Snowguns were blasting fresh powder along the slopes at Blue Mountain Ski Area, creating a soft, downy surface over a smaller-than-expected base for this time of the year. College students still on break, adults off from work and children too young for school flocked to Blue Mountain.
Group lessons are no longer limited to an hour, releasing the learners — or improvers — from the so-called "Bunny Slopes" to the steeper runs on the rest of the mountain. Now, people who sign up for a lesson can stay all day — from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m. — and learn at their own pace from a rotating group of instructors. The students navigate a course of clearly marked stations lined with visual obstacles to safely test their skills.
"Lessons use to run an hour to 90 minutes," explained Martina Buckley, the director of Blue Mountain Learning Center. "We thought that it was way more efficient for the guests and way less stressful if we open this teaching terrain for the entire day.
"You can go in there and get your lesson with no time constraints and no time pressure. If you learn the first skills or you need a little bit longer to get those, you can take your time now and do that. You can learn at your own pace."
Buckley said she doesn't like to think of it as teaching or learning or lessons so much as putting skiers and boarders in an area where they can have fun.
Skiing and snowboarding are acquired skill sports. Few people can hop on a board or step into a set of skis and become the next Bode Miller on downhills or the next Hannah Kearney on moguls.
"It is a sport," Buckley said, "and like every other sport, you want to know how to handle your equipment, be safe out there and still have fun and everything. I compare this to driving a car. You wouldn't put your kids behind the wheel and say, 'Go.' You would tell them where the brake pedal is first, and maybe the gas pedal and how to shift gears. It's pretty much the same with skiing out there. Trees don't move. If you go down straight, you go pretty fast and you want to be as safe as possible out there."
Blue Mountain has a learning area specifically for kids 4-and-under, as well as learning areas at the Summit and Valley lodges. Both areas have specifically numbered areas for beginner skiers and snowboarders, along with a third area to try when the students pick up some confidence.
Both areas feature a "Magic Carpet" where the students simply step on a corrugated conveyor belt and stand as they ride up the mountain. The Magic Carpet at the Summit learning area replaces an ancient tow rope system.
Blue Mountain spent about $250,000 improving the learning areas. A whole upper section was added to the Summit area so that when students are feeling really comfortable on the flatter portion of the beginner hill, they can step onto a second magic carpet ride and achieve a steeper slope to test their skills with speed that will be achieved on easier trails like Lazy Mile and Burma Road.
They've also improved the interior of the Summit Lodge's Vista room, which provides some spectacular views and allows parents and grandparents to watch their little ones learning in the Explorer area or on the Summit learning slope.
Buckley said that the new format is being well received by guests to the mountain. While a rotation of instructors may seem impersonal at first, the instructors are in a position to be a bit friendlier. Plus, with instructors rotating shifts on the slope, one instructor may be able to communicate a bit more effectively with any given learner.
"Primarily, our focus is stay safe, have fun and learn as you go," Buckley said. "On our beginner terrains, the big goal is that you know how to stop whenever you need to stop, and make turns so that you can master the terrain at your leisure, at your own speed and in your comfort zone. We want to give you the tools to master what you want to do."
Private lessons are always available, and there is even a six-week group lesson for women on Wednesdays and senior citizens on Tuesdays.
Lessons are a good idea not only for beginners, but for longtime skiers and boarders. Equipment has changed, and so have the techniques. At one time, parallel skiing meant knees practically together, skis centimeters apart. With today's shaped skis, skis should be more like hip-width apart.
They are also a good idea for someone coming back from an injury like knee or back surgery, especially if the injury was caused by a skiing accident.
"You need your confidence to get out there," said Buckley, who has had knee surgery. "When you get back out, it's more mental than it is physical."
Buckley took me on my first few runs since back surgery last February in order to improve my confidence and demonstrate proper technique by laying down a beautiful track of "S" turns to follow. Barely looking back, she determined I was making my left turn too sharply and advised me to lean forward with my knees so that I could feel the ski boots pressing against my shins. That little trick immediately improved the glide ability and helped make my left turns more curved.
After making some progress there, she showed me how to use the outside edge of my skis to turn. Instead of shifting the skis with my hips, she had me flare my right knee outward — like a car blinker — in order to touch the outside edge of the right ski to the snow. That automatically made the inside edge of my left ski touch, and I curved to the right. I straightened, shifted my left knee outward, caught that outside edge and began turning to the left.
Like all sports, the more you practice skiing and snowboarding, the better and more comfortable you get at them. Learning proper technique for first-timers is fairly simple; old dogs like me, we have bad muscle memory and bad habits that we need to overcome.
"Not everyone is going to be a Bode Miller," Buckley said. "The idea is to have fun and be safe while you're having fun. You don't have to go on [the expert trails]. The greens [easiest slopes] and blues [intermediate slopes] are all that a lot of people do. We want you to be able to enjoy yourself."
Blue Mountain's beginner group lesson plan starts at $35.
Demo Days: Jack Frost has Subaru Master the Mountain day with lessons and Subaru merchandise giveaways Saturday and Sunday beginning at 9 a.m. both days …Bear Creek Mountain Resort is hosting a HERE Snowboards demo day beginning 9 a.m. Sunday … Blue Mountain is hosting a demo day on Thursday (10 a.m.-4 p.m.) featuring both Buckman's Ski Shop and Salomon. The demo setup areas are near the Valley Lodge location.
Camelback air bag: Camelback, like Blue Mountain since the 2009-10 season, is offering an air bag. The 50-foot by 50-foot air bag inflates to 12 feet high. Blue Mountain's BigAirBag, which has been in operation since the 2009-10 season. It measures 56x35 and is 8-feet high at full inflation.