September 23, 2009

An online discussion on the EpicSkiwebsite forums in 2002 inspired real-world annual ski camps that are scheduled for an eighth season this winter. EpicSki Academy camps are slated for Dec. 12-13, 2009, in Stowe, Vt., and Jan. 10-14, 2010, in Snowmass, Colo.

Along with thousands of avid skiers, a large number of skiing teachers, who are certified by the Professional Ski Instructors Association of America (PSIA), frequent the discussion groups at EpicSki. The idea of turning online messages into on-snow instruction became a reality in 2003 at the first EpicSki Academy, held at Brighton Resort in Utah. Along with Stowe and Snowmass, past camps have also been held at Big Sky Resort in Montana, Alta and Snowbird in Utah and resorts in the Lake Tahoe area.

“It basically came from the membership in that one of the members realized in the instruction forums that we have a lot of really experienced instructors here,” said Weems Westfeldt, EpicSki Academy director and an instructor with the Ski and Snowboard Schools of Aspen/Snowmass. “If any of them would be interested in getting together at one of our gatherings and give some coaching, they would be willing to pay for that.”

In addition to Westfeldt, PSIA instructors Bob Barnes, now at Keystone Resort, Colo., and Joan Rostad, of Bridger Bowl, Mont., were instrumental in starting the camps. Rostad, the current president of the EpicSki website, still organizes and teaches at the annual clinics.

“We want EpicSki.com to be the number one resource for skiers and have extreme credibility,” Rostad said. “This is why we do EpicSki Academy is that it's like our showcase. Also, it's to give the community access that they would never have elsewhere.”

Stowe camp set for December

The annual two-day camp at Stowe in December is meant as an early-season tune-up. The Stowe camp costs $499 for two full days of instruction, lift tickets, video analysis, a bootfitting assessment and a group dinner on Saturday, Dec. 12.

The EpicSki Academy is open to all EpicSki website supporters, an additional yearly cost of $35. For the Stowe trip, the group has reserved a block of rooms available for a discounted rate at the Trapp Family Lodge of “Sound of Music” fame.

Snowmass hosts main event

The main clinic at Snowmass in January costs $999 for four full days of instruction, lift tickets, a welcome party, video analysis, a bootfitting assessment and a formal banquet. The camp will be based at Snowmass, but groups will also have access to the other three Aspen Skiing Company resorts: Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk.

Past camps have drawn as many as 72 skiers, ranging in age from young adults to senior citizens. The range of abilities is similarly diverse with the greatest number of participants at an advanced-intermediate level.

“By the end of the first day, I felt like part of the family. It's a welcoming, eclectic group.” said Bob Binder, a veterinarian from Melrose, Mass., who now regularly attends the EpicSki Academy clinics. “I've developed friendships with some of these pros and feel like my skiing has been transformed. The pros are good at picking out what each individual needs. I achieved my goals. It has been a great ride.”

Academy offers all-star instructor roster

The lesson groups are organized with a maximum student-teacher ratio of 6 to 1. Most of the instructors at the EpicSki Academy have attained status as PSIA examiners and trainers, who evaluate and teach other instructors.

“What we're looking for is really the highest level professional that we can find. There are many good ski instructors out there,” said Westfeldt, who hires the other instructors. “What I've discovered is that those that have taken the time to become trainers in the ski instructor world have just that extra little bit of awareness and knowledge. I've discovered with examiners and trainers that they're more easily unified in their approach with the least amount of training on the spot to do that. I find that the conflicts are less frequent and the ones that we do have are actually quite useful and we set up our students to be aware of that.

"Exceptions are people like Eric DesLauriers, who is not an examiner. He has a super credential with his book that he has written (“Ski the Whole Mountain”) and with his experiences as an extreme skier and a teacher,” Westfeldt added. “Dan Egan is another exception. Dan has just huge experience dealing with people in these camps on the hill. I'm not particularly looking for ski stars that are just high performers. I'm not sure that the Bode Millers would be the best thing for us unless they've have the coaching experience that allows them to deal with the needs of the guests rather than the needs of the skiing.”

The camaraderie of the camps extends from the online world to the real world and from the students to the instructors. “What makes it special to me is the ability to ski with really motivated skiers and I think that's what makes it really special to the coaches,” said Rostad, a former PSIA examiner and clinic leader.

“Aside from our community which is really strong, we want to connect our community to the very best available talent so that clinic is so far above any other experience that they would ever have," she continued. "It would just blow them away and they come back.”

“We get a very high return rate of business, because these people have realized that these are top coaches,” Westfeldt said. “The other part is what EpicSki is all about in that people on EpicSki talk to each other about skiing all year. All of a sudden they have chance to ski together under the guidance of a coach so the stories and the events that happen from year to year continue, so it becomes a really cool little club. The club members tend to really welcome the people that come in there.”

Reservations for the Stowe and Snowmass clinics may be made through the EpicSki Academy website.

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