Vail snowboard instructor: This is the life
Special to the Daily
Vail, CO Colorado
VAIL ” Mud still dots Charlie Clarke’s shirt and he scratches sand out of his reddish-brown hair while polishing off a burger and fries.
Out the window of his West Vail home, the dying daylight bleeds into a darkening sky, silhouetting the craggy knuckles of the Gore Range and knobby top of Bald Mountain, dusted in early snow.
“That’s my motivational view,” Clarke says.
Inside a laptop glows, revealing Clarke taking a hairpin left turn down Vail’s steep singletrack, a snapshot from a day spent testing gravity on his mountain bike.
Throughout Clarke’s 15-year career teaching snowboarding at Vail, he’s spent countless days charging down the 3,740-foot mountain. Although tired from the day, Clarke’s eyes light up as he talks about upcoming season 16.
“I love it early in the season when everybody comes in. It’s just welcome, welcome, welcome,” Clarke says.
Clarke still has the wholesome, all-American look of a 24-year-old ” his age when he moved to Vail. Born in England, raised in Canada, the American taught snowboarding part-time at Jade Mountain, Vt., while attending Bishops, a small college in Quebec.
After he graduated, he packed a futon and a couple of snowboards into his Volvo sedan and headed for North America’s largest, best-known mountain: Vail.
Clarke was hired by Vail in 1992 and ended the season with $100 in his bank account. There were days where he’d have just three clients.
“I’d have a 30-year-old and 10-year-old in the same lesson, and you just … figure it out.”
As mad growth has ripped through Vail over the past 15 years, ski school sales have also blown up. Two brand-new high-speed quads add to a constellation of chairlifts spanning seven miles. Last season Vail totaled 1,608,204 skier/snowboarder visits and was voted SKI Magazine’s No. 1 resort for the 14th time (though it slipped to No. 2 this year.)
The slopes crawl with skiers from six continents. Ski school has a staff of 1,000 instructors speaking more than 30 languages, says Jen Brown, spokeswoman for Vail.
Vail’s staff helps write the manuals for the industry and trains and certifies new instructors throughout the Western Rockies.
“It’s known as the best ski school in the world,” Brown says.
After six years teaching snowboarding, Clarke opted for a supervisor position, where he managed products and staff for seven years. But he missed his craft, and changed back into his royal-blue instructor coat two seasons ago.
Children’s snow sports school general manager Mike Blakslee says it’s people like Clarke that give Vail’s school its good name.
“He’s an AASI advanced educator who goes around and gives clinics to instructors all around the region,” Blakslee says.
Clarke is a teacher of teachers and of adult and youth snowboarders. Though he calls himself “one of the dinosaurs,” the 39-year-old veteran exudes the contagious energy of a teenager.
“Charlie’s enthusiasm is infectious to everyone around him,” Blakslee says.
Most days, Clarke skis with clients from 9 a.m. to 3:45 p.m., navigating the 5,289 acres of Vail’s terrain that make up his classroom. Depending on the client, he’ll coach in the trees, in the park or in the Back Bowls.
There are some constants for instructors: finding appropriate terrain; judging conditions; knowing the lodge with the best chili and hot cocoa; and making sure everyone stays safe and has fun.
But every client has unique needs, and a good instructor will read and cater to students’ abilities, goals, thresholds and definitions of fun.
Vail’s clientele pays for and expects personalized attention. “One of the most significant things about the school are the relationships that people build with their clients … there’s a reputation that the school has, which comes with an expectation,” Brown says.
Blakslee calls Clarke’s teaching an art form. If anything requires an artistic touch, it’s captivating kids long enough to teach them how to ride.
“Where adults will be really polite if you start to talk, kids won’t be. Your presentations have to last 6 or 7 seconds before you’re off doing something,” Blakslee says.
Snowboarding is hard, and Vail winters can be unforgiving. Clarke has been in the business long enough to know when a student wants to quit, it’s generally just frustration. His job is to push them past such roadblocks. He uses a teacher’s sentience to get in their head at these moments.
“‘I do want to learn how to ski. I do want to be better. I do want a story to tell my friends.’ And we’re the people that can get them to that level.”
Clarke admits staying fresh is a big part of the job.
“Whether they came for Thanksgiving or Christmas or they’re coming for Easter, it’s still the first day of their vacation. And for us it’s just the 140th day of the season,” he says.
His goal to ride every day fends off burnout. He mixes days in the Back Bowls with hours in the park, runs down East Vail chutes, sessions in the backcountry, and undying quests for secret powder stashes.
“You just have to go explore, and sometimes you get stuck and other times you’ll find these big open spaces in trees and then it’s like the Secret Garden,” Clarke says.
Shoulder season is another perk, when snowmelt and fickle temperatures outnumber snowflakes and guests.
For Clarke, off season means “travel and random jobs and abusing my savings. I’ve gone to Europe three or four times, South America twice, India.”
A few high points were snowboarding the steeps Las Lenas, Argentina, and Portillo, Chile. An even greater height was meeting Anne Dunley, who Clarke married three years ago and he calls “cute, smart, and athletic.”
Over the summers, Clarke has worked Vail mountain’s bike program, construction labor, service jobs and managed at Vail Sports store. This past summer he worked as a front desk agent for Lodge at Vail and Austria Haus.
His colleagues work at golf courses, adventure companies, rafting outfitters, restaurants, or move away for the summer. Another legion of “never-summer” instructors leapfrog across the globe to catch the next ski season. Ski school administrator Anna Rice says many internationals rotate between hemispheres.
When Vail closes, “they’ll go to Australia or Argentina and teach there. It’s their career; it’s what they do.”
Vail depends on tourists as much as it depends on locals. Still, nothing piques local territorialism like peak season crowds and lift lines.
“We wouldn’t be here if they weren’t here,” Clarke says of tourists. “People really want to come to enjoy our lifestyle. It’s connecting people to our lifestyle, to our passion.”
On Nov. 16, Vail’s opening day, Clarke’s alarm will sound at 7:15 a.m. He’ll dress in layers and trek through the mountains’ cold, ethereal dawn to the bus stop. He’ll ride a mile to Lionshead Village, grab his boots, board and the first gondola lift available.
If Clarke makes first tracks before reporting to ski school at 9 a.m., it’s bound to be a good day. He’ll hustle back to the lift after 3:45 p.m. check-out for an encore run.
His cool-down will most likely be a frothy beverage with friends, followed by the bus ride home and lights out by 10 p.m.
It’s a tough life, and Clarke admits it could use a change: “I’d like the lifts to be open longer.”