Skiing Off Cliff
Marc Muench  /  Corbis file
A skier takes off from a cliff in Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico.
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updated 12/17/2006 12:25:26 AM ET 2006-12-17T05:25:26

Set high in the rugged southern Rocky Mountains, Taos, New Mexico, is one of the few resorts left in North America that offers a Ski Better Week every week of the winter season. Taos Ski Valley thrives on their legendary ski week culture. At some times most of the skiers on the daunting mountain are part of the ski week program.

For centuries, the Native Americans of the Southwest considered this area and its soaring mountains a kind of Holy Land to be respected and awed. And today, skiers from around the planet come spend a week beneath these craggy peaks in search of the Holy Grail of ski schools replete with Old World tradition and convivial camaraderie taught on some of the most harrowing ski trails in North America.

Skiers across the country continually search for ways to improve. Those from the East seek to learn to ski confidently through deep powder. Those from the West face their challenges on hard snow. Improving technique on the snow makes the biggest difference in how much anyone can enjoy the sport.

When it comes to ski schools, especially to ski weeks, Taos is mythic. It challenges skiers to improve and to move out of their zone of comfort. The celebrated mountain provides the unforgiving terrain that contributes to quantum improvements. And the ski school manages to teach basic lessons about skiing through nature that can be applied to getting more from everyday life.

Few ski mountains appear as intimidating as Taos. Al’s Run drops relentlessly directly down the lift line into the small resort cluster of restaurants, hotels and lodges. The mountain peaks tower above with no view of any additional trails other than a clutch of very narrow, very black runs, barely visible, curling through the trees just to the right of Al’s.

For years, I have heard about the Taos Ski Weeks. I came to Taos to try to attain that elusive shift from advanced skier to expert. I was striving to make a breakthrough.

Taos Ski Week starts with the ski-off from the top of the High Five lift. Instructors watch skiers make about a half-dozen turns and then place them into ability groups. These few turns to the practiced eye are more than enough to form groups of similar abilities. However, if a skier ends up over their heads or with a group far too slow, they are shifted to a more appropriate group.

Day one focused on short turns and moguls. Day two shifted to carving wide turns on clean edges. Day three dealt with balance and edge control with exercises that proved the seemingly simple can be incredibly difficult. On day four, in deep snow, the focus was on weight changes and the importance of abdominal strength in deep powder. Day five was a cruising day that combined much of what we learned earlier in the week.

By the end of five days with my group I was a different skier. I could carve a clean turn across hard packed snow, leaving a line as clear as if I traced it with a knife. I could sideslip straight down the mountain to my right or left maintaining control for 50 yards or so. I could finally cruise through deep powder and crud comfortably.

But the techniques, drills and specifics of the ski week weren’t the most important factors. The instructors knew that methods are not the most important element and we students, by the end of the week-long experience, realized that these lessons were more than technical drills.

The Taos Ski Week is a education in life. But most of all, it is a good time.

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Skiers in these programs all seem to feel the same way. “It’s like going to summer camp again,” almost everyone says.

“I feel like I am a kid again for a week,” one mentioned.

Others claim, “When we are on the mountain focused on skiing, the rest of the world doesn’t exist for us – our world is formed by the next turn and the snow beneath our skis.”

Jean Mayer, one of the founders of the ski week program, says, “We try to keep skiers looking ahead, just as in life. Every turn is different. Conditions differ. The good skier can deal with those changes and react accordingly. For me, it’s just like life.”

He continues “Taos ski week is less teaching and more of an immersion in the life and spirit of the mountains. These week-long programs allow skiers to discover new things about themselves.”

From the moment that a student is assigned to an ability group, the discoveries, life lessons and turns come fast and furious. The peer dynamics are amazing and an intricate part of the ski week learning process.

Friendships are established through the week. Competition between skiers develops, Group members help each other with suggestions. And many skiers end up making plans to return to renew that friendship and ski again with many from the same group.

According to Max Killinger, once the Taos ski school director, “Each skier in any group is at a different level  and needs encouragement in different areas. The magic of teaching a group like this is that helping one student reinforces what others may know but have forgotten. Everyone learns more together than they would alone. It’s like conducting an orchestra.”

Chris Stagg,  another veteran ski week instructor, says, “The bottom line is that students help each other learn. As they spend time together during the week they develop a bond and encourage each other.”

“Along with encouragement, there is plenty of pressure,” he notes, “No one wants to be last in the class and that makes every class a bit more interesting.

From an instructor’s point of view, ski week is far more fun that a week of private lessons, and a better learning experience. Every instructor I spoke with agreed that they would rather teach a ski-week course than individual lessons or private group lessons even though they make less money.

Several veteran instructors noted, “Teaching the group is far more fun than working with individuals. Instruction can be phased in day by day. Different skills can be introduced each day. The instruction can be digested. Plus the we can learn more about our students over a week than we could ever learn in a two-hour lesson block.”

These long-time instructors also agree, “Teaching a series of group lessons is difficult because you never know who will be coming into the class each day. It takes time to get newcomers up to speed with those who might have been there earlier. Too much of our time is focused on assessing the students. The ski week reduces that assessment to one time a week. Then we help them grow as skiers.”

Their final verdict, “A week is perfect for real instruction.”

The Taos Ski Week is acknowledged to be one of skiing’s best learning programs. It draws from teacher-student interactions honed over decades with a veteran instructor corps that rarely changes. Then it blends those measured lessons with the natural dynamics and interplay of the group.

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