I started as a three-year-old and I remember two things in particular.
- Crying when I slid off the Poma lift.
- Eating snacks I would normally not have been given at home (parents bribing kids – some things never change!)
And while I don’t remember much of the actual learn-to-ski process, I can guarantee this: the way most of us learned to ski, including me and my kids, was harder than it needed to be.
(When I wrote this post last week, and included this video, it was prior to Warren Miller’s passing. Thanks for the memories Mr. Miller! Also, if you’ve not read Warren Miller’s autobiography, it’s a fun, eye-opening read).
What is Terrain Based Learning™?
If you just watched this Warren Miller video, you saw a lot of mayhem as beginners got off the chairlift and skied down an evenly pitched, smooth snow slope.
Think of this once-standard beginner terrain as a two-dimensional piece of paper — just slope and width.
The smart idea behind Terrain Based Learning™ is that of adding a third-dimension. Smooth gentle slopes, designed just for teaching beginner skiers and snowboarders, are groomed with the addition of subtle features like small berms, small rollers and (very) mini half-pipes.
We’re not talking features like you’d see in a terrain park, but rather features, grading and sloping so gentle that you can barely see the changes.
The purpose of this unique grooming and snow shaping is to create a safe, non-threatening, intuitive environment in which to learn to ski or snowboard.
This shaped terrain guides beginners through the learning process, helping them to feel what it’s like to balance, slide forward, slide uphill and stop and to turn. This makes the process of teaching, learning and progressing much easier — and more fun — for children and adults.
Terrain Based Learning™ at Killington
I recently spent a morning with Paul Buhler, a ski instructor and snow groomer responsible for building, shaping and maintaining the learning terrain at Killington Resort in Vermont.
Paul started my tour just as an adult beginner would start on the first day of ski school: by getting gear.
At Killington, adult beginners check in and then are assigned in groups of five to a cubicle where they meet their instructor.
Here, the instructor fits them for boots and helmets. The cubicles are comfortable, everyone can sit down and there is no feeling of being rushed through a line or left to fend for oneself while trying on completely foreign gear.
Next, the instructor also sizes each student for skis and poles. Then they go to an indoor classroom where they learn some basic position and balance skills. This helps students get an understanding of what they’ll be learning, while in a warm, neutral environment.
As Paul puts it, “the first goal is to have our customers as well-prepared as you can before going outside. This helps everyone start better.”
The children’s beginner lesson process is similar. Kids are paired with their coach, who helps them get their gear, get comfortable and who will stay with them through the entire lesson.
For all skiers, young and old, the next step is getting to the snow, not via a chairlift or magic carpet, but by bus, driving partway the mountain to the K-1 Lodge.
Snowboarders begin on a magic carpet further down the hill where they don’t have to walk as far with their boards.
First Steps and Turns
Once on snow, students start by putting on just one ski and learning how to move around on this flat snow. They try one leg and then the other. Then they put on both skis.
Next, instructors introduce the mini half-pipe, where students slide down a gentle slope, through a flat area and then slide up a gentle slope until they stop naturally. It’s an effective way to teach and learn the effect of gravity on skiing. It’s also an introduction in how to read terrain.
Students quickly learn that when they want to slow or stop they just need to slide uphill and the terrain is shaped so that they can do this.
When I was visiting, groups of children and adult beginner skiers were moving through the terrain, learning new skills, revisiting previous learned skills and practicing with their instructors.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the terrain is a slope with gentle banked “S” turns. As students ski down this slope, berms naturally turn them back to the center and across the run. This helps them learn what linking turns feels like, so that they can apply it when skiing on their own.
All of the learn-to-ski and learn-to-snowboard lessons are like this. A skill is introduced, sometimes with no more explanation than “follow the path of those in front of you.”
Because of the terrain, both the teaching and learning processes are simplified. Focusing more on physical sensations than verbal instruction eliminates confusion and makes learning more fun.
Both group and private lessons use this teaching terrain at Killington and it is also open to the public.
This 2015 video explains more and shows what Terrain Based Learning™ looks like.
SNOW Operating and Terrain Based Learning™
Terrain Based Learning™ is a program licensed to resorts by SNOW Operating. On their website, they encourage ski areas and ski resorts to rethink the entire learn-to process from start to finish. All with the goal of attracting more people to try skiing and snowboarding and to convert beginners to lifelong skiers and snowboarders.
When You Go…
There is a lot more going on at Killington Resort than learn-to ski and learn-to snowboard lessons.
Affectionately known as “the Beast of the East,” Killington is a big resort with just over 1500 skiable acres, 155 trails, 21 lifts, six terrain parks and two half pipes.
What our family likes about Killington is the diversity of terrain, some of it shockingly steep, especially the gondola-served runs off of Killington Peak. For bumps and more natural terrain (as well as terrain parks), Bear Mountain is the place to go. Glade skiing is also popular at Killington and open glades are found across the resort, anywhere the map shows a red tree.
As for lunch, there might be no better on-mountain food than the made-to-order goodness on offer at the resort-topping Peak Lodge. I’ve eaten here on two different visits and the food is always delicious, with unique ingredients, many of them local. The prices are also surprisingly reasonable.
Adult lessons begin at the Snowshed Base, which is home to most resort services including the Killington Grand Resort, the tubing park and most of the beginner terrain, served by both a magic carpet and twin lifts adjacent to the Snowshed Slope.
Children’s lessons meet at the Ramshead Base, where there is also a magic carpet, the Magic Snowplay Park and green and blue trails off of the Ramshead Express Quad designed to entice and appeal to kids.
Lesson start times are staggered at Killington, with children’s lessons beginning before adult lessons, so that parents can drop their children off at Ramshead and make their way to Snowshed.
Finally, like it’s neighbor and sister resort, Pico Mountain, Killington is on the MAX Pass, which offers five days of skiing and riding at each of 44 resorts across North America.
Please note that the MAX Pass will not be available next season. Killington will be on the new the IKON Pass.
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