Austrian ski instructors scare me. All that extreme schussing and turning perfection drilled into them from their qualification days in a country where skiing is their national sport. I fear they take one look at me, shake their head in technical despair and use me as an example of what not to do in the ski instructor locker room at the end of the day.
A week at Sofa Ski Camp in Treble Cone New Zealand showed me how wrong, unfair and judgemental I have been. The week long ski improvement course for intermediate to advanced skiers is the brain child of Austrian instructor Klaus Mair. His Sofa Ski School YouTube video series has literally had millions and millions of views and his interactive ski instruction DVDs are best sellers.
But wait, there’s more. Mair has Austria’s highest ski instructor certification, has a masters degree in Physical Education and started teaching skiing at age 16. Add years at Mammoth, Zurs and Treble Cone as a ski race coach and snow sports school manager and you know you’re in qualified hands. He’s also a top guy, to boot (no pun intended).
Despite this, I was still apprehensive before taking on five days of ski improvement. I’ve done a thousand of these types of weeks, ok, at least 10, and I just didn’t now if I could put myself through another week of drills. My last name isn’t Vonn so part of me just didn’t see the point.
Again, I was wrong. I was paired with a top level instructor and mountain guide, Benni Walch from the Arlberg region of Austria, as my instructor and soon learned that while he loved to tell me what was wrong with me he also loved to laugh and have a good time while doing it. I hardly noticed the soul crushing words that came out of his mouth when they were served on a plate of mirth.
The truth is once you hit an advanced level of skiing there is a minutae of technical elements that require tweaking but you are fighting years of doing it ‘your way’ so drills are required to retrain the muscle memory. The worst day is day one, when they video you and then point out what they intend to improve. The best day is the last day when they video and show you what you improved by putting the two videos side by side on screen.
In between is a mash up of joy, elation, frustration, hunger, laughter and hysteria depending which part of the roller coaster you are on at any given time. The good news is the best views from any ski resort in the world are there at Treble Cone so you can always just lose yourself in the middle distance.
You see, my hips don’t lie and my right hip likes to be the centre of attention, pushed out to the world for all to see when it really should be pushed back to the mountain to help my body find the angulation required to become a better skier on every turn on every terrain on every mountain. It was tamed into submission by Benni by the last day, back where it belongs and everyone could see it on the video screen, the same way I could see the vast improvements of the others in my group.
To be honest, the week was a hell of a lot of fun. My group was small (each group maxes out at 5 skiers), they were all blokes including Benni who loved to yodel as we went down the moguls. Actually he loved to yodel on moguls, on groomers, on fresh powder, in a white out (which was strangely soothing when I couldn’t see him ahead of me).
There was an emphasis on technique, on racing style training, but also on fun and education with boot fittings, ski equipment talks, demo ski days and a social program. Austrians are as good at apres as they are at skiing, so be warned.
The coaches on Sofa Ski Camp use helmet intercom which means they can talk (or yodel) to you as you are taking your turns down the Treble cone slopes which also means less standing around and more time skiing. At the end of the camp you get all of your ski footage and analysis clips on a USB stick for you to review again at a later time and you get a training diary in a Google doc that you can refer to each year.
The ‘sixth’ day is optional and is where you can put your updated skills to the test heli skiing the backcountry terrain of the Southern Alps. There’s something about heli skiing with a group of new found friends that surges the feel good factor even more.
I was unable to hit the heli day due to my schedule, so can’t report back, but I took Benni on a private cat skiing tour of a private ski field days later instead. Just for putting up with me and my hip.
Of all the ski improvement camps I have done (again, many) this one stuck in my brain throughout my skiing season. I did the first week of the season last year which meant I could keep that hip angulation issue forefront of mind with every turn throughout the southern winter and then again the northern. It has helped, by far, so much so I intend to return to the Sofa Ski Camp this year to work on it (and my yodeling) some more.
I’m not scared of those Austrian ski instructors anymore. They, however, should now be scared of me. Yo-da-lay-heee.
A Q&A with Klaus Mair, founder of Sofa Ski Camp
What kind of skier should enroll Sofa Ski Camp?
The camps are ideal for skiers that are keen to improve and that don’t mind to put in some focused work to achieve their goals. We don’t have a magic formula to help participants ski better but we know what it takes to achieve results. Some of this is slowing things down, doing drills. It also helps if the participants understand that improving their basics will also help them reach their goals in the off-piste and in other areas.
The minimum level that we require is for participants to be able to do a parallel turn on an easy blue run or to be able to make it down harder blue runs safely.
What can they expect to learn?
Our participants can expect that by the end of the 5 days they will know exactly what they should be doing more of in their skiing and what they should avoid and ideally they should also know how it feels when they are doing it better. Our goal is to help skiers understand skiing better and to get them to a point where they can check themselves what they are doing and how they can continue to do more and more good turns in the future.
Why Sofa Ski Camp?
We offer professional coaching for recreational skiers. A lot of the things that we do in Sofa come from the ski tech training for ski racers. We have a big focus on the ski fundamentals, have a very close look at how each skier is getting around the corner and try to show them how they can make this more efficient. We set clear goals and then try to achieve them within the five days.
We go for the bigger changes, which often are not the easiest ones to achieve but will show the biggest results in the mid and long term. The main goal of the course is not to make participants feel good as quick as possible, but to achieve some lasting results and in this respect I think we differ quite a bit from many ski school programmes.
A big part of our coaching approach is also the heavy use of video feedback and teaching tools like the UClear helmet intercoms which allow us to give immediate feedback and help us to ski more and stand around less.
I think the best stories are all the skiers that look back and can say that they are now at age 44, 57 or 75 better skiers than they were 10 years ago.
In the last years we always had an average of 45% return campers. Often time’s participants only realize after the camp how much they actually have improved and even if they don’t come back in the following year they then often return for more later.
What about the instructors?
The coaches are all fully certified and handpicked by myself during my winters in Austria. This year we will have 8 coaches from Austria, 1 from England and 1 from Canada.
What’s the best part of a Sofa Ski Camp?
For us coaches it is that we get to work with motivated skiers that fully trust us, most of the time. For the participants I think it is the mix of focused training, the feeling of achievement and having fun skiing with likeminded people. For some it probably is to finish the week off with a day of heli skiing together with their group and the coach on the 6thday which we offer as an add on in cooperation with Harris Mountain Heli Ski.
What if you are already considered to be a good skier?
Most of our customers don’t need Sofa Ski School but they choose to do a camp because they want to get more out of their turns (again) or because they miss the feeling when they have discovered something new and don’t want to stop skiing. Skiing is such a technical sport and the skills that you gain will stay with you, a great investment and a great challenge for the mind and body to learn something new again.
Why New Zealand?
I came to New Zealand as a ski race coach. Treble Cone is an amazing place to ski and train on and off-piste and definitely one of my favorite places to ski in the world. There are not many places where you get this kind of skiing in the Southern Hemisphere.
What is a typical day at Sofa Ski School?
The small groups of maximum 5 skiers (average 4) usually meet around 9:30am in front of the six seater chairlift. As we are part of the Treble Cone Snow Sports School we get to use the ski school entrance which can be a crucial advantage, especially on a powder day. The daily programme is then completely up to the coach.
We train for 5 hours on snow per day with a lunch break in between and finish around 3:30pm. On Tuesday we meet in town at Urban Grind for drinks, dinner and to watch some of the day’s GoPro clips. On Thursday we finish the week with an après ski get together at Gin and Raspberry and to make plans for the next Sofa Ski Camp, maybe in Austria, California or Japan.