The Cult of the Ski Instructor

Robert Risko

Forget maharishis and personal stylists. This winter it’s downhill racing with Mr. Wonderful.

Winter in Vail, Colorado. Well-to-do families cover the slopes, dressed to the nines in what can only be described as extreme all-weather chic. Many of them return for the same stretch of weeks every year—regulars like the wealthy sheikh who comes expressly to ski with one very reputable, very handsome Swedish instructor and brings with him an entourage of body­guards and female family members who prance around in Bogner ski suits and furs, sans veils. The women are, rumor has it on the mountain, thrilled to be in such close proximity to their strapping blond guide; in fact, their advances are so distressing to the sheikh that he forbids the teacher to go near them. One American gentleman who has skied with the allur­ing Swede finds the whole scenario un­­surprising. "In my group we had a sixty-eight-year-old mogul and his thirty-year-old wife, who was obviously attempting to do some off-piste work with our fearless leader," he dishes. "Look, the guy was a really good instructor."

It’s not just the fairer sex that is captivated by the aura of the supremely confident, athletically gifted ski guide—all kinds of people fall prey to his charms. Ernest Hemingway was perhaps the first to foster the notion that skiers should ply mountainsides in the company of the private instructor when, in the twenties—years before America erected its first chairlift—he set out for the Alps only after hiring a Rhinelander named Walther Lent, who promised to show him spectacular untouched terrain. (Hemingway later wrote rapturously of skiing with Lent in A Moveable Feast.) But since then the ski instructor has gained a whole new level of cachet. As with personal trainers or private Kabbalah advisors, the right slope guide has become the accessory du jour. "These instructors are service workers, but they have achieved a kind of revered expert status," says Annie Gilbert Coleman, associate professor of history at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis and author of Ski Style: Sport and Culture in the Rockies, the definitive tome on winter resort culture. "We’ve become increasingly dependent on them," she adds, "and they in turn have become commodities that convey status. Having this expert constantly at one’s side builds up your identity."

Ski alone at Gstaad and you’re just another tourist; ski with Adolf Hauswirth and you’re a client of the famed phenom who taught Brigitte Bardot the parallel turn—and thus someone to be reckoned with. "As status symbols, ski instructors must have the right look and be able to get you the best tables at restaurants," says Nina Norman, director of Concierge London, a luxury lifestyle-management company with an international clientele. The benefits of growing tight with a glitzy instructor extend far beyond the mountains. Think it’s a snap booking a room at Badrutt’s Palace in St. Moritz or getting a table at the Caribou Club in Aspen? Think again. "Thomas is our fixer in Gstaad," says Tanya Rose, director of Mason Rose, a hotel-representation company in London, of Thomas Ischer, the Swiss-German guide she has been faithful to for more than 20 seasons (and whom she shares with the likes of Valentino and Paul McCartney). "He arranges everything surrounding our life there, from lunch reservations to midnight tobogganing. To be honest, I ski well enough to go it alone, but the relationship I have with Thomas is about much more than learning. It is extraordinary." Norman feels the same way about Patrick Martin, her instructor at France’s Les Trois Vallées. "He knows all the maître d’s," she says. "Someone like Patrick can get you the best tables at the restaurants that even the concierge can’t book—and at a moment’s notice. Or tell you what night at which restaurant is best and where to go dancing afterward. You can’t underestimate how fantastic it is to be skiing one of the world’s finest resorts with an insider who knows everything and everyone, on the slopes and off."

Of course, a connection with an instructor must start on the mountain, where he’s the one person capable of replacing fear and insecurity with exhilaration and pride. "He takes me to places I would never have the guts to go alone," skier Marcy Edelstein says of Mike Mooney, her teacher at Aspen. "I trust him so much. He’d never put me in a dangerous position and he always knows where to find the best snow." Rose offers a theory on this nearly universal veneration for one’s guide. "Maybe," she says, "it’s because you’re so vulnerable out there on the mountain that you just need to cultivate this supreme trust."

