Ski Instructors Are Doing Our Sport’s Most Important Work

We owe a lot to the most overlooked group of skiers on the mountain

IT WAS SNOWING in Whitefish. Again. For eight days straight, a relentless February storm had been blanketing Montana in white, adding 45 inches to the snowbanks of what would be Whitefish Mountain Resort’s second best winter in the last two decades.

Just as the lifts started to spin, the cloak of gray fog gave way to a rarely seen cobalt blue sky over 6,817-foot Big Mountain. The shaken snow globe had finally settled. Temperatures hovered near 20 degrees at the summit, preserving deep pockets of powder among the gladed larch trees bending beneath the weight of thick rime.

It was the kind of day that made Eliana Langer want to move to a ski town. That morning, she was on the mountain by 8 a.m. She zipped into her green jacket and waited to meet her party at the bottom of the lift. With 9 more inches overnight, upper-mountain conditions looked perfect, but Langer wouldn’t be going more than 150 yards from the base area. Instead, she’d be spending the day wrangling three 4-year-old girls through their half-day ski lesson. Making her own turns would have to wait.

A 23-year-old recent college graduate who grew up in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Langer is one of Whitefish Mountain’s 125 ski instructors hired each winter to teach more than 8,000 lessons to children and adults. A petite brunette with a warm smile, she is friendly and smart and unshakably patient. For the first winter of her post-college life, instead of pounding the pavement at a city job, Langer joined an estimated 70,000 ski instructors in the U.S. as old as 93 and as young as 18 who do the back-straining work of hatching new skiers and fostering the growth of those who want to keep improving.

Instructors are often the ones who harness the potential of a would-be skier, bringing them into our fold, even if only for a four-hour lesson on the only ski vacation of their lifetime. But on occasion, when the stars align just so and a gust of serendipity rattles the trees, instructors have a hand in the creation of a lifelong skier—a skier who might grow up to forgo societal constructs and their savings account to pursue something once gifted to them by an instructor like Langer, who was making $9 an hour, plus a season pass, to live 2,394 miles from home in a house with five roommates.

Ever since a 20-year-old Austrian ski guide named Johannes Schneider developed the stem christie sliding turn in 1910 and went on to teach thousands of World War I troops how to use his new technique, instructors have been at the heart of skiing. They must know how to navigate, negotiate, and motivate; how to entertain, babysit, and guide, arguably doing our sport’s most important work: keeping the number of skiers from flat-lining entirely.

PHOTO: Jamie Kripke

The instructing discipline spread from Europe to the United States, where the first paid ski instructor, Norwegian Henrik Jacobsen, was hired at the Lake Placid Club in 1920. By the end of the decade, Peckett’s on Sugar Hill, a ski area near Franconia, New Hampshire, opened the first resort-based ski school in the country. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, New York Governor Averell Harriman, and National Ski Patrol Founder Charles Minot Dole were among the school’s distinguished pupils.

But as skiing grew in popularity, soon it was the instructors themselves who earned celebrity status in popular culture and history books. Klaus Obermeyer, Stein Eriksen, and Pepi Stiegler emigrated from Europe and changed the course of skiing in North America with refined technique and style. Dick Dorworth and Jim McConkey were instructors before they became famous renegades. And of course, T.J. Burke and Dexter Rutecki moved from Detroit to Aspen, as Hollywood documented in Aspen Extreme, influencing thousands of would-be ski instructors.

Baked into ski culture are the Colgate smiles on tanned faces of instructors demonstrating impeccable technique while charming top-dollar guests. That, or the caricature of a stiff-bodied robot in a slim-fitting uniform, cutting long lift lines on powder days with clients who can’t ski powder. In reality, most ski instructors fall somewhere in the middle, all possessing the ability to teach toddlers, tourists, and Texans how to experience one of the greatest pleasures on earth.

On that midweek morning last February, instead of getting face shots, Langer picked up an extra shift and spent the first half hour of the lesson coaxing three tiny skiers up the Big Easy carpet. While the upper mountain was being picked apart by other skiers, Langer spent 45 minutes making two complete laps from top to bottom on the beginner hill.

PHOTO: Craig Moore
PHOTO: Craig Moore

Not more than 100 yards from the top, the first whimpers of a complete meltdown slipped out from behind a pink facemask. The cuteness faded as the wailing grew. Several minutes passed before Langer was able to convince tiny Emma to carry on with a game of Red Light, Green Light (Purple Light means dance).

