by Tracy Greenhalgh
I learned to ski when I was twelve years old. My dad took my friend and me up to a resort that used to have a rope tow (I know, eons ago) and plopped us at the base of the bunny hill. He showed us how to clip into our skis, gave us a pep talk, then he was off to carve his own turns for a few hours before meeting us for lunch. We managed to muddle our way through.
While this won’t go down in the books as the best method for teaching kids to ski, each time we finally made it to the top without letting go and getting all tangled up in our skis, that sweet glide down the micro-hill made us crave more. Somehow my dad rounded both of us onto the lift and down our first green runs that same day, and I was hooked for life.
My dad taught me to keep my weight on my downhill ski, to relax my hips, keep my torso facing downhill to leverage my turns, and of course, to revel in the 360 degree view of the Rocky Mountains and the wind in my face.
When I skied with my friends, I watched them to figure out what made them so good, and I was glad when I could keep up and somehow graduated to skiing black diamond runs.
When we started teaching our own kids how to ski, we realized that’s it a lot tougher than it looks, so we put them into group lessons where they quickly developed into great skiers. What took me decades to learn, they picked up in a season or two.
Finding the best fit
After all these years I recently grabbed an opportunity to take a lesson here at Copper.
After a few questions from the friendly instructors waiting to greet their students, they quickly placed me into a small group led by Jeff Smith, our fully certified ski and boarding instructor. He put us at ease right away with his happy grin and engaging manner and we boarded the lift ready to soak in his wisdom.
He watched us file down the hill and at the bottom he asked us how we felt on the terrain. A couple of people in our group felt they would do better on easier hills, so Jeff connected them with a different instructor.
“Ideally we place people based on their goals and objectives. What kinds of trails do you enjoy, what chair do you like to ride, do you enjoy bumps and trees, or groomers? We usually take one run to see if your group is homogenous and happy. It’s not an infallible process, but we really want to know where our guests feel they fit best,” says Jeff.
We ended up as a group of three skiing with Jeff, and we were all a good match. I especially wanted to work on bumps and the other two wanted to perfect their turns and overall skill level. Because Jeff knew the trails that could provide both (bumps on the outer edge of some more challenging blues) he could provide us all with the experience we wanted.
It’s about you
“My legendary mentor told me this: ‘my guests succeeded in spite of me,’” says Jeff. “My philosophy as an instructor is that the experience is not about me, it’s about you. I like to light the fuse and step back and build a group dynamic. Anybody can teach you to go left and right, but when you share your passion for our mountain playground and make connections in your group, it just gets easier and more fun,” says Jeff.
Jeff has nearly 25 years of instructing experience. He taught in Aspen for a decade, then at Vail for a decade, and he’s now in his fourth year here at Copper.
Jeff started out as a programmer in investment banking in Manhattan. “One day my boss called me in to go over my raise and bonus numbers, which were quite good, but he said that if I called in sick one more Monday for race training in Europe and teaching ski lessons I’d only get half my bonus,” says Jeff. Long story short, Jeff trekked out west, scored a post office box (his first Colorado address) landed his first instructor’s job, and he’s remained in Colorado ever since.
“Three of my closest friends have a combined total of working here at Copper for 75 years; each one is in their 25th year here. It speaks volumes about Copper Mountain. I really enjoy the family atmosphere and the wonderful guests here,” says Jeff.
Tapping the best terrain
The morning flew by as Jeff took us all over the mountain to experience the terrain that would best teach us. It was a bonus getting to use the ski school access to shoot through the line.
“I’m very aware of the terrain to use to highlight what we’re working on. I want to use opportunities for you to take ownership of the skills you’d like to explore or master and to become more comfortable. I want to help you feel safe and secure, and not put you in a position of danger or failure, and this way we can meet your goals and objectives,” says Jeff.
Jeff asked us if we wanted a pit stop in to the lodge or if we wanted lunch. We all opted for the quick pit stop so we could keep skiing and exploring the trails he had for us. We ended up taking a fairly quick lunch later on because we all wanted to get back out there to keep skiing and enjoying our day together.
Skiing is skiing
Jeff told us something that I’d never really thought of before: skiing is skiing, no matter the terrain. It’s all about balance, edging, steering and pressure and adjusting these according to the terrain.
“Blue groomed trails take a lot of edging and tipping, but if you’re on the bumps you probably don’t want to use as much edge, and your turns are more shmear-ey, like the angle of a knife frosting a cake. The playing field of the bumps is different – you need more pressure and control, using your skis like shock absorbers,” he explains.
When I asked Jeff why an expert skier can benefit from taking a lesson, he summed it up in one word: versatility.
“A lot of guests think they are experts because they associate using their edges as being experts. If you really want to be a versatile skiing athlete you should be able to enjoy the entire mountain. Being an expert is about being able to use your edges progressively. It’s not binary in the sense of being on edge or off. There are subtleties and nuances that you’ll want to learn to become a skiing athlete,” he explains.
Another analogy Jeff gave us was to view skiing any terrain the same as getting off the lift.
“Picture getting off of American Flyer, you have a platform and a ramp. You exit to the left or the right. When you ski across bumps (the platform), going left or right becomes another platform, then you look for the next chairlift and platform. It’s the way I look at the mountain whether a run is groomed or bumps. I pretend I’m just getting off the chairlift. I’ve tweaked the way I look at the terrain and its features, the playing field, and I’m looking at those bumps as opportunities,” says Jeff.
Novocain in your boots
I asked Jeff how we should best think of our skis – uphill and downhill, or inside and outside?
“Whatever the phraseology you go with, I’ll use it. I don’t want to cross signals with my guests. When you’re taking lessons from a certified instructor we have the ability to be a chameleon in order to teach you. However you digest and process it, we go with that,” he says.
One thing Jeff said that really stuck with me is that whatever direction you’re turning into, that same foot needs to be relaxed and rolling into the turn, like it’s numb with Novocain. It’s the opposite foot (the downhill one) that’s leading the carving and doing the work of the turn. He showed us a great visual, a YouTube racing video of Lindsey Vonn doing a slow motion slalom, which really nailed the point. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=09GRD0YRnYk
Another take on relaxing into it was Jeff’s phrase ‘Embrace, Don’t Brace.’ “It’s relaxed, more fluid. A mental rub, like a shoulder massage, that you can give yourself. I remind myself of this on my first run of the day, the run I take after lunch and the last one I take off the mountain. I recapture those great feelings and sensations to remind me that I’m relaxed and fluid,” says Jeff.
“One of my clients told me that I create my own weather. Face it, when we ski we’re on a hill with ice and obstacles all the way down. I try to approach working with you as creating a safe sphere of trust where you can relax and enjoy it all the way,” he says.
You can find out more about Copper Mountain’s adult and youth lessons here: http://www.coppercolorado.com/plan-your-trip/lessons-rentals/lessons.