I've been in hundreds of ski shops in my journeys through recreational skiing and around the industry. I remember as a kid walking into shops and smelling P-Tex and wax and wandering through the maze of clothing racks, eventually ending up at the ski wall staring at the new gear lit up by the flood lights from the ceiling. I can also remember standing there staring at the new skis and not knowing what I was looking at except that they looked a hell of a lot cooler than my season lease set up.
I was always afraid of asking why there were so many; what did each pair do better than the other, why did everyone try to brag about riding race skis, why did Volants look like they weren't finished being painted? All these and a thousand other questions never got asked. Fortunately, because of my career path, they eventually did get answered, but I wasn't alone in my lack of understanding exactly what was what while not wanting to appear dumb. A lot of that hasn't changed for the average skier while participating in our beloved sport.
Unfortunately, there tends to be a snobbery that exists in a lot of areas of skiing. Here in New England, the race heritage is VERY strong and a huge source of pride for local mountains and mountain schools, and it should be. Okemo Mountain School, Stratton Mountain School, and Killington Mountain School (all within a 30 mile radius) have all produced Olympic level athletes. That's a pretty amazing stat and I personally remind myself how lucky I am to be in the middle of such heritage and history concerning our sport. That being said, that same heritage can be wielded in a way that is off-putting or intimidating to the average skier, or more importantly, a casual observer who is considering entering the sport.
Although I grew up skiing from a pretty early age, I never participated in a race program. Not because I wasn't good enough, but because when football season ended, I wanted to ski, not have to attend more practices and listen to more coaches...I wanted to just have fun on the mountain skiing where I wanted, how I wanted. Without a doubt, there were times when I would see the kids in the lift line in their speed suits, or watch a kid half my age drag a hip around a gate and have a twinge of jealousy aimed at the mystery of it all. You mean they get a WHOLE RUN roped off just for them??!! They had cool helmets when none of us wore helmets for anything, much less skiing. They had sweet-ass looking poles that were bent on purpose, not because they used it to smack their brother with it, etc.
The race world, however, held no real appeal for me, which rings true for the vast majority of skiers. Skiers who grew up in race programs are certainly in the minority. I think it's awesome that these programs exist and that communities, such as ours here in Ludlow, foster them and support them. These programs allow kids to pursue the sport on a more organized level if they choose to do so. We support the Okemo Mountain School with donations, sponsorships, raffle prizes, etc. This type of program adds to the community of our sport. It's awesome. This might be hard for some people to hear, but racing is not the whole sport. It's not even the most important part of our sport. It's just a small aspect and one of many ways to enjoy skiing.
Another way to be immersive in our sport is to train and work as a ski instructor. This has you on the mountain everyday (or every weekend), teaching the sport you love to the masses. Varying levels of PSIA (Professional Ski Instructors of America) certifications can allow instructors to gain full-time, year-round career positions in the ski industry; an amazing way to make a living for sure! They've even nick-named themselves the Snowpros, it's right there on their website. This organization has standardized the way in which hundreds of thousands of people have learned to ski. But again, they aren't the most important part of the sport. They also aren't the penultimate experts on our sport, although I know a few instructors who will bristle when reading this.
Ski Patrollers also get to spend an enormous amount of time on skis. Honestly, this is the only group that makes me jealous. They poach lines we can't all day and call it "work". They do "safety checks" before dropping ropes on pristine glades full of freshies, just to make sure it's safe for the rest of us *wink wink*. They clear trails every evening after close...translation...ski everything without the crowds at the end of the day. People talk about getting first chair...PATROLLERS GET FIRST CHAIR EVERYDAY, not that I'm salty or anything. Patrollers also provide an indispensable and lifesaving service, these guys and girls have saved thousands of lives, with most of them working for nothing more than a free season pass. But again, they aren't the most important part of the sport, nor are they the ultimate authority on skiing.
Of all of the jobs or "Pros" in the industry, us shop rats are probably the most populous. We have access to much more equipment knowledge than any other position in the industry. The average ski shop employee (at least the lucky ones) have the opportunity to ski over 100 different skis a season. As dealers, we have access to major industry demos and trade shows that no one else does. Not racers, not instructors, not patrollers. We get to try on new boots before they're released to the public, we get to participate in focus groups and assist in ski and boot designs, and we participate in major ski gear reviews.
At this point, you're probably thinking this blog post is just a way for me to bloviate about how cool ski shops and their owners and employees are. And while you're not wrong...we are cooler than everyone else...we still aren't the most important part of the sport.
What gets lost somewhere in everyone's self importance about their position in the industry, is that YOU, the average, the everyday, the weekend warrior, the 3 times a year, the twice in your life, the never been before...YOU'RE the most important part of the sport. YOU provide all of us the opportunity to do what we do. Without YOU, the terminal intermediate, the girl who skis 10 times better than you and you secretly have a crush on, the guy buttering knuckles while we all watch from the lift, the crusty senior skier who can't understand why all these people are on skis that are too wide and have their feet too far apart, the slightly-older-than-middle-aged guy who won't wear a helmet because he likes to let his "locks flow" as if he just railed a nose beer in the lodge and walked out of 1986, the mom who is self conscious because she says she isn't a good skier and her husband who should be self conscious because even though he skis faster, her technique is better... YOU are the most important part of the sport.
The kid who is part of the local school ski club and has to go home and beg mom and dad to pay for a season lease and pass that they can't afford is the most important part of the sport. The college kids who skip class on Friday, hit the dispensary in MA on the way to Vermont, and spend the weekend lapping the park doing shitty tricks on 2 foot wide boxes while getting GoPro footy for the boys are the most important part of the sport. The gangs of little girls who somehow have the ability to ski faster than you without poles and catch air you never will are the most important part of the sport.
The dad who loads the kids and all of their stuff (HOW DO THEY HAVE THAT MUCH STUFF) in the car and drives 3 hours and unloads all their stuff (HOW DO THEY HAVE THAT MUCH STUFF) gets their boots and coats and gloves and balaclavas and helmets and jackets and dammit you forgot your neck-up fine I'll go buy another one and socks and no stop hitting her with your pole and goggles on...YOU'RE the most important part of the sport. The mom who gave up skiing when she had kids but gets up early and makes the chili that goes in the crockpot that gets plugged in in the lodge next to the cooler full of drinks and bag of snacks because there's no way in hell that I'm paying $11 for a dry tasteless cheeseburger just for you to not want it and she sits there reading or doing cross stitch waiting until at least noon for that glass of wine so she doesn't feel too bad although she earned an 8:30 am glass, YOU'RE the most important part of skiing.
So when you next find yourself sitting at the table in the lodge and you hear someone talk about how so-and-so is a patroller so they know this and that, or this guy is a ski instructor so he is that and this, or he owns that shop, or I race in this program blah blah blah, remember this without hesitation, YOU ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF SKIING.
Patrick Ross is President and Owner of Tygart Mountain Sports. He holds BA degrees in Secondary Education Social Studies, History, and Political Science from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Masters of History from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He's been an avid skier since early childhood and has more than 20 yrs experience in the ski industry.