But Mooney would not have always inspired such gushing. When American resorts debuted in the forties and fifties, cachet only came with European instructors such as Aspen’s Friedl Pfeifer—who studied under Hannes Schneider at the Arlberg school in St. Anton, Austria, and was so adored that one client, a banker’s daughter, ultimately married him—and Norwegian Stein Eriksen, who was dubbed Aspen’s Golden Stud. "There was a joke that even a teacher with very little skill could make money merely by saying ’Bend zee knees, two dollars please!’ " says Gilbert Coleman. "Now you can be from anywhere and gain an excellent reputation. But you still need that aura that conveys status in addition to great skill."

Those are the elements that may attract a skier to a particular instructor, but from there it’s all about the little interactions that occur at high altitudes, which cultivate a unique re-liance upon one’s chosen expert. "Patrick knows I get grumpy if I’m skiing while it’s snowing," Concierge London’s Norman says. "And that I need to stop regularly for a hot chocolate. He knows my brother likes going really fast, that my mother won’t go down anything but a beginner’s slope, and that my father wants to ski only runs that make him look good."

Such intimacies can quickly turn a guide into a best friend or, in many cases, an honorary member of the family. It’s common for instructors to eat lunch and even dinner each day with clients—one former St. Moritz teacher recalls how he spent five weeks straight with the same family, dining at upscale restaurants nearly every meal and going clubbing with them at night. "This is the typical experience of many instructors today," he says. And oftentimes they are brought along on vacations hundreds of miles away from their home base, all expenses paid. "Taking your personal ski guide to other mountains or cities is a trend one sees more and more," says Anna Olson, communications manager at Wyoming’s Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. "These days there’s a nod between schools that allows it to happen. You can see handfuls of teachers out there wearing uniforms from their home schools." It is these graceful Gore-Tex-outfitted gurus who inspire not only devotion in clients but also the purchase of first-class airfare and resort suites as well as a near-worshipful faith that transcends their slaloming expertise. This kind of attachment was exceptional back in the thirties, when the renowned St. Anton guide Otto Lang famously traveled everywhere with the grandsons of railroad magnate James J. Hill and their families and even entered into business enterprises with them (the relationship ended after one grandson began romantically pursuing the eminently charismatic Lang). But nowadays such closeness is common. "Thomas even acted as a matchmaker for my sister and me before we were married," says Tanya Rose.

Chiara Ferragamo, a longtime skier (yes, from that Ferragamo family) has competed in the Ski World Cup five times and is clearly able to navigate the slopes on her own. Yet she still spends two or three weeks each year with her instructor, Italian National Ski Team veteran Andrea Arban, shooting down the sides of the Dolomites in Italy. And it’s not just his constantly evolving techniques that she finds appealing. "Andrea happens to have a magnetic personality and he’s extremely good-looking," she says. "We used to ski a lot together, then dine out at night and generally enjoy each other’s company—until, that is, his sister informed him that women kept asking if the two of us were romantically involved. Our closeness was thwarting his dating prospects! He actually suggested I find another guide for a while."

Still, social perils, pricey travel bills, and lesson fees aside, those with a ski guru are loath to give him up, even for a single day of their winter excursions. Yes, they are aware that there are other capable instructors at the resort and that it’s even possible to benefit from a lesson with one of them. But the intense loyalty and affinity characterizing many skier-instructor relationships simply doesn’t allow for such breaches. Rose bears witness each winter to the bevy of talented, charismatic guides on the slopes, each with clients who adore them just as she adores Ischer. And yet she bristles at the thought of trusting any of them for even one run. "Would I ever ski with anyone else besides Thomas?" she asks incredulously. "Good God, no!"

Rob Story, a frequent contributor to Outside Magazine, is based in Colorado.

The Peerless Seven

Mikey Franco

RESORT Jackson Hole, Wyoming

NOTABLE CLIENTS Harrison Ford, Sandra Bullock

WHAT HE TAUGHT THEM Snowboarding (he belongs to the American Association of Snowboard Instructors Snowboard Team)

TEACHING PHILOSOPHY Don’t be intimidated by the toughest mountain in the United States. "If you’re athletic, anyone can handle the steep terrain: It’s just a matter of getting over the head game. If we can get you to make the proper turns in the proper conditions, the rest is up to you."

WHY HE LOVES TURNING INTERMEDIATES INTO EXPERTS "Coaches take personal pride in teaching visitors advanced techniques and sharing the experience of riding the mountain like a local."

