Saturday, January 22, 2011

1/22/2011 3rd Ski Day: In the groove

Now that we were all in the groove, morning logistics were a snap. It helped that we'd forgotten to return the boys' helmets the day before (according to some law we unwittingly broke), so we could avoid the rental hut altogether.

I was adament about arriving before 8 when ski school opened to avoid long line waits, and that worked. We had everyone checked in and ready at 8:10am, with Katrina handed off to the 6-and-under care -- now what to do until 9:45am when their boys' lessons start? The lifts didn't even open until 8:30!

They waited for the lifts to open while I got my lift ticket, stashed my stuff in a locker, and geared up. I'm happy that the boys are off and running enough that I could tell them to just go to the Easy Rider Express lift and start skiing when it opened. They even rode it together without pushing each other off.

We had about an hour to play together on the bunny hill. This worked this time, but I still don't like that weird short time period to kill with 2 kids with very different skills. I can still hear a phone rep cheerfully telling me that we could just hang out in the lodge -- hello that's not what we're here for!

Julian was much better this morning, more confident and consistent.

Julian warming up for his 3rd day:

Gabriel was as usual raring to go, though he was more cautious in the little terrain park this time.

He made sure to prove to me he could stop.

We did a little "race" down this hill, and I won -- only because it's not steep. Gabriel claimed it was because I have poles.

Julian was more interested in skiing "together," and we had fun following each other's tracks. He can turn much more sharply than I can, so it was interesting practice for me.

I had scheduled an "early bird" private lesson for myself this morning, but Dave and I talked about it and agreed he'd get more out of it, especially to get over a fear hump and attempt a blue for the first time. Dave's instructor turned out to be my first lesson's teacher, a last-minute switch because they'd scheduled a snowboard instructor. Everyone is so nice at Sierra, but my goodness are they disorganized!

I definitely think this paid off; Dave's turns were noticeably improved and more parallel. Now he needs a lot of sink-in time, as we all do.

The last time up before ski school started, I rode the lift up with both boys. Julian wanted to demonstrate his self-invented "technique" of pushing himself off the chair, and ended up jumping off too early. He tripped forward, and only my pulling him out of the way kept him from getting mowed down by the chair. Then Gabriel stopped right in our path, almost tripping me. They had to stop the lift and retrieve Julian's skis, it was quite the little comedy. Afterward I had a talk with Julian about setting his skis down and standing up, not jumping off!

Being a Saturday, the whole place was far more crowded, but the adult ski lessons still ended up being small. Only 15 non-total-beginner skiiers showed up, and were divided into 3 groups. The two best skiiers were those volunteered themselves as "happy on all blue runs." I was 3rd, or first in the "blues but still nervous" category. So once again, I ended up in the most advanced lesson.

But I made the cut only because of some recent excellent instruction and practice -- my classmates were far more experienced, most held season passes and had skiied for at least a few years. My lack of seasoning really showed; I was much more thrown by changing conditions and patches of ice than the rest, and just didn't have their composure or consistency.

Our lesson, 5 women (later 4 when one got separated accidentally, bummer) started on Sugar'n'Spice, the long 2-1/2 mile green run, and Gabriel's lesson skiied by! I was very happy to see that Julian was not in it, and finally, Gabriel was in a matched group (though he told me later he was the only one in the group willing to try Lower Main, and was outvoted). One of the "happy blues" skiiers in my group said her 7-year-old daughter was also in Gabriel's lesson.

A few minutes later, we saw Gabriel's lesson go down a moderate blue, Hemlock. I didn't have much time to point out and brag about my son, because he was gone. Barrelled right down. Good for him! I'm glad that was the last we saw of his lesson, because it really distracted me and the other mom.

My instructor wasn't great this time. He did a few exercises, but so often the way he talked was "You do a turn like this..." and I couldn't tell if he was pointing out a mistake or explaining the way it should be done. Not every instructor is going to work for every student every time; and yesterday's instructor set a very high bar for me.

