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The life of a ski instructor sounds pretty idyllic. You’ll get free lift tickets, and the opportunity to be on the mountain all day, all while meeting new people and teaching them to ski.
In truth, spending a whole winter season as a ski instructor is pretty amazing, but like any job, it has some drawbacks as well. While you are likely to have a lot of fun, spending each and every day outside and dealing with the occasional difficult student can get tiresome.
Maybe you’re thinking of becoming an instructor yourself, or just curious after attending several lessons. Read on to find out the best and worst parts of being a ski instructor!
Compared to countries like France and Switzerland, the requirements to become a ski instructor in the United States are relatively relaxed. If you can ski well, are good with people, and are prepared to spend every day out in the elements, you are likely to be able to become a ski instructor.
If you are a first-year instructor, the early season will likely begin with an intense training period. While you might be a great skier among your friends, most skiers will have picked up some bad techniques.
Throwing your shoulders to turn might get you down the mountain, but it isn’t a habit that you want to pass on to your students. You’ll spend the first few days with experienced instructors finding the mistakes in your own technique, and how to remedy them.
You’ll also spend quite a bit of time in your wedge, relearning the basics. You might have been skiing so long that you can’t remember a time when you couldn’t parallel turn.
Key Takeaway: Especially in your first year of instructing, you’ll spend most of your time teaching beginners.
To do that you must be able to put yourself in their shoes.
This is also when you will learn the day-to-day routine on the mountain. For example, where you take your students for lunch, which are the best routes for first timers, and what to do if something goes wrong during a lesson.
You’ll also learn about safety procedures and how to fill out the necessary paperwork. You have to be realistic, in those first few weeks you will have to absorb a lot of new information.
Don’t worry though. You’ll have a whole season to perfect your methods, and your fellow instructors and advisors are always there to help you.
Key takeaway: Once your training period is over, you are likely to get thrown into lessons quite quickly.
At Vail Mountain, where I am a ski instructor, we did three audits to prepare ourselves before teaching full-time.
For the first audit, we observed a lesson; for the second, we taught jointly with an experienced instructor. And for the third, known as the Golden Audit, we taught alone while being watched by an experienced instructor.
If you pass all three of these audits, you’re all set to begin teaching!
Early Season (November to Christmas)
The early season comes with its own pros and cons for instructors. You won’t have to worry too much about overcrowding on the mountain, but the terrain will be more limited.
This is especially difficult when teaching transition levels. Your students might be bored on the bunny hill, but there might not yet be a good starting green open for them to try.
If this is the case, you’ll opt to challenge your students through drill work instead of terrain work. It might lead to some boredom, but you’ll be able to apply your skills to keep things interesting and challenging for them.
Off of the hill, there’s good opportunities for making friends or catching up with old ones. Because the mountain is slower, instructors tend to have more time off to free ski.
You will often see instructors for an after-work beer (also known as aprés ski) at the bar, because it’s still relatively warm in the afternoons and doesn’t get dark too quickly. The vibes at this point in the year are those of pure anticipation.
Everyone is waiting for the next big snow dump, and for the season to pick up with more clientele.
Peak Holiday Season (Christmas through Presidents Day)
Peak Season begins with Christmas week (although instructors definitely get a taste of it during Thanksgiving) and continues right through until February. There are some lulls between the New Year and Presidents Day, but for the most part, instructors are fully booked.
Making hay while the sun shines, some instructors don’t take a day off at all during this time. That can get pretty tough on the body, so often they will go home relatively early.
With sunlight fading fast and muscles working overtime, fatigue can definitely set in at this point. That all sounds pretty tough–so why do instructors love it?
In short, the money. Some experienced instructors with an established client base make all their money for the year just during this period.
The snow is great, the tips are good, and the mountain is buzzing with energy. While it’s hard work, it’s an absolute blast.
As numbers in the resorts increase, so too does aprés ski activity. If they have the energy, instructors often take advantage of the many concerts and events that the mountain hosts.
Not to mention, the Christmas lights, which at this time of year are absolutely stunning. There’s no time of year that instructors work harder and have more fun than during Peak Season.
Spring Skiing Begins
So, the weather is getting warmer, the beer starting to flow, and people are trading in their powder skis for rock skis. It’s time for spring skiing.
The weather at this time of year is really unpredictable. It can go from 40°F degrees (4°C) and sunny one day, to hail and wind the next, however by now, you’ll be prepared for anything.
The mountain will be much less busy at this time of year than during peak season, but there’s still plenty of work to be had. That means you’ll have a little more flexibility with your schedule and have a bit more time to ski with your friends and colleagues.
The days are longer, the stoke is high, and you’ve likely found your rhythm for mountain life. At this time of year, though, everyone starts thinking about the end of the season.
This can lead to burnout for some instructors, who start weighing up whether they want to continue as an instructor in the following season. However, the stress of returning to ‘normal-life’ can trouble the hearts and minds of instructors at this time. It’s comparable to senior slump but working on the mountain.
