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A Little Snow-How
At Deer Valley in Utah, instructors with Olympic credentials push skiers to their limits. It's terrifying. And exhilarating.

By William Triplett
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 10, 2006

"Basically, we take you to the edge of terror and then bring you back."

Not the most inspiring words I've ever heard from a ski instructor, but certainly among the more attention-getting -- and, I must say, more accurate.

For instance, call me old-fashioned, but I'd always assumed it was a good idea to carve a turn by putting weight on the outside ski. Imagine my surprise when told that our next exercise at this Deer Valley, Utah, ski school would be turning via the inside ski only. In fact, let's lift up the outside ski to make sure we don't cheat.

On an advanced-intermediate slope.

Couldn't even imagine such a thing, much less try doing it.

But several face-plants later, I was getting the hang of it. I was even getting the hang of skiing while leaning so far back that I thought I'd fall over, then leaning so far forward I was sure the skis would snap. Maybe there was method to this seeming madness otherwise known as a ski clinic.

How this was going to make me a better skier, I still wasn't sure. But this was a clinic run by twin brothers Phil and Steve Mahre, Olympic medalists and skiing legends. Besides, if you're going to ski terrified, you might as well do it at Deer Valley, where the snow can be incredibly soft while mountain vistas offer a beautiful backdrop for the spectacle you apparently need to make of yourself before you can improve.

And improving was the goal. With never enough time to ski as much as I'd like each season, I always savored a trip but also came away feeling like I'd forever be stuck in intermediate hell. You can certainly improve with simply more skiing, but not if you're doing something wrong and don't know it. You can find out what you're doing wrong by taking a lesson, but you won't necessarily correct it and learn the right way without extensive practice and supervision.

Hence, this clinic: three days of intense instruction, six hours a day on-slope, followed by an hour or so of chalk talk and videos of your work that day. Skiing boot camp. In a way, a working vacation -- but it was also my first ski vacation that was not only tremendously fun, but deeply satisfying as well.

The Wrong Stuff

With so many clinics available across the country, and having little clue as to which would be best, I relied on friends' recommendations last winter. The Mahre Training Center at Deer Valley, they said, is geared to all ability levels (not always the case among clinics); it accepts both recreational skiers and racers; and the Mahres have a rep for being really nice guys.

Indeed, at the meet-and-greet breakfast on Day One, the brothers mingled and chatted with many of the 40 or so people who had ponied up about $600 for the clinic. More than a few were repeaters, which may or may not have been a good sign. The brothers explained that a team of DV ski school instructors trained in the Mahre method would break us into small groups according to ability and work with us, while they -- the Mahres -- would float among the different groups.

Deer Valley has its own ski school, but the Mahres run theirs based on training techniques they learned during their time with the U.S. Ski Team. Apparently those techniques worked: At the 1984 Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo, Phil and Steve took gold and silver, respectively, for the United States in slalom. They've been running their clinic pretty much ever since.

At the bottom of a fairly gentle slope, the Mahres and the instructors watched as each of us essentially auditioned our skills. I ended up in one of the intermediate groups, headed by an affable instructor named Bruce, who, it turned out, is originally from Virginia's ski country.

True to his word, Bruce immediately started taking us to the edge of terror in the Mahre fashion. The theory is to find your most efficient comfort zone by pushing you to extremes in various directions. That way, you know where the limits are and where to operate best within them.

To wit: Traversing while leaning as far back on the ski tails without falling backward, and understanding the particular loss of control that ensues and the feeling it produces in your body. Compare that with the feeling you get as you traverse leaning too far forward -- not the same!

Now ski standing straight up. Then crouched down. Turn on outside ski. Inside ski. Ski on one ski at a time.

All the feelings are different. Once familiar with them, when you're skiing and have one of those feelings, you know what you're doing wrong. You spend the next six hours getting familiar with each one.

Forget the surrounding mountains, and the trees, and the lake, and the 50-plus miles of trails slicing across 1,825 acres . . . all you see and think about is the patch of white immediately in front of you.

Afterward, back in the lodge, we attended a lecture on boots. Many skiing problems, the lecturer said, are caused by ill-fitting boots, and most people buy the wrong size. The lecturer just happened to be a salesman in the Deer Valley ski shop -- conveniently located downstairs. But I went ahead and bit -- I stopped in afterward and asked him to check my boot fit. "Lucky you," he said. "Someone actually sold you the right size."

