Carving Up the Slopes With the Ski School at Vail

Lessons on new 'shaped' skis are featured at Colorado resort

I am flying down Bwana or Simba or some other wide open cruiser of a trail and concentrating on the arches of my feet. Above are blue sky, sun, and the magnificent Gore Range of the Colorado Rockies.

Below is the Vail Valley, increasingly the alpine playground of the superrich - so much so that some wags now dub it New York-West, Beverly Hills-East or Dallas and Mexico City North.

Behind me Fitz Fitzgerald teaches "terminal intermediates" the joys in comprehending the relationship between the soles of one's feet and a snowy mountain.

Mr. Fitzgerald is one of more than 1,300 instructors in the Vail/Beaver Creek ski and snowboard school - arguably the world's largest, not just in personnel but also in some $27 million of revenues this year.

At $395 a day, most instructors - like Fitzgerald - teach only private lessons rather than mere $65 class lessons.

Some 800 instructors are full time, but many are also developers, lawyers, ranchers, and professionals who return to teach when repeat guests request them.

A not untypical New York venture capitalist flies in six or seven times a season for 40 days of skiing, spending some $16,000 on daily private ski lessons alone - lifts not included.

Virtually all these instructors are touting skiing's new turning toys, variously called "shaped," "super-side-cut," "parabolic," even "hourglass" skis. You can rent and "demo" them all over Vail Mountain and increasingly at resorts across the United States.

The flagging ski industry hopes they will provide a revival of interest in the sport among newcomers, dropouts, and people who just ski less than they used to. In only a year, however, the industry has produced a proliferation of expensive ($300-to-$500-plus) shaped ski models aimed at already committed and well-heeled skiers like those who come to this incredibly endowed mountain valley.

Varying widely in design and how they ski, the new skis have left even experienced skiers more confused than convinced about their ultimate value. But their bottom line is they make turning easier, and in some cases just more fun. Generally wider in the shovel or top of the ski and tail and narrower in the waist than conventional skis, they're also shorter and more flexible.

The idea is to center one's weight over the "sweet spot" on the skis and merely roll knees and ankles downhill so the snow grabs that big shovel and the skis do most of the work.

Concentrate on pressure under the arch of the foot, and voila! - the carved turn, a pleasure devoutly sought by skiers and snowboarders alike.

"Older, experienced skiers love the super-side-cuts because they take work and fatigue out of skiing," says ski school director Mike Porter. "People were skiing New Year's Day who admitted they otherwise never would have made it out."

Intermediates, he adds, enjoy more quickly experiencing the energy from a carved turn; beginners learn parallel turns faster. But the new skis have shortcomings. Because of their proclivity to turn, they can make running straight and skiing long catwalks tricky.

Emergency maneuvers like the "snowplow" wedge also can be difficult, keeping beginners on shallower slopes longer, Fitzgerald says. And some expert skiers who love the precise energy that a high-performance conventional ski releases in a carved turn are "underwhelmed" by these new skis.

But once I widen my stance and get used to them, I find the 168-centimeter K2-Threes I'm trying are responsive even though they are more than 20 centimeters shorter than my own skis. They take less effort to have fun with. For many people they can make skiing more accessible.

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