Snow Sports

Upskilling Your Strengths

Skiing - Outdoor Education

A while ago I wrote about finding myself outside my comfort zone on a reccie trip with some colleagues. We were white water canoeing, something I’d never done before. It was something I found quite challenging, but a rewarding learning experience.

Learning new skills in outdoor education is a great way to keep things interesting and expand your skill set. However, what happens with something you’re very experienced in? Should you be practising it outside of work? Is what you do on the job enough practice for something at which you’re good?

Snow skiing is something I’ve done since I was 5 years old and an industry I’ve worked in for around 7 years. In terms of outdoor skills, I can safely say, snow skiing is my strongest one. However, despite this experience, I still have plenty to learn and so much more upon which to improve. However, it’s not until your skills are actually put to the test, that you realise just how much more there is to learn and why it’s so important to continually up-skill.

Recently I spent a couple of weeks overseas skiing, as it’s been a number of years since I’ve done an entire season of work at the snow. When doing seasons, you have the time to truly build your skill-set and challenge yourself in so many different ways. However, it’s surprising how quickly you lose some of your finer skills when the season’s over.

Getting back on skis for the first time in a year is always an interesting experience. I love the sound of the boot clicking into the binding, fixing my helmet and lowering my goggles ready to jump on the lift. However, despite having skied many double black diamond runs over the years, I’m not going to head for the highest peak and fang it down the most hectic run as fast as I can, launching off everything I can find. No, that would be idiotic. Instead, I like to find a nice green or blue trail to run up and down to warm up and get a feel for everything again. I’ll probably spend an entire day doing this.

When I’ve had a chance to get my balance back and regain the feel for my skis, I’m ready to start rebuilding my deteriorated skill set that time has eroded. With any outdoor skill, you’ll reach a point where you’re highly competent and things will come back to you quickly. However, without practice, similar to physical fitness, all these hard skills, deteriorate over time. For an instructor, this deterioration is not good and can come from both lack of practice, or only operating at a much lower level of intensity.

If for example I was with a group skiing day in and day out, as is often the case for experienced instructors of any outdoor activity, I might just be cruising all the time on green or blue runs to match the level of ability of the group. However, cruising can lead to complacency and dull your senses to the wider challenges and risks of the activity that you’re leading. To avoid complacency, often called an expert blind spot, you must therefore continually practise and test your own skills at a much higher level to ensure you’re prepared for any contingency. You never know when you’ll need to quickly switch up from cruising instructor to rapid situational risk assessor and responder.

For me, this realisation came when I took a ‘short-cut’ on Whistler Mountain. I wanted to get to the furthest section of the mountain and I could see the lift to where I wanted to reach. I’d been skiing along the top of a ridge line, on a blue home trail. However, I saw what appeared to be a nice descent into the next valley and onto the lift. It was soft and powdery to begin with, but suddenly, on my right appeared a cliff and in front of me was a massively steep chute littered with rocks.

Most skiers have a home mountain, which they know like the back of their hand. For me this is Thredbo and so I can criss-cross it all day knowing where my random short cuts will take me. However, again this home mountain confidence can lead to complacency and over-confidence in other situations. Practising your skills on different mountains however, and getting into situations such as I did, is a real reminder of how aware and vigilant you need to be in the outdoors.

Rather than panicking, as I stared down the incredibly steep descent, I quickly dug in and attacked the chute, swiftly switching back and forth one sharp turn after another to control my descent, whilst avoiding the jagged rocks protruding from the snow. With a few crunching sounds from under my skis, I cleared the worst of it and glided out the bottom into a wide open section of deep soft snow. Glancing back up, I could now see the insanity of the ‘short cut’ in all its glory. Let’s do that again! I thought…

Whilst this wasn’t an ideal situation in which to find myself, the ability to switch up to a higher level of thinking and respond swiftly is an important thing to be able to do with any of your outdoor skills. This requires practice and pushing your own limits outside of your regular work. Whilst you’d never take a group with you into a situation like this, this sort of experience reminds you of the risks that are inherent with an activity such as skiing, as well as the need to continuously build and improve upon your own skills.

