January 03, 2003

Article at The New York Sun

Hitting the Slopes Like a Pro

Our group was standing at the crest of a black diamond run on Aspen Mountain - or Ajax, as it's called locally. Below us were only moguls, massed into what looked like a gigantic, scary version of the roasted marshmallows that Midwesterners like on top of sweet potatoes. Mercifully, we couldn't see just how steep the run was because snow had been coming down thickly since 3 a.m.

We were on the fourth day of "Breakthrough on Skis," a five-day course designed by ski instructor Lito Tejada-Flores which aims to elevate intermediate skiers to advanced. I was there at the urging of Aspen friends, who had wearied of my lagging on the slopes. Fifty-six of us had come from all over the country for the intensive course, hoping to make the breakthrough that had always eluded us. Life is too short not to become an expert skier, Mr. Tejada-Flores likes to say.

Mr. Tejada-Flores founded "Breakthrough on Skis" in 1993 for intermediate skiers stuck in a rut. The course has become extremely popular through word of mouth, and is now offered seven times a season, with 50 to 60 students at each week-long session.

The 61-year-old ski instructor first addressed the problem of the frustrated intermediate skier in 1986, with his best-selling book, "Breakthrough on Skis: How to Get Out of the Intermediate Rut." He argued that in order to get to the expert level, a skier had to learn to change his stance completely - to balance on one ski and turn on the other, rather than simply twisting both feet.

In addition, he concluded that an intermediate skier who improved incrementally would at best end up as a very good intermediate skier - which is not remotely the same as an expert. To become an expert, he believed, a skier must transform his habits, which wouldn't happen through occasional private lessons.

The location of Mr. Tejada-Flores's skiing course in Aspen - which has four separate and very different mountains - is an additional draw for his students, and contributes significantly to the effectiveness and success of the training. Aspen offers some of the world's best skiing terrain. Its beauty is breathtaking, its slopes relatively uncrowded - it was just us on Ajax's moguls, for example - and its mix of runs unparalleled.

Some groups ski Highlands, a long ridge-like mountain of steeps and bumps with spectacular views of celebrated peaks like the Maroon Bells. Groups wanting to practice new moves ski Buttermilk, whose every square meter is groomed each night, says Mr. Tejada-Flores. "It's like skiing a ballroom," he adds.

Mr. Tejada-Flores's course is based at Snowmass, which, with more than 3,010 acres, is by itself the second-largest ski resort in Colorado, after Vail. It has the longest lift-served vertical drop in the country, 4,406 feet, and one of the longest intermediate runs, four miles from top to bottom.

On the first day of our intensive week, we headed for Snowmass's renowned blue runs, where we were tested, videotaped, and sorted by ability. Mr. Tejada-Flores admonished us not to ski fast or show off. His philosophy: Be delicate with the snow. Skim the surface. Feather your edges. Dance down the mountain.

By mid-morning, all 56 people had been sorted into seven groups, each with its own pro instructor. The instructor of our five-person group, Bart Lipori, looked like a very fit Robert de Niro, with a certain core toughness. Unlike some pros, Mr. Lipori hated standing around, and our group was the first to ski off.