It happened on the third run of our first day at Big Sky, Mont. Our class of six skiers is gathered at the top of Ambush, watching our instructor, Mike Hafer, flow like a mountain stream down the slope. Different terrain. Different snow. Different pitch. Same ol' Mike as he effortlessly glides over the snow, looking like he's inline skating over fresh pavement, regardless of what's under his skis.
The class has had a couple of casual warm-up runs, each student nervously watching the others, taking mental note of where each ranks in the skill hierarchy. Now Mike asks us to ski down one at a time as he watches from the bottom of the pitch.
I'm the third student to push off. After completing what I view as a commendable run, I stop next to Mike. Expecting some sort of positive reinforcement, I lean in. "Hey, Disco Boy," Mike says with a smile, and only loud enough for me to hear. "Save that upper-body action for the dance floor. You're working way too hard."
Great. "Disco Boy." Just how I wanted to start. Not having raced as a kid, I taught myself to ski. And when I get cooking, I tend to exaggerate my upper-body movements, as if I can't channel the energy more productively and have to burn if off. Sure, I can ski down anything. In control, more often than not. But not always. There's the rub for many expert, if unpolished, skiers. So I turned to the North American Ski Training Center (NASTC) and attended its "All Conditions/All Terrain Camp" last April, hoping to put a little shine on the apple.
What separates NASTC from the pack is that you're taught by instructors who teach the instructors. Mike, 31, our trainer (NASTC avoids the word "instructor") is a member of the Western PSIA Demo Team, which means he teaches and grades ski instructors as they move up the certification ladder.
This is a five-day immersion course. If you want privacy, look elsewhere. The class eats together, skis together and even lodges together in the same condo. Typical day: In-house breakfast. Group stretch in our long-johns. Gear up. On-slope technical drills in the morning. Class lunch, dominated by tech talk. Freeskiing as a group, with Mike incorporating that morning's drills into real-life skiing situations. Group dinner. Video analysis or dryland lessons on topics such as boot-fitting. Group cocktails¿in or out of the condo. Bed. The format is perfect for learning. The only requirement: a true motivation to improve.
A cross between den mother and drill sergeant, Mike flatters, cajoles and challenges each student to raise his or her skiing to a higher level. "We will push you beyond your comfort zone¿and probably scare you a little," Mike says. "That's how you learn."
On Day 1 we do rudimentary drills, such as skiing with our weight far forward and far back to locate our ski's sweetspot. We also traverse on our right ski, then our left, feeling how the new shaped skis are itching to turn. Mike notes that the new skis don't need as much of the classic up-and-down hydraulic action that I first learned as a kid in the early Seventies¿which tends to promote my disco upper-body movement. (Staying Alive, Staying Alive.) We learn that skiing on the new gear is much more about lateral movement than the jack-in-the-box style most of us grew up with.
A key drill on Day 2 is when Mike holds our extended ski poles as we lean into a stationary turn, finding our lateral balance point. He calls this the "C" position, with feet, knees, hips and shoulders parallel to each other. When pressed because of fatigue or a rugged, cruddy slope, Mike observes that I sometimes overcommit my turns, which mucks-up my preparation for my next turn. "Don't over-hold your edge," he reminds me, "and turn your skis with your legs and hips, not your shoulders."
We read our tracks on Day 3, edging one ski, then the other, learning that even the slightest uphill pressure checks speed. On Day 4, Mike has us over-extend and over-retract our skkis to get a feel for how pressure control makes life easier in varied terrain and conditions. For instance, envision tucking your skis up under your butt on the backside of a bump and stretching your legs long so your skis make contact with the snow as you crest over. He says this is a strong part of my skiing.
The most anticipated component of the camp is the video analysis. Watching yourself ski clarifies¿often cruelly¿the gap between self-image and reality. But with expert advice, it's the most effective teaching tool I've experienced. Having Mike play-pause-play the video helps me see the over-rotation of my upper body better than a week of private on-snow instruction could.
After a few days, the morning drills seem a bit basic. But the afternoon sessions quickly become my favorite part of the camp. This is when Mike takes the group to expert slopes after lunch. Steep pitches covered with Montana's freeze-thaw-freeze spring crud quickly put any new skills to the acid test. Here's where my learning kicks in. One-legged drills on the flats undoubtedly are needed medicine, but when faced with a turn-or-yard-sale moment on a pitched bowl, I focus better. These afternoon freeskis are a joy, with students and trainer discussing technique, calling encouragement and watching skiers improve before their eyes. Every student lives for three words to be heard across the snows. "Now that's skiing!" Mike yells when a student makes a sweet run.
I leave Big Sky and return to Boulder, Colo., amped about my skiing. I'm getting married in exactly one week. My best man, Jeff Kaplan, arrives from California the next day. As we have done for the past 24 years, we head to the mountains. Despite only skiing a few times that season, Jeff, a strong athlete and an annoyingly natural skier, aces our first run down Vail's Sun Up Bowl, picking a silky smooth line, seemingly not disturbing the snow as he bounds from bump to bump. OK. My turn. On our next run, I push hard. My turns are aggressive, precise and fluid on the steeps. As I head into a gladed mogul field, I feel my upper body become active. Bad habits die hard. "No Disco Boy, today," I tell myself. I think about keeping my upper-body quiet, forward and centered over my skis, my lower body dancing on the snow. "Light touch. Light touch. Light touch," I hear Mike intone in my ear.I effortlessly suck up the bumps with my legs and let my skis run after I hit the mid-point of the bowl, arcing 'em hard as the slope flows into its runout. Like a sports car, I feel smoother as I gain speed, easily adjusting to every change in terrain.
I beat Jeff down. He catches up to me, breathing hard. "Nice run," he says. "You nailed it." Now, that's what ski instruction is all about.
NASTC offers a full range of programs, from a $295 one-day steeps-and-bumps clinic at Sugar Bowl, Calif., to a $3,995 August extravaganza at Portillo, Chile. The All Conditions/All Terrain Camp at Big Sky costs $1,995, which includes airfare and five-days' lodging, lift tickets and instruction. For NASTC's full schedule, call 530-582-4772, or log on to www.skinastc.com.