Expertise does lead to complacency and as outdoor educators and instructors we need to practise our own skills and be reminded that there are always limits to our experience and expertise. This helps us to be aware that there are always going to be risks involved and that we must eliminate, manage or mitigate those risks for our programs. However, if we don’t practise and test our hard skills outside of work, the chances are, your comfortable daily operations will become increasingly exposed to potential complacency as the instructor skill-sets deteriorate and activity risks don’t appear as dangerous as they really are.

To help resolve my over confidence and need to rebuild my alpine skill set, it was time for me to go back to ski school and take some lessons again.

No Parents In The Learning Area

Skiing - Outdoor Education

On a visit to the US I took some time out to go skiing in Park City. It's a fantastic resort and an awesome historic township. It now even has an Australian run café, which meant I could have a decent coffee (all the important things being from Australia). I’d prepared myself to go a month without decent coffee, reliant on bitter or burnt espressos as a backup plan. I was however, pleasantly surprised to find myself standing in front of a recognisable Australian business and safely drinking a good cup of coffee.

Despite this extremely important tangent, what follows has nothing to do with coffee. It was early in the morning on a crisp crystal clear day over on the Canyons side of the resort. I was skiing past the ski school when a sign caught my attention, “Please, No Parents In The Learning Area!”

I laughed, as I knew exactly why there was a need for something like this the moment I saw it. Whilst it's very important for parents to be involved in their child’s education, there's a right way to go about it and a wrong way to go about it. More often than not, parents, generally through a lack of understanding go about things the wrong way and many of them constantly insert themselves into situations where they should just stand back and allow others to teach.

From what I’ve seen over my years of involvement with education, Helicopter & Tiger parents, need to relax, find themselves a hobby that doesn’t involve them living vicariously through their children. Whilst the underlying belief these parents have is that they’re ‘helping’ and making sure they get the ‘best’ for the child, the reality is that they’re doing more harm than good and wasting their own life and opportunities at the same time.

It’s probably easier to remove the salt from the ocean than it is to remove the helicopter from the parent, but seriously, they need to back off and let their kids breathe and experience a few things in life for themselves. This doesn’t mean that everything should be done at arms’ length, but I can understand the need for the sign as over-involvement of parents can be just as bad, or even worse than under-parenting.

I realise it is a challenging balance, but if you look at it from a work point of view, how would everyone feel if someone went from department to department telling everyone how their job should be done. From marketing, to finance and the janitorial services how would everyone feel if your clients hung around giving instructions on how their work should be done? It wouldn’t be long before security was called and the person was ejected from the building.

I would have thought the whole point of taking your kids to ski school is so that you could ski somewhere awesome yourself. Hanging around offering suggestions or taking photos would be the last thing on my mind. I would have ditched the kids and headed up the closest double black only lift. Ski school and school in general is a great sort of child minding service, which hopefully employs talented instructors and teachers who will be able to care for your children and teach them something far more effectively than you can. This, of course, eventually pays off later on, as you’ll be able to ski with your kids, until they get way better than you and then leave you for dead, suggesting perhaps you should go and have some lessons.

However, from this the most important thing is that sometimes parents need to be able to step away from a situation and allow their children to be taught by others. If they’re not prepared to do that, then why not teach them everything they need to know themselves? This would seem to be preferable for many parents, until they realise the reality of how much time, energy, experience and effort goes into teaching others.

At some point, parents must let go and if they haven’t by high-school years, then the damage they’re going to do over the proceeding years is significant. Again this doesn’t mean parents should have no involvement, but appropriate experiences should be looked for where that increasing independence can be gained. Some effective programs I’ve worked on have been medium and long-stay residential programs, in which there was little choice for those helicopter parents but to stay away. If medium and long stay programs aren’t an option for your school, then perhaps erecting a barrier near the entrance is the next best option. At the end of the day, it will enable students to have a far better educational experience than the endless hovering could ever provide.

For me, as I said, I’d just leave them at the ski school and allow them to try new things, slip, fall and get back up again all by themselves. It’s the learning through these experiences that make the best skiers and the snowboarders, not the manic parenting and suggestions from the side. Perhaps, as in Park City, a giant sign is just what’s needed for all of our programs to remind parents of the fact that it’s time to let go a bit and let their kids do something a bit ‘risky’ for themselves.

Snow Sports!

