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My first memory of downhill skiing at Mad River Glen involves a lot of snow. I ended up with clumps of it sticking to my Kelly green pom-pom hat (because in 1981 pretty much only racers wore helmets to ski), up inside my mittens and the bottom of my ski pants, scattered across my jacket and sadly, on my goggles and up my nose.
I say “sadly” because this snow wasn’t falling from the sky. That it coated my body inside and out was a function of the fact that I spent most of my time on that first ski run on the ground with my skis and poles tangled hopelessly or, on some occasions, ten feet behind or ahead of me. In fact, I fell getting off the lift and things didn’t improve from there.
I was 11 years old and had agreed to take a downhill skiing lesson under a bit of duress from my parents who wanted me to challenge myself physically, something I was disinclined to do. I already knew how to cross-country ski and thought that maybe my knowledge of how to snowplow would help. It didn’t.
That was especially true because in those days lessons at Mad River Glen meant meeting your instructor at the the base lodge and then riding up the Sunnyside Double Chair, the top of which is 1500 vertical feet from the bottom. No gradual welcome to the mountain this – I watched nervously as skiers swooped underneath the chair and in the trees off to the sides. The ramp to get off the lift itself looked steep to me and I balked at the last minute, which meant a tumble and the humiliation of having the lift stop.
My teacher was a no-nonsense woman named Leigh Clark who still teaches at Mad River (she’s done so for 40 years). She was kind, but firm, and had no patience for any drama, focusing insistently on my form and balance. Every time I fell down she waited for me to get up and dust myself off, but then resumed telling me what I needed to do with my legs and arms. And so it was that eventually, finally, Leigh got me from the top of the mountain to the middle, where the mid-mountain Birdland Chair offered the relief of serving shorter, smoother groomed runs meant for beginners. There was even a small lodge there called the Birdcage that was an excellent spot for hot chocolate breaks, which Leigh graciously permitted me two of during the course of a half-day private lesson.
By the end of that first lesson, I was confident enough to once again ride the double chairlift up to the top and pick my way cautiously down, this time remaining primarily upright. I’ll never forget how great it felt to successfully dismount the lift and nonchalantly (or so it seemed to me) loop my poles around my wrists before crouching in my snow plow – now usually called a “pizza wedge” – and pointing my skis down the hill.
I don’t have any regrets about how I learned to ski because I never looked back. And the fact is that kids now would never have a first lesson like mine. That’s because Mad River Glen has changed much of its approach to how it teaches kids to ski since I was a kid.
But one thing hasn’t changed a bit: The firm belief of all its instructors that anyone can learn to not just ski, but love the mountain. And they are almost always right.
Mad River Glen Ski Lessons Then Versus Now
Mad River Glen has maintained much of the old-school charm I remember, a charm that was already decades old when I started skiing. For one thing, it still runs a single chairlift. And the fact that the resort doesn’t make much snow, groom extensively or allow snowboarding means there’s a purity to skiing there that can take old-timers back to the days when they wore wool pants to ski and arrived on the mountain in a wood-paneled station wagon that had to be pushed into the parking lot. But there’s one important way that the mountain looks forward instead of back, and that’s in its kids’ programs.
I realized this as soon as I returned to Mad River Glen when my kids learned to ski seven seasons ago. For one thing, the mountain now has a dedicated beginner’s area near the bottom, with a rope tow and small gates and teachers cheering everyone on as they putter down the gentle slope.
My older son Tommy was a very determined 7 years old the first time he skied at Mad River Glen – all he wanted was to do what I had done and ride the lift up on the mountain on his very first day. But thanks to this nice little area at the bottom, which is called Callie’s Corner, he did a day and a half of turning drills before he was deemed ready to ride the lift. This set up him up for success in a big way, and he never had the kind of disastrous first run that I did. (It didn’t hurt that thanks to yet another change in teaching philosophy, he didn’t have poles to contend with – kids no longer use them until they are moving out of the “pizza wedge” stage of skiing.)
But here’s the thing I really like about the kids’ programs at Mad River Glen: You can take advantage of them at any point you want, not just when your kids are beginners. Even if your kids have been skiing for years, there are programs and teachers who can help them up there game and have fun doing it.
Kids’ Programs at Mad River Glen Are All About Skills and Confidence
Over the 2016-17 New Year’s holiday I was skiing with Tommy, now 14, and his brother Teddy, who is 11. Thanks to those early lessons and a pretty significant height and weight advantage over his brother (he’s taller than I am and his skis are longer than mine), Tommy now skis aggressively and fast and wants to spend most of his time in the trees. Teddy doesn’t quite have the skills Tommy does, but he’s not afraid. That meant I watched with a little bit of horror as he would chase his brother down the hill without a turn or a pole plant, just a lot of speed.
I knew that it was time for the Mad River Glen Ski School to come to the rescue of my family yet again.
Mad River’s ski programs are all about enjoying the mountain and making kids feel like they are just having a fun day of skiing. This stealth approach to instruction means that the staff divides kids up according to both age and ability level, so an 11-year-old will never be in a lesson with a one of the really little kids. And this matters a great deal when you’re 11, let me tell you, especially since the group for the younger kids is called Chipmunks.
Teddy was already smarting a bit that he needed lesson and his brother didn’t, but when he found out was a Purple Panther, the highest level of junior skier, he was excited to give his lesson a try. We signed him up for the full-day program, which ran from 10 until 3 and included lunch. I liked this schedule because we didn’t have to be at the mountain super early, and also had time to take a run or two with Teddy before he joined his group for the day.
I checked in with Teddy at lunchtime, just to make sure he wanted to stay with his group. The kids’ area was full of cozy chaos. Tucked into a basement corner, the kids hang out and compare notes about what they skied while they eat their pizza or grilled cheese (for the all-day programs, your child chooses lunch when you drop him or her off in the morning). It was loud and a little steamy and utterly comfortable. And it turns out that not only was Teddy happy to spend the rest of the day with his new friends – he already wanted to know if he could do another day of lessons. So for an entire second day, he was off skiing happily with three other kids his age and an instructor.
Here’s why Teddy wanted to stay in the lessons: His teacher, Bob, let the kids ski challenging terrain all over the mountain and used that terrain to focus on teaching them the mechanics of good turns. Instead of making them practice on the easier, groomed trails, he permitted them to ski at the outside edge of their abilities. At the end of each day of skiing, Teddy proudly listed all of the black diamond trails he had skied. And I watched proudly as he turned – and poled! sometimes anyway – his way down the mountain.
Another bonus about the lessons? During an insanely busy holiday week, he didn’t have to stand in line but got right on the lifts. That means if you sign your kids up for the programs they will be skiing a lot, even if there are long lift lines. He undoubtedly got in more skiing than anyone else in our family.
Mad River Glen offers private lessons and clinics for grown-ups too. When I returned to skiing six years ago after twenty years off the mountain, I signed up for one. And you know who my teacher was? Leigh. We started in the same exact place, with her critiquing my turns as we skied off the Sunnyside Double. This time I didn’t end up with a face full of snow. A fact which I undoubtedly owe to her – twice.
Want to see more details about the lesson programs as well as a few other reasons to check out Mad River Glen? See my post about why families should ski there.