Friday, June 27, 2014

PSIA Success

If I won the lottery tomorrow, I'd retire from my real job, buy a house in an awesome ski town (Telluride, Steamboat Springs, Stowe, Park City - although that one looks iffy right now), and teach skiing for the rest of my life. I love skiing and I love teaching it - being outside in the fresh air, bullshitting on the chairlift, talking about ski technology, hearing people's stories, talking with other instructors, solving the puzzles, and just ripping around having fun.

Unfortunately, this ain't Europe, and you can't make a living as a mere ski instructor. In fact, especially in the east, ski instructors are ridiculously underpaid. This site says that the average instructor makes $5,000-$10,000 a year. I've never even seen close to that amount of money. I work 25-30 days a year at my home mountain and 14 days a year as an "adjunct professor", teaching a community college ski class and I make a little over $1000 at each job. Including tips, I'd say that I make about $3,000-$3,200 a year from teaching skiing, putting in over 300 hours of driving and working time. I'm obviously not teaching skiing for the money.

But I'm not complaining. If I wanted to make more money, I suppose I could. I could hustle more for private lessons, I could scrounge for more tips, I could take a supervisory job that would bump me up to about $4,000-$6,000 a year. But I don't really want that. I work a regular job for money, ski instructing is supposed to be my fun job. I just want to go to work, teach some awesome lessons, and do a little freeskiing with my extra time. And it's been that way for the last 13 years.

But I've also dipped my toe into the "Professional" ski instructing ranks. And if you're talking about professional ski instructing, you're talking about PSIA. I climbed the PSIA ladder to the point where I was a Level III in both Alpine and Telemark skiing. And after you reach Level III, what do you do next? Let's look at that part of the ladder:

Starting from the bottom, you can see that the next step is the "Alpine Educational Staff", where I have the option of Divisional Clinic Leader (DCL), ACE Team ("Advanced Children's Educator"), or Dev Team ("Development Team"), which has a further ladder to ETS and then to Examiner.

I actually tried out for Dev Team on the Alpine side in 2009. In fact, I wrote about the experience on the Epicski forum:
So I put together a sick run (heli in the middle, huge GS turns with my body way outside the skis, slalom turns with wicked rebound) until I got to the very end, where I hit some soft snow, somersaulted over the front of my skis, ripped my toepiece in half (the plastic itself), and bent my brand new skis. 
So, that didn't go so well for me. I wasn't really bummed that I messed that run up, though. I was more upset because the people who did make it weren't really the greatest skiers I'd ever seen. Ace (who had also tried out) thought the same. We couldn't really figure out why we didn't get higher scores, but we chalked it up to youth (I was 28 and she was 27), imprecise skiing, and not really knowing anybody (all of the other candidates seemed very close with the examiners).

After that experience, I took a break from the Alpine ladder. I got my level III on the Telemark side in 2011, and it was an awesome experience. I didn't really know if the Telemark side was "better" (I've since realized that it is :-)), but I knew that I felt a lot more proud of my Telemark accomplishments than I ever felt about my Alpine accomplishments. After a couple of years of equipment dialing, I decided to try for the Dev Team on the Telemark side this past March at Killington.

The Telemark exams are different than the Alpine exams in general. Alpine exams are very strictly regimented and task based. For every task (short turns, GS turns through bumps, etc.), the examiner stands at the bottom with notecards and calls the candidates down one by one. The people trying out are evaluated and the examiner writes some stuff down and you move on to the next task. The Telemark exams are just better: more relaxed, more teaching focused, more group participation and cooperation, more skiing, more fun, and more Norwegian tele feasts:

This was the feast in a sidecountry cabin near Killington after Day 1 of this year's exam. I won't bore you with the details of skiing and teaching, but it's always stressful when you're in it. You never really KNOW you passed until they announce your name after everything is all over.

When they announced my name, I got pretty emotional. I don't know what it is when I pass the tele exams, but when the final scores come in, I really feel like I've accomplished something. The standards are ridiculously high. Great skiers and teachers didn't pass the Level III exam, just because they couldn't put it all together at the same time. I feel incredibly honored and humbled to make the Dev team, and the fact that I'm on track to be an examiner is still pretty unbelievable to me.

When you're climbing the ladder, you're always looking up to the people above you - people who have been there and have been doing this stuff for years and years. They've probably forgotten more about ski instructing than I ever knew. I am eternally grateful to the people who helped me along the way, and I wouldn't have gotten the warm feeling of accomplishing something difficult without them. 

I'm still not going to make much money ski instructing, but it's nice to know that I have a little bit more flexibility and freedom in how I make that money in the future. It will be nice to travel around to different resorts, attend events with awesome tele skiers, and maybe sneak my way into a western trip or two. The next goal is a super longshot: making the PSIA National Telemark Team. Since there appear to be only 2 people in the whole country on the team right now, this is probably not likely. But, hey, this is my fun job. Might as well keep doing it.


  1. Lessons ain't cheap, so it's somewhat surprising to hear you only clear $1500-ish working 25 days at Gore. By contrast, my kids have done the Mountain Adventure program at Gore. It's around $350 for 6 half days. There are usually 5 or 6 kids in the class, so that's $2K gross revenue for Gore. If half of that went to the instructor, that'd be a thousand bucks for 6 half days. Somebody (probably the mountain, not the instructors) must be making out.

    "I didn't really know if the Telemark side was "better" (I've since realized that it is)." Ha! Of course tele is better.

    One question. The PSIA ladder shows "4 years maximum" as a Dev Team or ETS Team member. Are you "required" to move up the ladder in that time frame to Examiner, and what happens if you don't make that next cut?

  2. Yeah. On the Alpine side, if you don't make examiner in 4 years, you have to try out for Dev Team again. The tele side is better.

    People who teach Mountain Adventure are paid 6 hours a day at $10 an hour (or so), regardless of how many kids they teach. I do school groups on Sundays that have 10 or 11 kids in them and make $22 for the 2 hours (I get about $11 an hour because I'm a level 3). Yes, the mountain rakes it in on lessons and then spends all its money on snowmaking.

    1. I know there's tips plus the value of the season pass instructors receive, but $10/hr is still way skewed when you consider the revenue the mountain pulls in from lessons and programs. Hopefully instructors at least make out a little better with private lessons $10/hr is what we pay our babysitter to sit on the couch in our family room and watch tv.