So you wanna be a huck star?
So, you watched the Winter X Games on a widescreen TV with a bag of chips and a bowl of dip wedged between your knees. Then you pried yourself off the couch and headed over to Golden Peak to watch the U.S. Freeskiing Open."That was pretty cool," you thought to yourself after watching some of the world’s best twirl, whirl, flip and slide their way to fame and fortune. "I want some of that glory," you said to your posse, picturing Jonny Mosely with a couple of hot babes on each arm. "I think I’d like to learn some of those tricks."You head for the nearest ski area, feeling pretty confident that you’ll find a terrain park after all, most resorts now prominently feature this amenity front and center, ensuring potential visitors that they are down with the latest ski trends. You ride the lift and watch a few would-be huck stars land just a little short on the big table top with a sickening crunch. You decide you’d rather get a lesson than flatten your arches permanently.What happens when you get to the ski school window to sign up for a freeskiing class? Sure, there are plenty of summer ski camps offering specialized instruction, and organizations like Ski Club Vail are also beginning to incorporate freeskiing programs into their curriculum. But are the ski teachers at your favorite mountain up to speed? Can they give you the knowledge you need to ride supreme in the pipe and on the rails? And can the ski schools attract the young and daring adolescents who are most interested in busting big moves, and who could benefit the most from a little formal training?Since Freeskiing for Dummies has yet to be written, The Vail Trail decided to do a little research and find out where some of the local areas stand when it comes to teaching the newest alpine discipline.The general message is that, if you want a lesson that focuses specifically on terrain park riding, you will often be encouraged to sign up for a private, whether you can afford it or not. But that makes sense from an instructional standpoint, says Steamboat-based Karl Bunker, who directs the educational and certification programs for the Rocky Mountain Division of the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA)."Putting a super high performance activity in a group lesson would be difficult," Bunker says. PSIA has been offering what it calls Rip Sessions for the past two seasons, aimed at getting instructors trained to teach freeskiing basics. "We’re trying to get our instructors to open their minds to the new school of skiing," he says, pointing out that the average age for PSIA instructors is 42 a bit past the prime for the park.At Vail, the freeskiing movement has infused the mountain with much-needed youthful energy and helped revitalize skiing, says big-mountain rider Chris Anthony, who represents the resort as a skiing ambassador. The park scene is also a boon for small resorts, which can offer an experience akin to the larger areas, thereby attracting up and coming young skiers, according to Anthony.And while freeskiing’s edgy and progressive image is certainly part of its appeal, Anthony says skiers need to understand that terrain parks need to be treated with respect and caution."It’s very important, and it should be emphasized that the parks are best approached with an experienced person," Anthony says. "You need to know the physics of how these things work," he adds, referring to the man-made terrain features. "I want to see this continue to grow, and to do that, we need to make sure the education is there. Some kids are going straight to the park. They’re not really learning how to ski. My suggestion is that it should be part of a well-rounded skiing experience."Holistic skiingNine-year Vail Ski School veteran B.J. Aguilar agrees, explaining that Vail takes a holistic approach to teaching freeskiing. "When I teach, I teach in the halfpipe, I teach in the Back Bowls. We go in the trees and we learn about natural terrain features like cliffs and cornices. It’s all part of skiing, says the 31-year-old, who mostly teaches seven- to 14-year-old students. Learning to ride the rails and launch off the big hits in the park is part of that larger experience, he says. "Our focus is on skiing as a whole.""When we’re in the Back Bowls, looking at a cornice, we’re trying to figure out the best way to enter do we want to catch air or not? We’ll ski it first, then go back and maybe catch a little air," Aguilar says, explaining that the experience helps develop the same skills needed to maneuver on man-made features in the park.Aguilar says he takes plenty of students into the park, but says that, once they start wanting to do anything beyond the basic tricks and grabs, the students move out on their own. "People are learning on booters in the backcountry and in camps and on trampolines," he says of the experienced riders performing impressive terrain park tricks. Skiers looking for more focused terrain park instruction always have the option of taking a private, Aguilar says, adding that Vail does have a number of instructors qualified to teach those lessons.During a session in the park, Aguilar says he discusses technical information, encouraging students to learn about the transitions of the jumps and trying to gauge how much speed is appropriate for the various terrain features. And along with technical skills, Aguilar says terrain park etiquette is another critical area. That involves learning to inspect the jumps, landing areas and run-out zones. Common sense dictates that you make sure the landing area is clear before dropping in, and most jumps are best approached with a spotter, he says. And it may not be so obvious that you shouldn’t make a big skidded turn in the run-out area after a landing a jump that leaves a big trench in the snow and can make the landing hazardous for the next person dropping in.For those eager to learn more, it can pay off to spend time in the park observing experienced riders. "The great thing about the parks is people will help you. Watch what people are doing and don’t just cut in. And don’t be afraid to ask. People will tell you, ‘The snow is a little slower so you need to start up higher,’" Aguilar says.Breck rulesVail’s Freeskiing Open (which just wrapped up Feb. 6-9) is clearly one of the premier events in the freeskiing circus, but sister resort Breckenridge has a reputation for being home to a vibrant pipe and park scene all season long. And that’s reflected in the mountain’s teaching programs, where 10 to 12 instructors stand ready to teach introductory and intermediate freeskiing lessons."We’re looking for people to be a strong level six, with strong fundamental skills before they go in the park," says Tommy Banks, training manager for the Breckenridge Ski and Ride School, explaining that terrain park freeskiing is considered a high performance element of the sport. "We want to make sure their skills match with their desire. Then we’ll get them hopping around and try to get them comfortable being in the air, using small natural terrain features to do little jumps, maybe switch 180s," Banks says, explaining that learning to negotiate man-made terrain features in a park requires similar skills as other aspects of high level skiing bumps, powder or steeps, for example.Breckenridge also has a couple of smaller parks that lend themselves to learning, Banks explains. After spending some time getting to know the mountains natural waves and rolls, a class might head for some of those smaller man-made features, where students could try a few small, straight airs and then progress to trying some switch landings, all while gaining more confidence before progressing to bigger features, Banks says.Lessons are available in a group setting if the demand is there, which does happen during busy times. But in general, Banks says the ski and ride school tries to steer students toward a private lesson if they are interested in really focusing on the terrain park.For next season, Banks says Breck is considering setting up a more regular freeskiing program that would be part of the ongoing lesson program, Banks says. "We’ve had a large response within our corps of instructors. We’ve got great coaches and great parks. We’re really on the cutting edge," he concludes.To find information on ski camps offering specialized freeskiing instruction, point your Web browser at http://www.freeskionline.com/camps.