Steve's office at Wachusett Mountain



Shut Up and Ski!

It's a truism among instructors that we talk too much. On this day, I had a chance to find out just how little could be said and still get the idea across, because I had the pleasure of teaching three Japanese boys, about 15 years old, who spoke no more English than I speak Japanese. We were introduced by a middle-aged woman who could say "hello" and "ski" in English, and who quickly departed, her usefulness at an end.

The boys looked athletic and eager and friendly. I shook hands and smiled at each, and then started at square 1: How to put on one's skis. I dropped my skis on the snow, held up one finger, pointed to the toe of my boot, and put it in the binding. Then I held up two fingers, pointed to the heel, and stepped down, clicking into the binding. Same for the other boot: One, toe; two, heel. Then I stood, looked at the three of them, and gave an inquiring shrug. There was a burst of excited conversation, and then each of them stepped into their bindings, toe first, heel second. I grinned and gave a thumbs-up sign, receiving the same in return.

This was going to be easy.

I motioned them to follow me toward a 3-foot rise at the bottom of the beginner slope where we get our first feel for sliding on skis. Everything was fine at first, but I started to slip backwards as the slope steepened. I shuffled faster, but with no more progress. I looked at them inquiringly and gave a puzzled shrug. There was a brief pause as they tried to figure out what this round-eye was trying to tell them, and then a scene ensued that could have been used in a movie to illustrate the methods of climbing a slight slope. One boy started around to a shallower approach than I was using, one started up with tips of his skis splayed wide in what we called a herringbone pattern, and the third started sidestepping up the slope. I clapped to get their attention, then gave a thumbs-up to each as I pantomimed their approach to the problem; I wanted them to know that each of the methods has its usefulness. Personally, I prefer sidestepping, so I took that route and we gathered at the top.

At this point there's a strong temptation to pause for a discussion of proper stance. Very brief, no more than 20 minutes. Considering the language barrier, this would be even more useless than it normally is, so I just shuffled to the edge of the slope (I don't use poles, they just get in the way of beginners) and slid down in a straight line, coasting gently to a stop. Then I turned around and motioned them to follow. Two made it without falling, one toppled over as the slope flattened out. They flailed their arms, stared down at their skis, and wobbled alarmingly. Terrible. Evidently my shortcut with the stance was too short.

So I gathered everyone and stood beside the group. I pointed to my boots and then put them tightly together. I pointed to the boy nearest me and made a shoving motion against my side. He gave a very gentle push against me and then a questioning shrug. I nodded heartily. Satisfied that he understood what I wanted him to do, he pushed me a little harder. I nodded and pantomimed a harder push. The third time he pushed hard enough to accomplish my purpose, which was to make me stagger away from him. I almost recovered but fell a couple of steps away. I got up and stepped back to where I started, pointed to my boots, spread them a foot or so apart (hip-width, we tell people), and asked for another push. He pushed, I swayed and returned to upright. Another push, another sway. Finally, I pointed to my skis and put them togther, then pointed and spread them apart, and asked with a shrug what they thought. As one, they moved their skis apart. Mission accomplished.

I told them with a hand motion to stay where they were, then skated to the top of the mound and turned to face them. I looked down at my skis, spread them as we'd just discovered was good, and without looking up I slid down toward them. As I approached there was a burst of excited commentary — "look out!" in Japanese, no doubt — and then I collided with one. Smiling, I looked up and made the now-familiar "what do you think?" shrug, and looked back down. Amid laughter, one student gently raised my chin so that I was looking forward.

The next several runs down the bump showed vast improvement. The last item to be checked off before going to the top of the beginner slope is an ability to turn. At Wachusett we generally start with rotary movements from a wedge, but this athletic group seemed ripe for a direct approach to parallel skiing with edging movements. And besides, it seemed a lot easier to me to demonstrate edging than rotation. So I stood in front of them, pointed to the skis, and then held my hands out in imitation of the movements I was to make with the skis. I edged the skis with knee movement, and again with ankle movement, tilting my hands each time as I tilted the skis. They clearly got the idea of what I was doing with the skis, but it wasn't so clear why I was doing it. To show them, I again motioned them to stay where they were and I skated to the top of the rise and turned to face them.

I repeated the edging movements one more time, with my hands mimicing the movements for emphasis, and then pushed off directly toward them. With a little speed I tilted my skis and arced off in a gentle curve away from the group. Cheers erupted as the purpose of the edging became clear. They hurried to the top to try it for themselves. Nothing to it.

With all the pieces in place, we took the carpet lift to the top of Ollie's, and followed the usual progression of J-turns to a stop, linking turns across the slope, etc. Every success was punctuated with laughter and smiles all around. For that matter, every fall was greeted with even louder laughter.

Class lessons with three or more students last an hour and a half, so with the rapid progression of these fit and enthusiastic youngsters, we had time to go to the longer Easy Rider carpet for a few longer runs. If we'd had another 15 minutes, we'd have taken the Monadnock chair for our first true green-circle trails.

When they left, it was obvious that they considered me to be their friend for life. They were skiing, and primed for rapid progress on their own, perhaps with another lesson after a day or two. And I had proved to myself that, at least under these very favorable circumstances, we don't have to say a word. I don't give my students the silent treatment, but I take to heart the admonition to shut up and ski!