Snow Sports Skiing.jpg

This week, I’m in Thredbo for what is often the busiest week on the ski fields. It’s a combination of the last week of the school holidays, coupled with the Redlands Cup and a number of other inter-schools snow sports’ competitions. Many teachers use the draw card of snow sports to organise a school trip and at the same time get themselves a nice expenses ‘paid’ vacation! Whilst I’ve gone on one of these trips before, there’s often a lack of understanding of the risks inherent with snow sports that comes with this and having been part of a major snow sports’ program for six years that ran for the whole season, we would often see other schools’ groups on the mountain that were less than prepared for the conditions and the overall environment.

Skiing - Snow Sports

Whilst I’m not saying that teachers just throw caution to the wind, however, the risk profile of snow sports is one of the highest of any outdoor activity. Combine, speed, trees, ice, freezing conditions, lots of equipment, kids and other people who are out of control on the slopes and you get a challenging recipe for injuries. However, this shouldn’t be the case and through careful planning and management, every trip can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience.

So what are some ways to help plan for a safe and effective ski trip?

  1. Consider skill level. If you’re taking absolute beginners, they should be in lessons all day and actively supervised. Given the fact that you’re most likely not an instructor, it’s better to figure in an additional cost for beginners to allow them the best opportunity to learn and develop their skills in a structured manner.

  2. Group size. If you have more experienced skiers and riders and you’re going to allow them to head off on their own, then you need to make sure they’re in a group of a minimum of 4. You must ensure they’ve got your contact numbers and you have their contact numbers as well in case of an emergency. Each group should have ski patrol’s numbers in their phones and it’s a good idea to give them a laminated business card with ski patrol and your number on it.

  3. What to do in the event of an injury. Students need to be briefed on what to do if one of their group of 4 is injured. Firstly, call ski patrol! There’s every chance, ski patrol will get there sooner than you and they’re most likely trained at a higher level of first aid than most teachers as well. Once they’ve called ski patrol, keep the group together and call you as the teacher in charge. If they have to split the group, because they can’t raise ski patrol, two ski to the nearest lift and make contact, the other person stays with the injured student. At no point should any student be on his or her own.

  4. Check in times. Ensure you set clear check in times and locations so that you have regular meeting points to check that all students are accounted for and in good health. If a student fails to meet the check in deadline, call them on his or her mobile, if contact with you hasn’t already been made.

  5. Hydration & Sunscreen. Despite it being really cold and the middle of winter, dehydration and sunburn are major risks. Keep reinforcing the need to remain hydrated and apply sunscreen to exposed skin (mainly lower face as everything else should be covered).

  6. Unless students are experienced skiers and riders with good quality gear, you shouldn’t allow mum and dad’s old gear to make its way down to the slopes. Whilst ski hire adds to the cost, it’s far cheaper than dealing with a major injury because of rubbish equipment.

  7. Everyone must wear a helmet! This is not up for discussion. If you let kids or your staff ski without a helmet you’re asking for trouble. Make sure helmets are specifically designed for snow sports and are correctly fitted.

  8. Set suitable boundaries for your students as well. A lot of them will want to go straight to the jumps and terrain parks, but this takes a certain skill level to do safely and properly. If they want to do this, then put them in lessons so they can develop their skills in a safe and positive manner. Most injuries I’ve dealt with over the years have originated from jumps, boxes and rails!

Skiing - Snow Sports

Have fun! Skiing and snowboarding are awesome sports and they challenge everyone in a different way. Ultimately you’re there with your group so everyone has a safe and enjoyable experience. If you setup the trip with clear guidelines and structures in place, you’re going to have an enjoyable and awesome experience.

Snow Sports - Outdoor Education

First Time For Everything!

Skiing - Outdoor Education

Coming from Australia, there’s not too many double black diamond runs on our ski fields. In fact, when it really comes down to it, a double black in Australia is like comparing a gentle paddle along a river, with a grade 5 rapid. They’re just not the same. So when I went to ski Colorado, I was excited, yet nervous at the same time because the runs are steeper, longer and harder than anything back home.

