March 5, 2006
No end to this ski run
Special to The Seattle Times
GREG GILBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
The first time Paul Rossman worked as a ski instructor, he was a ninth-grader teaching people how get through icy moguls on a hill with a 200-foot vertical drop and four rope tows in Michigan.
He moved to the Seattle area in 1967 to work as an engineer at Boeing and immediately was awed, if not frightened, by the towering mountains here.
"I had never seen hills so big. I thought that if I fell at the top, I would fall all the way to the bottom," Rossman said.
Today, the Boeing retiree works as one of 250 ski instructors at Crystal Mountain, the largest ski resort in the state and boasting a relatively breathtaking 3,100-foot vertical drop.
Rossman, 61, is one of the resort's older ski instructors and one of about 30 full-timers. But he has no intention of retiring, pointing out that co-instructor Willie Grindstaff is nearing his 76th birthday.
"He's still going strong, so why not?"
Ski and teach
For more information on ski instructor jobs:
Professional Ski Instructors of America: www.psia.org/01/home/home.asp
Crystal Mountain Ski and Snowboard School: www.skicrystal.com/1591.html or 360-663-3030
Good question. The snow is back with a vengeance after a near-disastrous season last year.
The pay for instructors is decent, Rossman said, about $500 a week for a season that typically lasts at least 20 weeks or so, plus instructors get to ski for free.
The days are full for Rossman, who arrives at the slopes by 7:15 a.m., then spends the hours before lessons setting up the learning area, talking with other instructors and shoveling snow.
Despite the fact Rossman teaches five days a week and rarely spends much time on his own skiing, he calls teaching a hobby.
"I live for the student reaction, I'm a student junkie," says Rossman.
For those who want to make a life teaching people how to ski and snowboard, job prospects appear good, as long as the winters bring plenty of snow to the mountains, as is the case this year.
Besides teaching, instructors can go on to manage ski schools, coach skiing or snowboarding, work in mountain operations, become ski and snowboard manufacturers reps or teach other instructors through the Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA).
It's not unusual for an instructor to start at a nearby ski area in the Cascades, then be lured away by the glamour of destination resorts such as Vail.
Crystal Mountain has a highly developed training program for those who want to teach.
Each year, it holds a four-day instructor's college, which culminates in testing for PSIA certification.
Those that prove they have the stuff begin teaching. Those who Crystal believes are full of potential but not ready to teach join the resort's "cadet" program and spend time shadowing classes and working on skills until they are ready.
The college is held over four days every December. The $185 fee includes training manuals, lessons and lift tickets for all four days.
During the season, instructors are offered the opportunity to take more clinics and test for higher PSIA certifications.
So, how skilled must a skier or snowboarder be to teach the sport?
According to Crystal Mountain's Chris Kastner, director of skiing and snowboarding, what's most important is people skills.
"We're looking for really good people first," says Kastner. "We can teach them to ski or ride later."
Yes, Kastner admits the would-be instructor must be at least proficient in the sport, but Crystal will teach them to teach.
Like most Crystal instructors, Rossman teaches a variety of lessons and skill levels.
Saturdays and Sundays, he helps coordinate the other instructors.
Fridays, he teaches the most advanced skiers — level nines — running them through blind tree skiing or making them practice skills on ice or bottomless powder.
Some days, he works the kids clubs, which can be as much about teaching the snowplow stop as keeping kids warm and engaged.
Other days, he has private and group lessons with adults of varying skill levels.
On a recent Friday, Rossman's class of three included one woman, and two men who knew each other.
It's Rossman's job not only to make the lesson rewarding for all three, but to give each of them something they can ski away with.
He wants to find their strengths and weaknesses and fix whatever isn't working. To do that, he begins with what may seem idle conversation.
Actually, he is gathering information, assessing personalities and figuring out what motivates each and their levels of comfort and skills.
From a simple question about how much skiing the woman does, Rossman learns she is having knee pain. He has a theory that it's not her knees, but her skiing.
On the chairlift, Rossman continues his analysis.
Then it's off the chair and time to put his prognosis to work.
As it turns out, each of his students has a problem in common: They are doing something awkward at the start of their turn.
To solve this, Rossman puts them through the paces, pushes their boundaries and works them through turn after turn.
"He just really encourages people to take risks," says Decky Fielder of her instructor.
By not stopping the students at the top of the hill, where they could stare down a steep slope and get scared, Rossman leads by example.
He skis ahead and assumes his students will follow him.
As for Fielder, she's amazed to learn that by changing the way she turns, she has eliminated the knee pain that was plaguing her.
At the end of the two-hour lesson, the students thank Rossman and head back to the slopes.
Their teacher takes a quick break for hot chocolate, then he's back at it, preparing for his two-hour afternoon lesson.
Seattle Times Job Market editor Bill Kossen contributed to this report.
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