Still, I got a lot out of it -- other people to ski with, a small well-matched group, the courage to attempt runs I would never have otherwise, good practice, and still some instruction. I learned later he had us on a short upper less-steep section of a black and I'm sure glad I didn't know that at the time!!

Dave also took the group lesson after his private lesson (!), then we met up for lunch at the top again. That was great. He got there first, and beat the lines so that I was able to just walk in and my lunch was ready and waiting, and he'd scored a table by then. Add to that the complimentary slippers and beautiful view, and I was as close to heaven as it gets!

(How is it that I was able to get Dave to order my lunch and meet him at the top? Texting! This worked great, we texted a lot to coordinate, though there were some no-service areas.)

We skiied together after lunch, and I wanted to get one more video of me attempting Lower Main again. My lesson this morning had covered so much ice I figured I was getting used to it now (actually I wasn't), and my lesson hadn't covered my new nemesis, Lower Main.

Big tactical error though: instead of just filming from the top as we had the previous 2 days, we agreed on a spot for Dave to video from the bottom, but Dave ended up in a different place than I expected. Turns out, the video quality was too poor from that distance anyway, and we wasted much too much time trying to coordinate this. I don't know what I was thinking.

We made up for it with a from-the-bottom video of a short easy blue run, but video quality is ridiculous. I still wish we'd just done exactly what we'd done before with a short clip from the top of Lower Main, and spent more time skiing. It'd have been cool to see myself ski the same place three days in a row, though I didn't feel like I'd progessed much today.

But there was a good reason I didn't want to rerun Lower Main -- because we had only an hour left before picking up children, and I wanted to try some of the West Bowl blues that we'd done in my lesson this morning. Lower Main would force me to ride a lift again, and lines were still long. So after the video of "Short Swing," I thanked Dave and took off to run Beaver, ride up the West Bowl lift, and then take Escape back to the main lodge area to pick up kids. I'd done Beaver and Escape in lessons, and really like this whole area. Perfect for a last run.

But it wasn't perfect. I was much more tired than I'd realized -- cumulatively tired, or maybe because for the first time all day, I was alone and not stopping all the time. The ice seemed harder, and in places was obscured by something I wasn't used to: snow. Like the light fluffy white stuff. It stops you short, unlike the ice. Also, shadows were long and I couldn't see the terrain as I was used to -- probably a good thing but it threw me off.

So I seriously struggled down Beaver, a run I remember being easy and pretty and confidence-inspiring. When I got to the top to run Escape, the wind started blasting too. Just a reminder that just because we'd had beautiful mild spring weather, didn't mean Mom Nature forgot it's January high up in the mountains.

I had a very very tough time down Escape, skidding and sliding out of control on the ice, thighs begging to give out. All technique was lost, I was in survival mode, even though I knew technique was the key to survival!

Looking back up the slope when I'd made it -- barely -- down the steepest part, the sun rimmed the top of the slope beautifully, but my camera didn't catch it. This slope sure looks mild from here.

Later I learned that Gabriel's lesson had also gone down Escape and Beaver, and I had new respect for him. They're really not bad -- I'd done them several times without much trouble -- but for some reason that last run was brutal. Gabriel just gave a big smile and a thumbs-up when I asked what he thought of them. No confidence issues there!

It was greens back to the lodge, where I regretfully shifted into logistics mode. Dave had gone to pick up the kids, but it's never easy herding everyone into the car and not losing something.

We decided to go back to the lovely house we were staying in, have a snack, and let the kids watch TV while we packed up, and drive home that night. It wasn't quite that easy, but somehow we were driving away, with regret, by 6:30pm, and in Placerville for a promised dinner at Carrow's by 7:30 or so.

There we had to do something I've never actually done before: walk out of a restaurant. We waited 15 minutes just to be seated -- no line, no crowds, just one slow inefficient waitress. We were already very annoyed and hungry and ready to order when we were seated and handed kids' menus. "I'll get crayons for the kids," the waitress said, and that was the last we saw of her for another 7 or 8 minutes. We picked up Katrina, told the boys to get their jackets, and walked out.

Incredibly, across the street there was another open restaurant, where we were greeted, seated, orders taken and served in about 10 minutes.

