The Mountain Times

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Learning along the ALA Trail

She was a new friend whom I was inveigling to try skiing. To make it more fun for her, my husband who had given up skiing in the 1980s, joined the introduction-to-skiing class. As a journalist, I tagged along and took photos.

I had never witnessed the entire process for teaching first-timers before. So there I was at Snowshed's Arrival Center on a cold February afternoon, as the two signed in.

With directions to the adjacent Learning Center, we entered a small room where a personable instructor introduced himself and showed the "never-evers" how to put on ski boots. He showed them where to stash their gear and how to carry their short shaped skis to an awaiting coach.

Yes, we boarded a bus, not a lift, and were let out at the top of a learning trail. No fear of a lift before they could get used to skis.

At the top of the learning area, two instructors demonstrated how to get into the skis and assisted the group of five.

Next, one instructor stood at the end of a short incline and the other skied to him. Funny thing, though, the skiing instructor stopped before he reached the outstretched arm of the waiting instructor.

That was because the terrain imperceptively flattened so the skier automatically slowed and stopped before reaching the safety net, that arm. The instilling of confidence is a great thing to witness. No one fell as they learned to slide.

This process continued with the initial straight runs followed by the wedge. No wide-track snowplow on the six-plus foot skis we used in the 1950s. No entangling. No embarrassing falls. They all wedged on their 130-cm Elans and then progressed to turning.

Straight running over more terrain with built-in "speed bumps" automatically slowed them and taught them to bend the knees to absorb, providing they actually carried enough speed to get over them in the first place.

I witnessed this group of first-timers ski two runs without mishap. The specially contoured terrain helped them overcome any fears of falling, injury or embarrassment. I even caught some smiles and a glimpse of "piece of cake."

On the last crossover to the Snowshed slope my friend finally did fall. That's when Gus showed her how to get up using the V push-up maneuver. I had never seen that method before and was duly impressed.

I was also impressed by the thoughtfulness and better communication that go into teaching today. It's all a far cry from the (advanced) lessons I experienced in the 1960s and 1970s (from other ski schools), with commands issued that twice left me leaving the hill with big bruises. These instructors really knew how to keep a new person in their comfort zone and having fun.

Killington Director of Golf and Snow Sports Dave Beckwith explains that the orchestrated experience is definitely intentional. Instructors with good communication skills build confidence in a new skier via their thorough understanding of these step-by-step progressions that leads to success and fun. This occurs not by happenstance but through a serious approach to teaching that provides a conducive learning environment, something that Killington continues to pioneer.

Evolution of the Learning Environment

Killington was a national leader in the development of ski instruction, starting with the implementation of GLM (Graduated Length Method), which it developed in concert with SKI Magazine. Highlights of various innovations over the years include:

1964-74   GLM uses series of three ski lengths to teach beginners parallel.

1970-74   Accelerated Ski Method (ASM) uses 39-inch skis for beginners, indoor movie; area invests $1 million in learn-to-ski program R&D, terrain, rentals area, etc.

1974-76   Beginners start on four-foot skis, wedge taught.

1970s       Special learning areas built and contoured for teaching fundamentals of edging, weight transfer, and turning. Emphasis on creating a "controlled learning environment."

1980s      Killington offers ASM and PSIA's ATM (5-foot skis for learners).

1981-82   Creation of Accelerated Learning Area (ALA trail).

1982-83   Special Learning Stations areas built on Snowdon.

1984-85   Introduction of specialty ski workshops.

1993-94   Experimental use of Elan SCX shaped ski in ski school.

1994-95   Specialty clinic option for learning on new shaped ski.

1995-96   Use of Elan SCX incorporated into Ski School.

1996-97   Perfect Turn clinics debut; free, guided shaped ski demos offered.

1998-99   Use of graduated lengths of shaped skis for new Guaranteed Learning Method, an adaptation GLM. New learn-to-ski-and-snowboard Discovery Center at Snowshed.

2007-08   Max 3 and 5 programs introduced for children; Max 5 for adult groups.

In 1981 an Accelerated Learning Area was built off to the side of the top of the original Idler Trail on Snowshed. It featured a "terrain garden" or "teaching pod" where beginners could learn to walk and slide on skis after being brought up to this area by a shuttle vehicle. They could learn the fundamentals at their own pace in an environment free from skier traffic (the original learning areas on Snowshed were subject to fast skiers coming through) and the potential embarrassment of having an audience. The area also removed any fear of the sight of a ski lift for the neophytes.

This concept caught on and the special learning terrain was extended down the entire Idler trail all the way to the children's area (a new Idler along side the Killington Road replaced the original). The result was the Accelerated Learning Area trail, or ALA trail.

Illustrating just how evolutionary the approach to the teaching and learning process is, then Ski School Director Steve Eccleston and Tom Arzberger, first explored and built the concept for the Accelerated Learning Area in a sand box. Henry Biathrow then carved similar terrain on the actual hill with his bulldozer. With the special snow grooming this area receives, Killington had its first "graduated" learning trail.

With a continuing emphasis on R&D, the ski school continued to try out many innovative teaching strategies over the years. Some worked, some didn't. A stationary practice chair was installed and later upgraded to a mechanical (moving) practice chair so beginners could experience what it was like to board a lift (not necessary with detachable quads).

Research methods extended to studying the skier. Anatomy, mental attitude, left or right handedness, dominant side, two-legged turning versus one-legged turning, and a whole host of factors were looked at in an effort to create homogeneous classes that would speed up the learning process.

The emphasis on R&D continued under Killington owner Les Otten and his American Skiing Company (ASC). A former Killington trainee, Otten was familiar with GLM and had seen the potential of the shaped ski to reinvigorate the ski industry. He had supported its use in ski teaching at Sunday River, including the use of shorter shaped skis.

Under ASC, Killington changed over the entire rental fleet to shaped skis and used a shorter shaped ski to teach "never-evers." The short ski proved to be a great teaching tool because it makes everything easier for the learner.

This resulted in the new skier being put on a 130 cm ski for learning. [The 150 cm is an average length for experienced women today and 160-165 cm for men since there is a stability issue for the better skiers who ski faster today.]

Beckwith notes, "We use 130 cm Elan's for most of our beginner adults. They incorporate the E Rise technology, similar to the rocker technology now popular in most ski manufacturers; only this design is geared towards ease of entry to a turn for a beginner."

Today, Killington also uses a Max 5 approach to teach adults (group lessons limited to a maximum of five learners). It is another step on the evolutionary ladder to make learning easier, faster, and more fun.

What is so exceptional about Killington's teaching/learning evolution is that it has always been predicated on finding a "better way." The fears learners have are acknowledged and addressed, not ignored. Progress is encouraged by well-thought-out progressions and positive feedback from instructors who are cognizant of one's comfort zone and always focused on what will lead to more fun.

"Whether it is through technique, terrain, or technology, we are wholly dedicated to seeking the best practices in snow sports instruction," Beckwith says. "Guest needs and learning circumstances evolve over time and we pride ourselves in rising to the challenge of offering a contemporary learning experience in a fun and safe environment for each and every one of our participants.

Tagged: Karen D. Lorentz, killington, skiing, ALA trail, mountain