My advice? Embrace the freedom that you are offered, and enjoy the time you have on the hill with the people that you’ve met; you’ll have time to figure out all the complications later in the season.
In the final month or so of the season, everything on the mountain slows down to a snail’s pace. Lift lines are shorter, trails (and entire lifts and gondolas) start closing, and fewer people are booking lessons.
This is the time of year when you can really enjoy the fruits of your labor. Take a few extra days off and explore nearby mountains, visit your family and friends, and yes, start getting ready to go.
Leaving after your first season will be an extremely bittersweet experience. You’ll have to say goodbye to your friends and your home for the last few months, but on the upside you’ll also probably be ready to get some sun.
For some instructors, that means a vacation to Mexico, while many others get ready for their summer rafting and stand-up paddleboarding seasons. You’ll leave behind those ‘senior slump’ feelings, and the mountain will be cast in a new light.
After all, it was your home, and there’s a chance you’ll be leaving it forever. Say your goodbyes joyfully (and maybe tearfully), and be proud that you’ve achieved something unique and incredible.
1. Free lift access/early lift access
Most people looking into ski instructing know that a free pass generally comes with the gig. If you work at any of Vail Resort’s or Ikon’s mountains, you will get an employee pass to all of their mountains, with some moderate restrictions.
With these season passes costing up to 1,000 dollars, this is no small perk. It allows you to explore all kinds of mountains during your free time.
What you might not know is that instructors also get early lift access. Of course, this depends on the mountain, but it’s commonly called “Milk Runs.”
They allow instructors to warm up before their lessons and to check out the snow conditions. Of course, you’ll be be able to get first tracks on a powder day, as long as you’re willing to make the early wake-up call.
2. Subsidized housing and meals
Everyone who skis wants to live next to a ski resort. That being said, it isn’t exactly the easiest to do.
Ski town real estate is notoriously expensive, but many ski resorts will subsidize your living expenses like rent and meals. This is a real perk of the job that allows you to live close to the mountains with some of the best views in the country – at least when you’re not working.
3. Free lessons
Simply by going to work every day, your own skiing ability will improve immensely. But, you don’t have to just rely on practice. Lots of mountains offer free lessons.
The mountain wants its instructors to be the best that they can be, and you should take advantage of that. You can also take courses through PSIA (Professional Ski Instructors of America), which will improve your skills (and you’ll get a pay raise out of it.)
4. In-depth knowledge of the mountain
When you are skiing the same mountain every day for an entire season, you get to know it like the back of your hand. It’s not only the mapped trails but the ins and outs of routes through the trees and in backcountry terrain.
This kind of knowledge is invaluable for your students, where you can act as a tour guide as well as an instructor, but also enjoy it yourself. It makes your free skiing days all the easier when you know exactly where you can find the best powder.
5. The People
By far, one of the best parts of being a ski instructor is the people that you meet along the way. From your fellow instructors, to your students and to the other people who work on the mountain, you’re bound to meet people from all over the world, who are not only talented athletes but immensely kind human beings.
Even in the relatively short time of a ski season, you are bound to make friends for life.
One of the hardest parts of ski instructing is the inevitable fatigue. Early mornings and potentially late nights out with friends quickly get tiring anywhere, and that doesn’t even include the physical work you’ll be putting in.
You’ll spend every day working out your legs, and while you will get stronger, the first few weeks can be pretty tough. With a lot of time spent hiking up to retrieve stray skis, and the constant demands of students will make you very tired.
There’s also a chance of burnout. If you spend everyday skiing runs that don’t necessarily get your heart pumping with adrenaline, it’s possible that the last thing you’ll want to do on your off day is wake up early and get some snow under your feet.
However, this normally levels out about halfway through the season. You’ll find your rhythm, get stronger, and find ways to work smarter, while still giving your students an amazing experience!
2. Free Time
While most resorts require you to work five days a week with two days off, it’s often not that simple. In the peak season, it’s not unheard of (or even particularly rare) to work 3 weeks straight without a day off.
This doesn’t necessarily translate to getting more time off, either. Later in the season, there will be less work, so you might consequently work less; it’s really luck of the draw.
With private lessons, students can book you for weeks at a time. While this will usually pay off in the end with a great tip, it means that you’ll miss a lot of great free-skiing days.
Many ski instructors dream of working for the mountain anticipating a laid-back, ski-loving environment. And while this is true in some ways, you have to remember that you’ll probably be working for a large corporation.
Paperwork, chain of command and strict uniform regulations can catch some particularly free-spirited instructors off guard. However, most come to the conclusion that the bureaucratic parts of the job are no big deal compared to the freedom it allows in terms of lifestyle.
My Honest Conclusion
Like any job, ski instructing comes with its own highs and lows. If you’re thinking about ski instructing, make sure that you truly love skiing and can imagine yourself on the hill for lengthy periods in all types of adverse conditions.
On a personal note, during my first season of ski instructing I had the best fun of my entire life, and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. If for you, any day on skis is a good day, there really is no better job in the world.