In case you didn’t know, January is Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month. There are great deals all over the place for anyone who wants to learn, and prizes for those who help someone sign up for beginner lessons. You can learn more about all this here.
Me, I first learned to ski a long, long time ago, and to be honest, I can’t remember much about it. Mostly I recall being dragged up the mountain by the rope tow and falling a lot, both on the way up and on the way down. Truly, it’s amazing I stuck it out at all, because not too many people do. Consider this: According to the NSAA Journal, 85% of first-time skiers and boarders never come back. When asked why, they say because it’s “cold, painful, and frustrating.”
In short, no fun.
So when Killington invited me to learn more about Terrain Based Learning, I was intrigued. I’d heard a little about it, but really didn’t know all that much. And I’d never seen it put to use.
For those who don’t know, TBL uses snow features to help beginning students control their speed naturally. This lets them focus on the movements, sensations, and body positions that form the basis of good skiing. Basically, Terrain Based Learning eliminates the traditional anxieties so students can spend less time learning how to stop, and more time learning how to go.
The use of terrain-based features isn’t entirely new. Instructors here and there have been informally using this type of instruction for a number of years. What’s new, though, is the integration of these features into a complete instruction package, as marketed by Killington’s partner, Snow Operating. Snow Operating has 22 resort partners using its TBL method, though Killington’s TBL center is the largest in the United States. Opened in December, it features mini-halfpipes, banked turns, and rollers in a unique, completely enclosed learning environment.
Here’s a little bit of a video overview of the Killington TBL area. As you can see, it’s pretty extensive:
I spent a little bit of time scooting around the center with Killington’s Ski School Director Dave Beckwith and was pretty impressed by what I saw. Students start out on flat snow, getting a feel for their skis. Next up is a mini-pipe, where you slide down one side of a gentle, U-shaped slope and part way up the other. It’s pretty hands-on for the instructor, who literally supports you as you slide until you get the feel for the motion and feel comfortable enough to do it yourself. This is followed by a roller zone that’s a little bit steeper, and then a short trail with banks and berms that guide you through a few turns. “It’s a great way to build solid skills, right from the beginning,” said Dave. “Plus it’s a completely enclosed environment that makes it less intimidating for the new skier.”
Dave emphasizes that the most important thing about TBL is that it be fun. “I’ve always felt that snowsports instruction is an art,” he said. “There are no hard and fast rules associated with this. We focus more on the outcome of the learning process than on what should and shouldn’t be done. Our goal is to keep people engaged, so the things we’re doing are geared toward that. It makes for a more enjoyable experience.”
According to Dave, Killington’s Learn to Ski program starts before you put your feet on the snow. The resort has a special program to guide never-evers through every part of the process, beginning with equipment rental. “The people who come here are in the car for 4-5 hours running on coffee and a donut,” he said. “We want to make it as enjoyable and easy for them as possible. For example, you don’t typically think of the rental process as fun, but we pay attention to the details to make it that way. We make sure their boots fit properly, because that can make a big difference in how much they enjoy their day. And we help them celebrate the little moments, like the first time they put their boots on. Maybe it doesn’t speed up the process, but it adds value for the guest.”
Dave showed me the special rooms in the Learn to Ski rental area where first-time skiers get fitted with the gear they need for the day. Each room is named after a trail on the mountain and features comfortable, padded benches to make the process as painless as possible.
Here’s a fun fact: take four lessons at Killington in their Learn to Ski program and get a pair of Elan skis/binding FREE. If that doesn’t keep you coming back, I don’t know what will.
There’s no question that things have changed a lot since I learned to ski. Killington is doing what it can to keep first-timers on the slopes. I think they’ll succeed.