FEE Full day, $520; 800-450-0477; jacksonhole.com

Mark Grimaldi

RESORT Beaver Creek, Colorado

TEACHING PHILOSOPHY "Consistency is key. My clients know they will get the same constants whenever they are on the snow with me, from warming up and stretching to setting goals and challenging them when appropriate. Plus, I always carry with me a small video camera so I can give good visual feedback."

WHY HE LOVES HIS JOB "Every day on the mountain is a great one, no matter what the conditions are. Improving and learning all flows through a positive attitude, enthusiasm, and by having fun. When conditions are excellent, the experience can be absolutely spiritual."

MOUNTAIN MANTRA "Safety, fun, and learning"

FEE Full day, $625; half day, $425; 866-231-0667; beavercreek.com

Adolf Hauswirth

RESORT Gstaad, Switzerland

NOTABLE CLIENTS Brigitte Bardot, the Queen of the Netherlands

TEACHING PHILOSOPHY "It’s our business to show clients the Alps by making them feel good and safe on the piste. That’s first and foremost, with technique improvements coming step by step."

WHY High-profile guests love him "We never show them off. We’ve had so many nice clients for so many years because we protect our famous guests. No one knew Brigitte Bardot was in ski school because I didn’t tell anyone until she left."

LONGEST CLIENT ASSOCIATION 47 seasons and counting

FEE Full day, $260; 41-33/744-1865; gstaadsnowsports.ch

Nicholas Herrin

RESORT Telluride, Colorado

TEACHING PHILOSOPHY "It’s all about trust. If I gain their trust, the willingness to learn and the ability to teach is endless. I’ve spent many nights going out to dinner with my clients, watching ski movies, and throwing a few back with them. To understand how to teach to one’s personality, you must get to know your client, and the only way to do that is by socializing."

HOW TO SNAG A LESSON Because Herrin runs the Telluride Ski & Snowboard School—he’s the assistant director there—his private-lesson time is limited. Clients book as far in advance as five months.

FEE Full day, $580; three hours, $375; 970-728-7507; tellurideskiresort.com

Otto Kamstra

RESORT Whistler Blackcomb, British Columbia

NOTABLE CLIENTS Danny DeVito, Prince Charles, princes William and Harry, former Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien

WHY THE MONARCHS-IN-WAITING CHOSE HIM "The Royal Canadian Mounted Police called and said, ’We want you to do it because we know your skill’ [Kamstra has the highest rating in the Canadian version of the Professional Ski Instructors of America]. You don’t say no to a chance like that."

TEACHING PHILOSOPHY "The better balanced you are, the better you’ll perform all the necessary skills. Then your technique will take off. If you’re really well balanced, you can do so many things."

BENEFITS OF TEACHING THE FAMOUS "Taking chairlift rides together, you get to know them and see them as real people. We throw snowballs at each other and push one another into snowbanks. It’s fun."

FEE Full day, $670; half day, $355; 888-403-4727; whistlerblackcomb.com

Hugh Sawyer

RESORT Telluride, Colorado

NOTABLE CLIENTS Tom Cruise, Daryl Hannah, Nicolette Sheridan, Michael Bolton, Nicole Kidman, Jackson Browne

TEACHING PHILOSOPHY "I tell people right off the bat that I’m a type-A personality, a little more demanding, and that I want to ski hard—I’m not going to babysit you. I love to ski and be outdoors, and those things come across. It’s not a lot of bullshit and they see that."

WHY HE'S BOOKED MONTHS IN ADVANCE "I like to ski and it shows. I’m pretty good at teaching. Most people will say that an hour with me is worth a day with another instructor."

FEE Full day, $580; half day, $375; 970-728-7507; tellurideskiresort.com

Sam Von Trapp

RESORT Aspen Snowmass, Colorado; Portillo, Chile

TEACHING PHILOSOPHY "The mountain is a huge playground. I just show people how to get the most out of it. I encourage lots of jumping with any willing participants—people learn a huge amount by catching a bit of air."

PET PEEVE "Instructors who stand on the trail talking endlessly. Their clients are there to ski! Talk on the chair."

FEE Aspen: full day, $540; half day, $390; 877-282-7736; aspensnowmass.com. Portillo: full day, $440; 800-829-5325; skiportillo.com.

—R.S.