There’s a ski resort joke: What is the difference between God and a ski instructor? God doesn’t want to be a ski instructor. Students in Level One of the Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance, however, very much do — or at least earn the badge.

By Deborah Jones
WHISTLER, British Columbia, Canada, 2006

Whistler Mountain opened on a recent morning to a rare mix of blue skies and a foot of new powder. Whooping and laughing, most of the expert skiers headed up the peak chair to where snow the consistency of lightly whipped cream filled the couloirs and bowls. Far below, so low that the skiers on the peak looked like black dots, I joined 50 other expert skiers on gentle bunny slopes.

We were here to attend perhaps the toughest ski school of them all. Ken Doraty, the teacher of my pod of eight, immediately ordered, ”Take your skis off.” We cast wishful glances at the powdery bliss above, and stepped out of our bindings.

There is a joke about ski instructors: What is the difference between God and a ski instructor? God doesn’t want to be a ski instructor. We, however, very much do want to be ski instructors, or at least earn the bragging rights, and Doraty is a gatekeeper to that realm.

Each year, about 3,500 skiers from around the world take the Level One course of the Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance. Curiously, as many as 40 percent of candidates have no intention of ever being an instructor, said Wade Sutton, the course coordinator at Whistler.

The course is a basic qualification to teach at a ski resort, but many who enroll regard passing the test as a notch in their belt, an extreme example of lifelong learning, or simply a creative and arduous way to become a better skier.

”It’s a new challenge,” Sutton said. ”They’ve probably taken a lot of ski-school lessons prior to this, and they think, ‘I’ll give that a shot.’ ”They find out what it’s like to be on the other side of the fence.”

Elisa McLaren, a retired administrator at a university in Vancouver, has taken C.S.I.A. Levels One and Two. ”Really, I just did it as a project, to see if I could do it, to test myself,” said McLaren, 67. ”It was a retirement project. I didn’t really think that I would teach, but I thought it would be really good for my skiing, which it was.”

Some may simply believe that there is glamour in having a ski-instructor pin, said Gerda Koch, a C.S.I.A. coordinator in British Columbia. ”Oh, my, being a ski instructor used to have this flair about it,” she said. ”To be a ski instructor was to be good-looking and healthy, having a nice job, being outside and doing what you love.”

Level One C.S.I.A. courses for advanced skiers are held from November through April at resorts throughout Canada. At Whistler, the largest and busiest, 500 students enroll in Level One each year. Most of the students are from Canada, Britain and Australia, with a few dozen each from the United States, Austria, France, Chile, New Zealand and Japan.

The program attracts people from around the world because, unlike certification programs at United States resorts like Vail and Stowe, C.S.I.A. accepts candidates with no prior experience working at a ski school. Koch said that basic Canadian courses also were much shorter and more accessible than in most European countries, where the programs, which include advanced mountain guide skills like avalanche training, are exclusively for serious professionals.

About 80 percent of Canadian Level One candidates pass and receive written certification that they can ski as well as a Level One instructor. Because the C.S.I.A. program consists of four levels of increasing difficulty — career professionals usually attain Level Three or Four — a Level One would be equivalent to a basic martial arts black belt, the first step on the path of truly serious training.

”Regular ski-school progress ends at a certain level, and some people want more,” Koch said. ”In C.S.I.A., you get more technical information.”

Skiing is a highly technical sport. As syntax and morphology are key to fluency in a language, skills like stance and balance, pivoting, edging, pressure control and timing are essential for skiers as they float over powder or gracefully carve steep runs. This is what Doraty tries to impart to his Level One students over the four-day instructor’s course. Doraty, 43, said he did not mind whether his students became teachers or simply used his course to improve their skills.

”You’ll never think about skiing the same way again,” he said. ”Now you know what you have to understand to make the turn happen, and you’ll constantly be thinking about what you’re doing, if you’re passionate about skiing.”

Copyright © 2006 Deborah Jones

Originally published by The New York Times, 4 March, 2006

References and further reading:

Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance

Story in the New York Times


Disclosure: I hold a Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance certificate, and taught part time for three winters, in Whistler. And for the record – should anyone take the joke seriously – I’ve never thought of ski instructors (nor anyone else) as gods. It’s far too much fun.

For fun (and a few bucks and a season’s pass) I taught the same group of kids every Saturday at Whistler for three seasons. Me with some of my students, in 2001. Photo © Anne Kennedy 2001