Shane Sheeran
Jack Affleck  /  Vail Resorts via AP
Instructor Shane Sheeran leads a class of snowboarders down the slope in Vail, Colo. MasterCamp programs are designed to excite those who may be on the brink of quitting the sport out of frustration, boredom or achy knees, and aim to turn intermediate skiers into experts. 
updated 10/26/2007 3:43:33 PM ET 2007-10-26T19:43:33

Four years ago, longtime skier Craig Foley could make his way down some advanced black diamond ski runs, but he struggled in powder. Then he heard about Vail Mountain's MasterCamps, an intense 15-day program aimed at turning intermediate skiers into experts — fast.

The three-week boot camps improved his skills and confidence enough that even his kids have noticed, the 63-year-old retiree said.

"They're pretty impressed that an old guy has gotten better," said Foley. "I'm not going to be an Olympic skier, but I'm absolutely convinced I can ski any part of the mountain under any conditions, under control."

That's exactly the point, said program manager Carol Levine.

Though not specifically geared to baby boomers, the MasterCamps adult programs are designed to excite those who may be on the brink of quitting the sport out of frustration, boredom or achy knees.

"The better they ski, the longer they'll stay in the sport," Levine said. "That is hugely important to the ski industry. How do we get people into the sport so they discover how wonderful it is, and then keep them in it, identifying themselves as lifelong skiers?"

The idea for MasterCamps began seven years ago, after some avid ski school students wanted to see how fast they could learn to ski the whole mountain.

A few years later, Vail Snowsports School incorporated the students' efforts with their own to develop a formal training model that is consistent from teacher to teacher. It uses methods touted by elite athletes and sports psychologists for accelerated performance.

Instructors hit the fundamentals hard — meaning students sometimes spend hours indoors in front of mirrors to perfect slight movements, analyze videos of their own skiing, and plot how to carve on the bunny hill.

"I must say, in the early days it was very frustrating, because we were out on areas that were barely downhill," Foley said. "Some of the things we were trying to do on snow were so basic, it was almost embarrassing to be out there doing some of the exercises they were asking us to do. For someone who's 60-some years old, I felt like I was in a 6-year-old class.

"What kept me pursuing it was, I'd say to myself, 'If you're so good, why can't you do it perfectly?'"

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Foley plans to sign up for his fourth year of MasterCamps this upcoming season.

Dawn Joyce, a 46-year-old business owner from Steamboat Springs, is another repeat customer.

Joyce estimates she took nearly three dozen lessons before going to MasterCamps last season. Her progress persuaded her fiance, Dwight Willman, to take a session with her this year.

Willman, 54, skied seriously for years before switching to other sports.

"I kind of hit the wall," he said. "I do like to ski. But ability wise, it was either hang the skis up or learn to get better. I guess I was a little bored with it."

He's hoping the camp will have him skiing bumps and any other terrain comfortably again. Willman also is pleased that he and Joyce will be able to ski together without worrying that one will be slower than the other.

"We can hit first tracks in deep snow and have a good time together," Willman said.

Designed for intermediate and advanced skiers, MasterCamps' intense mix of video, classroom and on-mountain instruction in small groups has grown mostly through word of mouth. Many newcomers sign up after watching their friends get better.

By September, 60 students had signed up for this season's camps, which are limited to seven students per class. Enrollment typically reaches 70 to 90 students per season, but some students take more than one camp.

They're not for everyone.

Classes are held five days at a time, spread over three months. Each MasterCamps program runs $1,950, not including lift tickets, which last year cost up to $85 per day at full price. For first-time camp students the cost is $2,150. By comparison, Vail charges up to $665 per day for a private lesson for up to six people.

Lodging is extra. Joyce said she ended up spending $4,000 to stay in a condo last season so she wouldn't have such a long commute to class.

Vail also offers a six-day version of the camp, called SKImmersion, for $1,500 — $1,830 with tickets.

Like MasterCamps, SKImmersion classes examine everything from technique to equipment.

Students receive an eight-page guide describing the learning model they will use, a ski manual of about 50 pages and DVDs with images used in training.

Vail plans to open for the season on Nov. 16.

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