The 'S' Factor

The wrong stuff now covered, Day Two began in the breakfast room with Steve Mahre talking about the right stuff. "The quickest way to go from intermediate to advanced is to let the body fall down the hill ahead of the skis, and to maintain that action all the way down," he said. With black marker in hand, he started at the top of a large blank sheet of paper and drew a swaying "S" line -- right, left, right, left, right -- all the way to the bottom. "That's the ski track."

Then, with a red marker, he drew another swaying line, more or less on top of the black line but turning sooner. "That's the body track." The body, he told us, should always start the turn -- by leaning down the hill -- before the skis start to carve. Today we would learn how to apply yesterday's techniques to executing this action.

A ride on the Sultan chairlift afforded a gaze onto the resort's expanse. The Wasatch Mountains, where Deer Valley is located, aren't really a match for the dramatic grandeur of the Rockies. But these 9,000-foot-high peaks have their own charm, with their alternately rolling and rising slopes and pitches, all lined with dense thickets of trees. Add a dazzling sun in a brilliant blue sky and you've got your postcard view.

Stuart and Fiona, a young Australian couple in my group, told me how much they were enjoying themselves. They felt that they'd learned a great deal the day before and hoped to learn more today. But even if they didn't, they said, the experience already had been rewarding: Like me, they'd wanted to be better skiers, but had always thought that a concentrated effort might not be much fun. If they continued to enjoy themselves, they were already planning on returning next year.

Bruce gathered us together at the top of a moderate slope and pointed to a woman we could barely see near the bottom. "She's got a video camera," he said. "We're gonna do what we did yesterday, but put it toward what we learned this morning."

As if on cue, Steve Mahre skied up and said he'd show us what he'd meant with his drawing. And then he was off, gracefully traversing, his body weight moving forward, then up, then down the fall line, skis following. He completed the turn, set up and started the whole thing over again.

"Just like that, all the way down!" he shouted.

One by one, we went down, trying our best, as both Steve and Bruce called out adjustments -- "Weight forward! Loosen knees!" -- and pretty much coached us the entire run. The more we did it, the less they called out, and the more I thought I was starting to understand.

Then we saw the video at the end of the day. Yes, I was absorbing the techniques, but I was still stiff in my traverses and turns. "Also need to keep your feet farther apart," Bruce commented as he watched one of my runs. "But you're starting to get it."

That, I must say, was a good feeling.

Down in the Valley

In a way, Deer Valley is really about elegance: perfectly groomed trails, picturesque beauty, pricey on-mountain mansions. All that, and its prohibition against snowboarders, can sometimes generate complaints of elitism or snobbery. Maybe so. But despite having some expensive restaurants, Deer Valley is perhaps a little more humble than, say, Aspen, whose $82 adult day lift ticket is $5 more expensive than DV's.

Also, the nearby presence of Park City, originally a silver mining town, helps relax the atmosphere. Up and down Main Street, Park City still has the feel of a mining town. Trendy boutiques, bars, clubs and eateries (more than 100) seem to be everywhere, but a nighttime stroll is still peaceful, particularly as snow begins to fall and images of fresh powder on the mountain begin to dance in the head.

Day Three began in the powder, unfortunately. Skiing powder is different from groomed trails. The techniques we learned do apply, but in different ways. The rest of the group cottoned to it a lot faster than I did. This wasn't part of the plan, but Bruce thought we should take advantage of powder at least to see what it feels like. (Being flexible is another part of the clinic experience.) Back on the groomed trails, we can really work on what we've learned.

Both Steve and Phil joined us for about an hour -- and the desire to show two Olympians that I'd learned something was, I admit, powerful. And contagious, I saw. We were all concentrating very hard as they watched us, and I could definitely see improvement in the others.

As I traversed my way down the mountain, I repeated to myself what Bruce and the Mahres had drilled into us, that it was all about balance -- forward, aft, lateral and vertical. I developed a rhythm of those terms in my head, a rhythm that matched my movements across and down the slope. Somewhere along the way, I started to feel different on skis -- less tense, perhaps. Definitely more fluid.

"That's it!" either Phil or Steve called behind me. "That's it! Keep doing it!"

And it suddenly occurred to me what was really so different. I was having more fun on skis than I ever had before.

William Triplett last wrote for Travel about Stratford-upon-Avon, England.

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