Fear and excitement is what makes skiing so much fun and I couldn’t wait! The first thing I noticed when I landed in Denver, was how ridiculously cold it was compared with home, where you can get away with skiing in a t-shirt sometimes (that’s if it’s not raining). It felt good walking out of the terminal into that bracing cold, knowing I was in for some awesome runs! It also felt good getting out of the airport because of those weird murals!!! Has anyone else seen them? They’re messed up! I was wandering along and noticed there’s a soldier with a gas mask on painted on the walls of the arrivals lounge. Kinda weird… As this was my first trip to the US, I didn’t think much more of it, as I assumed that all airports in America must be the same, given the love of guns and stuff! But then later found out about all the conspiracy theories about the airport!!! If you haven’t heard any of them, please check them out! They’re insanely awesome, messed up and funny and I can’t wait to fly back in to Denver to see it all again. Anyway, I digress, back to skiing!

I headed to Breckenridge, where I was based for the season cooking meals and helping out in the house with an Australian snowboarding team. The job was simple. I cooked meals for the 25 people in the house and did the shopping and I was able to ski each day! Basically, my dream job. So each morning I went out skiing and then after lunch I went back to the house, prepped dinner and cooked. This gave my heaps of time to explore the four peaks of Breckenridge, as well as Keystone, A-Basin and an awesome day at Beaver Creek.

The Moment It Got Real!

The Moment It Got Real!

I’d been skiing there for a week and kept seeing expert only signs plastered around the slopes. My doubting inner voice kept telling me, ‘Don’t go there,’ you’re not an expert, you’re from Australia. However, my much louder more adventurous inner voice kept telling me, ‘Get there now!’ What are you doing on this lame single black diamond? There’s two more categories higher! Hurry up and do it!!!’ Needless to say, adventurous inner voice won out! There’d been a couple of decent snow falls over the previous few days and they’d finally opened up Peak 10 at Breck, which they’d been holding off doing to ensure depth to the base. I rushed over thinking the whole peak would be tracked out, only to find it relatively empty. This was fantastic! I jumped on the chair and headed up. At the top I saw the sign that drew me in! It pointed to a fresh double black run! It called to me, it dragged me in… It was Dark Rider! My stomach churned as I thought of all the things that could go wrong. I was pushing things too hard, I could break something, I could hit a tree, I could set off an avalanche (something we definitely don’t have in Australia). But once again, adventurous inner voice won with such well-formed arguments as, ‘Just shut up and go for it!’ Ok, you’re the boss! And with a skate of the skis and push of the stocks, I shot forward and down the incredibly steep run, plowing through waist deep powder with every turn. Bam! I copped a face full of snow, pumping up, I turned, dropped back into the powder and Bam! Another face full of snow! This was awesome! My heart raced as I weaved through the pines and danced through the deep powder around me.

I soon reached the bottom. I could feel my chest pounding, my legs burning and a smile on my face I couldn’t wipe off. Turning back, I glanced up to see what I’d ridden, my single set of tracks curving down the insanely steep run! I’d made it! It felt amazing. For me the fear of the unknown double black was finally put to rest. I’ve skied since I was five years old, but I’d always had the self-doubt around taking on a seriously challenging run. However, a few days before Christmas, I’d finally done it and I couldn’t have been any happier! As with anything in life that pushes the boundaries, if you put in the effort, build up to it and are confident in your ability to take that final leap which scares the hell out of you, then you can do anything!

As soon as I caught my breath, I was back on the chairlift, to do it all over again!

Planning A School Ski Trip?

A quick overview of some of the risk considerations when taking a school group to the snow. For the industry leaders on snow safety, head to http://snowsafe.org.au

Having worked in the snow sports’ industry for many years, both in Australia and overseas, I love being up in the mountains. It’s a great place for students to have a unique, challenging and rewarding experience doing something very different from their regular schooling.

However, with every trip away there are some significant issues you and your staff need to be aware of. Here’s a few great resources to help get you started on your trip planning!

General Snow Safety www.snowsafe.org.au/

Ski Resort Info

Thredbo - https://www.thredbo.com.au/schools/

Perisher - https://www.perisher.com.au/plan-your-trip/groups/2019-school-groups

Falls Creek - https://www.fallscreek.com.au/schoolgroups/

Mt Hotham - https://www.mthotham.com.au/discover/more-options/groups/hotham-school-tertiary-groups

Mt Buller - https://www.mtbuller.com.au/Winter/plan-your-visit/schools-and-groups


Happy Skiing! I hope you have a great season!