Reflections on My Ten Years as a Ski Instructor

Celebrating My Tenth Anniversary with Ski School Top Dogs

Celebrating My Tenth Anniversary with Ski School Top Dogs

As I ease back into my writer’s life, I’ve been considering my other life:  that of a Telluride Ski & Snowboard School instructor. The mountain closed just over two weeks ago and I again turned in my uniform with a big sigh of relief. I’m always grateful when I finish the season without having had an injured student or client on my watch. And I’m always relieved when I wind up unscathed myself (except for a variety of aches and pains and gross fatigue). I’m grateful that this has been the case for the past ten seasons:  My sterling record of safety has remained intact.

That’s not to say I don’t challenge my charges and sure, I’ve had some tricky moments of over-terraining just like all the other instructors on our mountain and elsewhere. But fortunately, everyone has come “back to the barn” safe and sound and seemingly happy from their ski experience with me.

But way beyond my actual job as a ski instructor, I can’t help pondering what this newly adopted profession means to me, especially after a decade of working day after day on the mountain with children and adults beneath sunny skies, bitter cold, balmy weather and blustery snowstorms. It has made me a better person; it has made me more whole. I was never very athletic and the physicality of this job has given me strength and confidence that spills over to other areas of my life. I have embraced the notion of self empowerment through sports, a concept that I came to know late in life, one of the themes of my travel memoir/love story A Tour of the Heart:  A Seductive Cycling Trip Through France.

At Lineup with Dave Brown, a Fellow Instructor, Mentor and Friend

At Lineup with Dave Brown, a Fellow Instructor, Mentor and Friend

Hot Chocolate Cheers

Hot Chocolate Cheers

I often say that becoming a ski instructor was the best thing I did for my writing career. I was hired on at the Telluride Ski & Snowboard School in December 2003 at a time when I’d felt burned out with the writer’s life. (Up until that period, my travel writing focused primarily on France, a country that had become a hard sell in the post 9/11 2001 era.) I was tired of firing up the engines every day in my solitary writer’s world; I seized the opportunity to become part of a team, to become part of Telluride’s mountain family and to go to work every day in one of the most beautiful places on earth. The idea of being an instructor, a guide of sorts—something I’d done throughout most of my life via my writing and through touring people around France, travel planning and trip consulting—appealed to me greatly. I’m a people person after all and as much as I’m capable of spending day after day (or sometimes month after month when on a book deadline) alone on my computer, I do love letting my extroverted side loose with every lesson I teach.

Even though I learned to ski when I was young, the skiing part has been more daunting. Good news is that even the highest level ski and snowboard instructors are always working on their turns. We’re turn geeks in fact. So we have plenty of opportunities to train and trade tips in order to up our game. My skiing and teaching ability has increased tenfold and also the experience I’ve acquired with instruction and overall people handling in ten years is immeasurable.

A Tour of the Heart Book Jacket

A Tour of the Heart Book Jacket

I guess I’ve become a jock of sorts, too, something that’s been super healthy for me. I can still pull off the Parisian sophisticate (I lived a total of eleven years in France) but now I’m more comfortable living in a down-to-earth manner. When I think back on how I adapted that first year, I realize that period was one of the most pivotal times of my life. I learned to go out of the house every day without any makeup. (Wearing anything more than a tinted moisturizer, a touch of eyeliner, fun sparkle on the eyes or the smoldering remains from perhaps a big night out the night before is still not cool.) I learned to deal with perpetual hat hair more than four months out of the year. I learned to dress and undress fast and unabashedly in the flurry of the locker room, sharing the bench with men and women far more sporty than me. Modesty was left at the door along with the notion that you gained self esteem from how you looked. (No, here you earned it from how the mountain made you feel.) And I learned the hard way that yes, I did have to change my ski socks everyday, even if I was working ten days in a row and was too busy to wash the half dozen pairs I had in my collection. (I now have at least double that amount and am sure to change them every day.)