We all fell asleep on the drive home (thank goodness because Katrina was one nonstop tantrum during and after dinner), and despite the ridiculous delay with dinner, were home by 11:30pm.

I couldn't sleep though. I was too excited, and slightly bothered, by a few things about our trip.

Reflections Section

In sum: I really liked Sierra-at-Tahoe for us, but I had some issues with the ski school.

On the 2nd day, Katrina had gotten to ride the chair lift and go down the bunny slope 3 times, with lots of help of course. She loved it and was so excited to do this again on the 3rd. But the 3rd day was more crowded, and she was put in a group with other 3-year-olds who just weren't ready for the chair, so she didn't get to go. What a missed opportunity. The whole reason to have 3 days in a row is to improve and build on what you learned the day before!

Seeing Gabriel zoom down Hemlock made me realize: what on earth were Gabriel and Julian doing in the same lesson at all, ever? The first day they were together all day, and the second day they were only separated because of Julian's ankle injury, and that's when Gabriel was able to take his first blues. Take a look at the videos of them -- do these two belong in the same lesson?? How could either of them get much out of a class they're in together?

In fact, on the 3rd day, Julian was demoted and spent his day on the bunny hill, after having held back his group for 2 days. He was in over his head that first day, and should have spent it on the bunny hill, then moved on to the long green later, instead of the other way around. Instead, he was intimidated and it set him back. He missed out on the most.

I can see that this misgrouping is a natural fallout from the way this -- and most -- ski schools are run. With walk-ins, you can't predict well how many kids at what levels will show up, so the group makeup depends on who shows up. That's understandable, but they didn't handle well what happens if not enough kids show up within a level.

From now on I'll ask every ski school how they'd handle an anomalous case like if one first-time skiier, one squarely blue skiier, and one double-black-diamond skiier showed up. That's tough for any school, but if they say "oh we'd put them together, the instructors can handle it," that's a flag.

Ironically, my concern about the larger classes was misplaced: the larger classes meant less of a spread of ability within a class, and enabled the class to move within that level. 3 mismatched skiiers is worse than 5 well-matched skiiers. (Many kids take snowboard lessons, further decreasing the pool of kid-skiiers.)

Sugarbowl has an unusual reservation-only system, so they can guarantee the small class, but more importantly, they can plan instructors for the number of levels, as well as the number of kids. If only one kid who can do blues shows up, then that kid essentially gets a private lesson.

Sugarbowl's method also allows for better continuity -- if they know one kid will be there for 3 days, they can plan (though don't always) for the same instructor. If Katrina had graduated to the chair lift on the 2nd day at Sugarbowl, she certainly would have gone on it again on the 3rd.

Julian benefitted tremendously from having the same instructor 3 days in a row at Sugarbowl -- and no Gabriel hot on the instructor's heels. To be fair, Gabriel and Julian were also separated by age last time; this time they were both in the "7-12" age group that all places have. But if we'd gone to Sierra last year, Julian and Katrina would have been in the same age group "3-6" and that wouldn't have worked either.

Sugarbowl also has a much more efficient rental and check-in system, so they don't have to allow these ridiculous gaps of time for everyone to wait on long lines. That late start time was a real pain, every parent I talked to complained about it. But with their tiny kids' rental hut and check-in office, that time is needed.

As much as I've focused on Gabriel not getting enough, he's going to advance and learn with only the slightest provocation. It's really Julian and Katrina who needed the super-special attention that we'd gotten spoiled with at Sugarbowl. Julian needs it for timidness (not all kids are "fearless"), and Katrina needs it for age. To my amazement and delight, she's all over skiing. I should start taking bets for how long it'll be before she outskis me. I give it 2 years, 3 tops.

This would be a good time to point out that Sugarbowl's ski school also costs twice as much.

But now for the flip side. For me and Dave, Sierra was much better. It has more green runs than just about anywhere, with good fast lifts even on the most crowded bunny slope. Getting to the various lifts was easier; seemed we did a lot more schlepping between lifts at Sugarbowl. I was quite entertained on the long, pretty greens, and more than challenged by the numerous blues that run off them. Dave and I could ski together for part of the day, and even unwittingly explored some new greens together, one that was unusually clean of the scourge of snowboarders. (Dave wasn't crazy about the narrow runs, but I love them the best.)