It’s one of many deals Langer made with the girls to keep the day moving; a constant negotiation; a series of trade agreements, where linking three turns is rewarded with a high five; one more run and we all get hot chocolate; next ride up the lift and, yes, it’s your turn to sit next to the instructor. It’s psychological diplomacy usually reserved for the Situation Room.

The kids complained; Langer never did. Some days, that’s the job.

With skier visits at U.S. resorts down an estimated 1.5 million, or 2.8 percent, last season compared with 2016-17, according to the National Ski Areas Association, efforts to attract and maintain new skiers are more important than ever. Instructors are perhaps the first line of defense. A skier who takes a lesson is about 20 percent more likely to become a lifelong skier than those who don’t.

“There is a huge opportunity to grow the sport because of the connection,” says Nick Herrin, CEO of the Professional Ski Instructors of America. Herrin started instructing in high school and taught for 10 years at Big Sky, Montana. “One of my charges now is to grow the instructor base so that, in turn, we can grow who participates in the sport.”

That includes an effort to diversify the skier demographic to include more ethnicities, women, and younger participants by partnering with schools and nonprofits to make skiing more accessible. Still, it all comes back to the instructor, Herrin says.

Mike Davies, the children’s program manager at Whitefish, says he hires candidates based primarily on their skills and job experiences that relate to teaching, like previous work with children, communication, and hospitality. They must also be able to ski at an intermediate level.

“We have prioritized the other ‘softer’ skills needed to teach skiing with the hopes that we can coach an individual to be a better skier quicker and with better success than we can train them on all of the other skills needed,” says Davies. “I think this has become a more common trend in the industry as staffing has become a bigger challenge.”

All skiers have to start somewhere, and you never know where it might lead. PHOTO: Jamie Kripke

While PSIA certification is not required, some instructors choose to earn their Level I certification, the first of three tiers, in order to be recognized by ski schools across the country, which often pay more for certified instructors. To help more of their instructors pass their certification tests, Whitefish hosts free weekly clinics focused on ski technique first, and teaching skills second. The hope is that with support, the $130 cost of getting certified will be a worthwhile investment for the instructor, which may in turn incentivize them to return another season. Of course, there are no guarantees for either party.

Instructors at Whitefish earn between $9-$20 per hour depending on the number of students in a group, how much experience they have, and whether or not they are PSIA certified. By booking a private lesson (where the number of clients is capped at five people), instructors tack on $14 per hour. The resort, meanwhile, charges almost $500 for a full-day private lesson. Being requested by name also increases the amount of money going into the instructor’s pocket, as well as the time-honored gratuity.

At Whitefish, new instructors go through four days of training, where they run through the beginner progression (rookies start by teaching pizza/French fry to children under 4) and focusing on soft skills, like how to communicate and engage with their students.

“Your instructor is either going to give you the best experience of your vacation or the worst,” says Herrin. “It bows to the importance of how great these instructors are. They can have a very powerful impact because the guest spends the most amount of time with that employee.”

Kailey and Andy Armor, chiropractors in Whitefish, took their first ski lesson last winter after moving to town to open their practice.

“Our instructor did more than just teach us how to ski. He opened our minds to a different perspective and a different lifestyle that a lot of people don’t allow themselves to be a part of,” Kailey told me over après beers, noting how her instructor had been a CEO of a big company before deciding to take on a new career on skis because it’s what made him happy.

“To see him make that drastic change from the grind to slowing down and teaching ski lessons to people who are 30 and learning to ski for the first time stuck with us in deciding to live here.”

PHOTO: Jamie Kripke

While the industry relies on good instructors to increase skier visits, the retention rate for those instructors has continued to decrease in part due to the high cost of living and housing shortages in ski towns. Thirty years ago, instructing was a career path for many who started in their 20s and continued to teach fulltime until retirement. Now, ski schools tend to see more turnover among their younger instructors, roughly every three years.

“People say it’s so hard to hire ski instructors, but it’s not just a ski instructor problem,” says Herrin. “The world is changing, we have to be creative. I think it’s shortsighted to say you can’t make it in this career. We all know you can make a lot more money going to Wall Street or doing something else, but is that what you really want to do in life?”

