When teaching kids to ski, it’s all about keeping it fun

A ski instructor coaches young Alex Faerber in a class for children at Mammoth Mountain. (AP photo by Fritz Faerber)

A ski instructor coaches young Alex Faerber in a class for children at Mammoth Mountain. (AP photo by Fritz Faerber)

By Fritz Faerber
Associated Press

A hard wind pelted exposed areas of our faces with tiny pellets of sleet and drove the 16-degree air through any chink in the ski gear covering my 4-year-old son Alex and me. He’d just fallen getting off a ski lift at Utah’s Brighton Ski Resort and I could see the tears welling up through the goggles.

Swift, decisive action was essential.

Minutes later, we were sharing a large hot chocolate, a plate of cheese fries and planning our afternoon away from the mountain. A full belly, time at the hotel pool and a nap rescued my future of skiing with my son from a miserable morning on the mountain.

“Let’s go to Snowbird,” he replied, referring to one of the ski resorts, when I asked if he wanted to ski or go into the city on the third day of our weeklong trip. Music to my ears.

I was determined to share my love of skiing with my son, but wondered if I was pushing it when I put him on the slopes at age 3. And since we live far from snowy mountains, I worried we wouldn’t get out often enough for it to take. But at 4, he showed mastery of the basics, and at 5, he can’t wait to go back.

For other parents out there wondering how to ignite a love of skiing in little ones, here are some tips on what worked for us.

First off, as most parents know, the kid is in charge. If he or she doesn’t want to learn, there is no amount of coaxing, bribing, pushing or fooling them into doing it.

With Alex, I made sure to promote a love of snow. The sporadic snowfalls in St. Louis, where we live, always result in snowmen, snow-gorillas and other unrecognizable sculptures in our front yard. In fact, we’ve even resorted to stealing the snow from all our neighbors’ yards, when the snowfall is too scanty for our own allotment to build anything of substance.

Much like Dad, Alex loves gear. Playing with this helped build excitement for skiing. At age 3 he started wearing ski goggles and helmet while riding in his car seat during winter time. Used skis and ski boots off eBay came cheap and meant he could get used to stomping around in the boots before we even left St. Louis.

His very first run came at age 3 at one of those local baby slopes common near many cities — a place called Hidden Valley, just outside St. Louis. Two times up the magic carpet and then sliding down the hill supported by Dad, followed by hot chocolate and even McDonald’s on the way home.

But last winter was the big breakthrough — a trip to California for Disneyland and then four days at Mammoth Mountain.

For this major milestone, I turned to the professionals.

“I’ve watched many a parent try to teach kid to ski and it turns into a frustrating experience. Tears and everything, it can go badly,” said Craig Albright, the managing director of Mammoth’s ski school.

We sent Alex to Mammoth’s ski school for 3- and 4-year-olds. From the get-go, it was about getting the kids to cut loose. As parents kept track of all the loose mittens, goggles, sunscreen and assorted toys, the instructors got the kids having fun, with hot chocolate, drawings and games during registration. Then, it was out to the tiny beginner slope with a magic carpet sheltered from the wind.

“Our goal is always: Snow equals fun!” said Albright. He says each kid is different, some simply pick themselves up and dive back into it after a spill, while others tearfully announce they never want to ski again.

“But when they are playing with other kids on the snow, they see other kids fall and not quit. That dynamic of being around their friends gets them going again.”

Alex spent two days in the Little Pioneers morning ski school. Each day, he spent about four hours riding the carpet, and learning the difference between pizza (making a V shape with skis, or what we called snowplow when I was a kid) and French fry (keeping your skis parallel). The 20-something ski instructors held the kids’ tips together while skiing backward in front of them — something this 40-something Dad can’t pull off any more.

He was out in time for lunch, a visit with Woolly — the plushy mascot of Mammoth mountain — and a nap.

At a little over $100 per day, it wasn’t cheap. But it turned out to be worth every penny when I used frequent flier points for tickets to Salt Lake City and got a cheap hotel on the bus route up to the ski areas in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons.

Our first and second days were at Brighton — a very family-friendly place. I liked the free lift tickets for kids 7 and younger. Alex was all grins for the nice, easy, groomed run away from the “big kids” Alex eyed with a bit of concern tinged with envy.

The second day’s weather and spill at the lift made for a short day.

But our third day at Snowbird was glorious. A slalom course on Chickadee (the bunny slope) featured a different oversize bug mascot on each gate. Alex really enjoyed rounding the bee and heading straight for the butterfly.

We ended up skiing our last day at Snowbird, which along with the attached Alta ski area is my favorite place to ski.

Alex and I rode the bigger lifts to mid-mountain and cruised most of the greens on the mountain. He savored the experience of always “winning” our races, since I hung back, ready to swoop down and grab him in the event of a turn toward the woods or other obstacles.

In the depths of the long, cruel, snowless summer earlier this year, Alex looked at me and said, “Can we go skiing tomorrow?”

“It’s too hot, there’s no snow,” I replied. “But maybe next summer we can go to South America.”