I dropped ten pounds that first season, most in the first two weeks of working during the busy holiday blitz. That was unheard of for me, since my weight has hardly fluctuated since high school. I think I shed the pounds with every drop of nervous sweat that roiled beneath my base layers. I felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of rounding up as many as six four- to six-year olds inside ski school and on the hill, a job often referred to as “herding cats.” Within a month, however, I learned how to manage them very well— without fear—just like a mama cat taking charge of her kittens.

With One of My Kids

With One of My Kids

With One of My Ladies from Women's Week

With One of My Ladies from Women’s Week

It’s really the kid thing that has changed my life the most with my ski instructor job. Teaching children has filled my heart beyond belief. I began this job feeling immense sadness by not having or likely not being able to have children and through my interactions with kids, I have healed a wound that I never thought would mend. Love surely goes both ways, since I feel blessed that I’ve had families come back year after year to ski with me. Ski memories are some of the best ones in life and I hope I’ve created many positives ones for all the kidlets (and adults) I’ve spent time with these past ten years. As I pick up my writer’s life now, it will be the children I’ll miss the most on this flip side, at least until the beginning of next ski season.

I’ll also be missing my family, my tribe, my buddies, made up of all who work on the mountain, especially my fellow ski instructors. During ski season, it feels like we’re all part of a greater cause:  the mission of sharing our love and passion for the mountain. We’re all in it together and a happier bunch I’ve never known. Perhaps that’s partly why more and more people keep coming to Telluride.

These have been ten formative years. My love for the mountains, the outdoors, snow and sunshine—the main reasons I moved to Colorado in the first place—has grown immensely. I did well to take time away from my desk, something I confirm with the start of the ski season every year.

Chairlift Selfie with Rich Grimes, One of My Supervisors

Chairlift Selfie with Rich Grimes, One of My Supervisors

As my writer’s life blossoms, it’s my wish that my ski instructor life will continue to flourish as well. It’s a juggling act for sure, however, the rewards are great on many levels. I pray that I will continue to do both well until I’m old and grey and that these next ten years will go by as fast as this last decade. By then I’ll have my lifetime pass and I’ll be able to “free ski” all I want. NOT. There’s not much of a ski bum in me which is also part of the reason I’m so happy being a ski instructor. Translation:  Ski and snowboard instructors are more into keeping others safe and happy than tearing up the mountain themselves. At least most of the time.

Now back to that writer’s life. There’s much to catch up on and many more stories to be told.

Thank you to Brad Larsen, from Telluride Ski Resort, for the top photo of this post. The photo was taken during the cocktail hour of my tenth anniversary celebration in February. The ski mountain puts on a lovely event every year to honor its employees celebrating special anniversaries. In this photo, I’m toasting with Noah Sheedy, the Director of Telluride Ski & Snowboard School and Annie Vareille Savath, a veteran instructor that has devoted more than forty years of her life to the Telluride Ski Resort. Not surprisingly, Annie, an elegant Frenchwoman, has also served as a wonderful role model for me. She wears no makeup while skiing except for a touch of natural-looking eyeliner—un look tout à fait français. For more on Annie, read More Expert Ski and Snowboard Instruction and Fun in Telluride.

For other related stories, read Teaching, Training and Torchlighting with the Telluride Ski & Snowboard School, All in the Day of a Ski Instructor, Telluride Women’s Week:  Skiing and Fun for the Ladies, Talking About Telluride Ski & Snowboard School, Why Telluride, Ski Magazine and Me, Ski Instructors in Training:  Precision Skiing 201, Family Fun Facilitators, Training and Turns, Getting Ready for Ski Season:  Part Two, Getting Ready for Ski Season:  Part One and Telluride Ski Resort is Tantamount to Fun.

Excellent article, fun reading. That Rich Grimes looks like Jeffrey Fasolo. Are you sure about that photo being Rich?


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