Stacey Bengston was a senior in high school when she left her home in St. Paul, Minnesota, for Whitefish in 1973. Her father had given her a brochure for a ski trip that included a week of meals, lodging, and ski lessons at Big Mountain (the ski area officially changed its name to Whitefish Mountain Resort in 2007). Bengston had never skied outside the midwest before, but she arrived by train and took her first ski lesson at age 17. After a year of college back home, she returned to Whitefish and never left. “When I saw the mountains and the skiing, I thought, ‘Why would I go anywhere else?’” says Bengston. “Right away I was just content and so happy. I’m still happy.”

She worked as a waitress at an on-mountain restaurant her first season before a friend got her a job as a ski instructor. Back then, the resort provided employee housing at the base of the mountain, where Bengston lived before she married her husband. When their two daughters were born, the director of the ski school program at the time allowed Bengston to trade her labor for the girls’ lessons and equipment.

Related reading: Meet the ski instructor who’s been teaching longer than you’ve been alive.

Bengston, who is tall and slender with a short crop of blonde hair, has now been teaching skiing at Whitefish for 43 years. She has developed creative games to help kids figure out how to properly use their bodies on skis, and can then teach a father of three to overcome his fear of the mountain to be able to ski with his family. The most requested instructor in Whitefish, she’s now teaching the children of some of her first ski students.

Kyle Taylor. PHOTO: Craig Moore
Local boy Kyle Taylor came up through the Whitefish Ski School program. PHOTO: Craig Moore

To get to work, she drives her Subaru 45 minutes each way between her home in West Glacier and the mountain. She instructs four days a week, skiing with her 6-year-old granddaughter, Winnie, on her days off.

“It’s not like I’m making a ton of money, but I still love it, I still enjoy it,” she says. “When I started, I had no clue I would be in it still. You don’t make a lot of money the first few years, but that didn’t matter. I just wanted to get out and ski.”

It was 3 o’clock when I followed Bengston back to the instructors’ locker room, where I was planning to meet up with Langer. The sun had dropped behind the mountain, and the crowd had dispersed, but there was still plenty of untracked snow to be found. Most skiers were making their way down the mountain—the day felt done—but Langer and a few others were hoping to get in a run or two before the lifts stopped for the day.

Related reading: Tof Henry is the fastest skier in Chamonix. He’s also a ski instructor.

Instructors in varying stages of defrost sat around four plastic folding tables filling out their timecards for the day and checking tomorrow’s lesson assignments. A young woman from Chicago sat on the wooden benches between the rows of dark green metal lockers, changing from ski boots to snowboard boots. It was her first winter in the mountains and she didn’t want to pass up the chance to learn everything she could.

Dozens of boots were resting on industrial drying racks near the shared refrigerators covered in magnets and a construction-paper Valentine’s Day card with the scribbles of a child. Someone brewed a pot of coffee that barely masked the odor of wet clothes.

Her afternoon lesson complete, Langer raced to her locker, zipped out of her green jacket with the magnetic nametag, and into her own shell. She hoisted her Volkl skis from the rack and hustled out to the chair, where two of her girlfriends were waiting.

On the lift, she tallied up how much she made from her lessons that day: about $36. Langer laughed it off. At least she’s here, at least she’s skiing, she told me. “I didn’t make a killing this winter, but I did a lot of skiing. I skied most days if I didn’t work.”

Stacy Bengston has been teaching ski lessons at Whitefish for 43 years. PHOTO: Jamie Kripke

We took one long run from the top without stopping much—Langer was in a hurry to make it down in time for a summer job interview as a raft and hiking guide. If she gets the gig, she’ll be able to stick around for the off-season, which will set her up to come back for a second season of instructing.

Langer and her friends were 20-odd years older than the girls in her morning lesson, but the way their laughter trailed behind them as they chased each other in and out of the trees didn’t sound much different.

“It’s super fulfilling to be in such a beautiful place, getting to introduce skiing to other people,” she says. “I’ll probably end up working a 9 to 5 job one day, but for now,” her voice trailed off as she looked out at the snowghost trees of Whitefish,“I wanted to go for it and I’m glad I did.”

This story originally appeared in the December 2018 (47.4) issue of POWDER. To have great stories like this delivered right to your door, in print, subscribe here.

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