I also got much more out of the lessons at Sierra (day #3 guy notwithstanding): the small group size, the longer duration (2-1/2 hrs), longer runs meaning fewer interruptions for lifts. And they were run better, ironically. They had everyone do a test-ski to place us into groups; Sugarbowl took our word for it too much and one of my lessons got held up by a guy who tried to walk down the slope after discovering he couldn't ski it. Of course, testing everyone is a lot easier with only 15 non-first-timers instead of 50, and when your crowded bunny hill has a fast lift.

And the food was a lot better at Sierra! I really liked the BBQ place at the top. And the complimentary slipper and boot-warming service!

To be fair, we didn't give Sugarbowl a complete chance; there's a whole other side to it that we never got to. But overall I really liked Sierra-at-Tahoe better, it was just prettier (when I wasn't target-fixated and blinded by fear that is) with better, longer runs, ice notwithstanding.

But right now, I think it's most important that the kids get up to speed. I'd hoped to take just the boys on one-day ski trips after this, but that won't work -- Julian just isn't there yet. Also, I'm not good enough to keep track of Gabriel. He's brave but inexperienced and I'd feel a lot better about seeing him plummet straight down blues if I could catch him quickly and head him off if needed. There's no way we can all 3 ski together yet.

This is an awesome dilemma to have, with so many excellent ski areas so close by. Still, given the importance of ski school quality, I'm not sure it's much of a dilemma: it's looking like Sugarbowl again in March!


Boy Trouble

[ Documentation note: I'd originally written this in the above text, but it's not really about skiing. Still, it is part of the whole family experience, so I'll keep it here. ]

Though our ski trip overall went really well, we still had some kid trouble. Katrina again was awful in restaurants, and around mealtimes in general. But the boys really took the cake when we were trying to pack up to leave Saturday.

While packing up to leave, I had a horrible conflict with Gabriel, then Julian, both of whom were so hyped up they couldn't follow the most basic instructions. All I needed them to do was to change out of their snow clothes and into regular clothes, and they were completely ignoring me. I had to ask, repeat, threaten, shout. Then I actually had to undress them and set out their regular clothes, and still all they did was throw things and mess around.

When I came back upstairs once to investigate screeching and found Gabriel whipping Julian with his shirt, I lost it. I pinned him down to the ground, kneeled on his legs and held his hands back with one hand, and used my other hand to whack his underpants-covered rear end as hard as I could, as many times as I could. Incredibly, about 5 minutes later I had to do that again when he flatly refused to do something again.

Julian never needs a spanking that serious, but he earned his own too when he too refused to get dressed (we're 30 minutes now into the most simple of instructions) and started yelling and saying "I DON'T HAVE TO!"

I was frustrated to tears that a fun ski trip had to end this way. Though with older kids we're long past most of the "positive parenting" advice, I still instinctively refer to it in my head, almost as a checklist to confirm to myself that there's nothing else I can do. It never really applied when a parent just needs to dictate something for kids to do, and done in a timely way. Sometimes that's just the reality of childhood and life: you just have to cooperate. There's no finding another way to put it, no charts or stickers, no phrasing it positively, no ignoring. Changing your clothes is a pretty low bar.

My real aggravation was directed at myself, from lacking the additional energy to get them to put away their own snow gear into their own bags. What am I, their valet? Why should it be such a fight to get them to help? Instead, I chose to seethe inside while catering to my spoiled children, and put away their snow clothes rather than take on a major ugly fight again.

At least the very un-positive physical "communication" did break the boys out of their mess-around mode and actually calmed them down. I really, really, really wish there were other ways to do that.

Meantime, Katrina was downstairs on a couch hugging a stuffed animal, having peacefully changed out of her wet snow clothes and submitted to a quick bath. Positive parenting would point to her as an example of a successful method. I'd say it's just a child who likes to change her clothes.

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