music. And she’s killing it with the kids, taking them through the basics of an aggressive ski stance—knees forward, shins against the boots, hands out front. I notice a difference with the kids after just a few short runs. They’re focused and taking the lessons seriously, engaged in a way that they rarely are when I’m trying to teach them something on our local hill.
Sarah has us ski backwards to reinforce the aggressive position.
She has us play follow the leader. She has us skiing on one ski to highlight any weaknesses in our stance. At one point, I watch my kids ski backwards through a small stand of trees, and a vision of their future flitters through my mind. I see my kids’ double podium finish in the Olympics (twin golds!). I see a life of World Cup glory. I see them starring in the occasional segment for Teton Gravity Research, or Warren Miller.
I’m kidding. I don’t want that life for either of my children—I just want them to be confident on the hill and love skiing. I want family ski trips to be a tradition for years to come. I just want them to be as stoked as I am when there’s fresh powder in the forecast.
Sarah has the kids skiing like pros in a couple of hours, but the best part of having an instructor is that she gets to be the bad guy, which frees me up to joke around. While Sarah gives them drills and techniques to work on, I can throw snowballs and suggest we take chocolate-covered waffle breaks.
The mogul run is a sheet of ice.
It’s been a rough winter, even in the typically snowy mountains of West Virginia, so Sarah makes an adjustment on the fly, teaching us how to set an edge on a steep, icy slope. It’s a tough lesson for kids to learn because they have to abandon the wedge and move to a completely parallel stance, while basically putting all of their weight on the thin edge of one ski. No more pizza, all French fry. And they have to do it on a steep, black diamond slope that’s basically become a vertical ice skating rink.
Addie goes first, followed quickly by Cooper, who has a knack for letting his sister enter perilous scenarios ahead of him. Whether it’s riding a bike or jumping off a rock into a river, he’ll suggest Addie take the first plunge and then make the appropriate course corrections if there’s an accident. But this time, there’s no accident. Addie sends the ice beautifully, setting an edge and sticking with the parallel stance through the icy section. Then she seamlessly hits the moguls as the slope mellows out. Cooper does the same.
I’m beaming with pride as I tackle the ice myself, thinking of the far-off lands we’ll now be able to ski as a family.
In my mind, I’m booking our next ski trip to Jackson Hole. And then I lose my edge and slide down most of the slope on my back and a bruised hip.
Sarah leaves us towards the end of the day—she has another client to teach, another family to set on the right track—so we take a break at the Boat House, a restaurant at the bottom of Snowshoe’s main slope that has a deck hanging over Shaver’s Lake. Before I let Sarah go, I ask her for advice on helping the kids improve after we get back to our little home resort and don’t have a private coach. I’m looking for tips and drills, maybe some dry land training suggestions for the offseason, but again, she takes me back to the basics.
“Don’t forget, skiing is supposed to be fun, right?” she says. “Make sure they’re having fun. That’s how they’ll improve the fastest. And that’s what will keep them wanting more.”
I think about her advice as my wife and I share a beer on the boathouse deck while the kids slide down a snowy slope below the lift line on their bellies, pretending to be a couple of penguins. I remember when most of our ski days looked like this. Snowball fights and hot cocoa breaks. We started the kids skiing early but made sure it was more about having fun than learning how to ski. Along the way, it got serious. I got serious. I started focusing less on fun and more on improvement. Mistakes. Progression. Perfection.
The next day, there is no Sarah. No lessons. No drills. Just the family skiing together.
If it were up to me, we’d progress through the entire mountain, hitting increasingly difficult terrain and working on the tools that Sarah has given us to make us more efficient, better equipped skiers. We’d tackle the day like robots working through a program, maybe work on putting together a highlight reel the family could shop around to potential sponsors. But I’m trying to take Sarah’s advice to heart, so I let the kids lead us. Every once in a while, I’ll remind them to push their shins forward, or weight the edge of their ski, but mostly the kids set the agenda. We ski where they want to ski, eat when they want to eat. As a result, we spend most of the day doing laps in Snowshoe’s progression park.
Typically, I avoid the terrain park for a couple of reasons.
First: I’m old and terrain parks are full of annoyingly young people. People with energy who bounce when they hit the snow. Second: I don’t bounce when I hit the snow, so the idea of hitting a jump or rail and not landing it terrifies me. I can hear my brittle bones cracking as we drop into the first jump. But Snowshoe’s Progression Park is full of mellow hits—table tops and step ups, a few boxes and a mini half pipe. The entire park is designed to allow you to take each obstacle at your own pace. If you want to go big and catch huge air, you can. If you want to take it mellow and roll over everything, that works too.
My kids start mellow, but after a few laps they’re getting legitimate air, hitting the tabletops and landing on the downhill side with grace. Because they’re going higher on each jump, I’m going higher and higher on each jump. The kids are pushing me. Not on purpose, but they are. I can’t let my nine-year-olds get bigger air than me. I can’t let them become better skiers than me. Not yet. Suddenly, the roles are reversed. I started this family ski camp with the hopes that we’d all improve, but the kids would find new reason to look up to me for guidance. Here I am struggling to keep up with them. The students have become the masters.
Parenthood is baffling.
I’m having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that my kids can handle themselves with confidence on terrain that’s giving me pause, but I still have to cut their PBJ sandwiches diagonal, or they’ll get jelly all over their faces.
By the afternoon, my wife and daughter have called it quits, and my legs are getting weak. Cooper is still going strong, squeezing the most out of our time on the mountain, but I’m spent. After a few wobbly landings, I eat it in the half pipe, catching an edge on the rim and sliding to the center of the tube. Cooper does what all skiers do when they see a partner has fallen. He skies right up to me as fast as he can and sprays snow in my face. It’s a tradition.
“That’s it,” I say, laughing. “I’m done. We’re getting chocolate covered waffles now.”