by Elizabeth Guest
Forget style. On the ski hill, the color of a parka is important for practical purposes: It’s a beacon to find your favorite ski buddy or a good way to recognize the snow-savvy wearers of red and yellow from the Telluride Ski and Snowboard School.
Chris Chaput and Chris Zimmerman, both ski school instructors, share a similar winter schedule. Each day starts in the locker room, where they suit up before their morning meeting with nearly 200 fellow employees. Then they load the lift for a day of lessons.
Chaput says he was immediately sucked into the ski school lifestyle. “It was infectious from the beginning. I liked the people, the atmosphere and it was really rewarding working with children.” As a children’s ski specialist, Chaput works predominately with kids, but each lesson varies from student to student. One day, an instructor leads laps on Lift One, steering beginner skiers down the slope in a perfect snowplow. Other lessons log hours on bump runs or tackle terrain park tricks. Some expert students even climb Palmyra Peak for untracked powder.
“What people want in a lesson can vary a lot,” says Zimmerman, a snowboard instructor. “Some people want to have a good time and enjoy the mountain air, while others want to learn as much as they can.”
As skiers and boarders learn to carve turns in soft snow, instructors must be pliable in their teaching style. “The best instructors are the ones who find what a student is really looking for,” says Chaput. There’s a certain ski school jargon that works for some students; others bypass wordy explanations for simple directions. “Someone like a doctor could love hearing the technical descriptions, but if your student is an artist, they probably prefer more feeling-based advice,” explains Zimmerman, whose lessons depend on whether a student is a visual, audio or kinetic learner.
Ski school isn’t your average nine-to-five job, but these instructors have found their niche. “It’s an outdoor office, so to speak, which fulfills my love of the mountains, the trees, the wind,” says Zimmerman. “There’s also enjoyment in showing people a good time and getting people hooked on the sport.” Chaput says that Telluride’s sunshine makes it an especially easy place to be outside, and then there’s the beguiling beauty of the physical landscape. “Telluride is probably one of the most beautiful places I’ve taught,” he says, which includes other resorts such as Purgatory and Aspen, as well as a childhood skiing on the East Coast.
Chaput and Zimmerman, both in their thirties, share a decade of ski industry experience. They are both level-three certified, the highest, by the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) and the American Association of Snowboard Instructors (AASI).
Chaput moved to Telluride in 1998 and became a PSIA-accredited children’s instructor. He also works for PSIA as an alpine and children’s examiner, which entails training and testing other instructors in the Rocky Mountain region. “Kids are especially great in this environment,” he says. “They are like an open slate, and you can create these ripping little skiers in such a short amount of time.”
Zimmerman began teaching in Telluride, first in 1995 and then regularly in 1998. He’s also worked in Austria and his native Australia. “When I started, it was just kids taking up snowboarding, but now it’s all ages, from kids to grandparents.” His family lessons have awarded him lasting relationships with many of his students. Occasionally, between seasons, he even visits clients in New York, California or Texas.
No matter the number of lessons, Zimmerman sees room for improvement for almost any snow enthusiast. “A lot of riders slide down the hill, and they think it’s snowboarding,” he says, “It’s tricky, because almost everything we do [in the rest of life] is front-facing, but on a snowboard, you’re going sidewise.” On the plus side, the boots are really comfortable, and eventually you learn to turn: “When you finally do it, you capture the thrill of gravity pulling you down the hill fast,” he says. “It’s scary, but that’s what makes it attractive.”
Chaput says that skiing is easier at the get-go, but he sees a steeper learning curve later. While snowboarding bags a lot of downtime—on your butt—in the beginning, Chaput can turn a neophyte skier into a green skier in a matter of hours.
Zimmerman improves technique by acquiring video footage of his students. The ski video also becomes a souvenir, which Zimmerman burns on a disk, for students to take home. He’s also adopted an unorthodox training tool: “Three years ago, I started using a hockey stick as a teaching aid to help me pull people up and tow them on flatter areas,” he says of the device’s many perks.
Ski schooling itself has a long list of benefits, namely the vacation time and travel opportunities during off-season. But come summer, Chaput and Zimmerman are back in town, working and playing with the same passion for the outdoors. Chaput operates a forestry and arboricultural company. As in winter, he spends most of his days outside, whether on the job, mountain biking or climbing trees for fun. Zimmerman fills the summers with restaurant work, road biking and skate boarding at the skate park. In the shoulder season, he seeks the perfect wave with trips to surf spots around the world. “Ski school affords me a great lifestyle,” he says. “I don’t have the nicest car in town, but I do have a lot of time to take a long surf holiday in Malaysia.”
Every day, these instructors leave their mark in the snow, but their lasting impact is on the skiing minds and bodies of their students.