“Three!” Phillip responded, face barely visible beneath a heavy blue parka, ski helmet and scarf. As far as he was concerned, quitting time couldn’t wait long enough.
No surprises there, said ski school supervisor Kelly Eyster. Kids love the snow, and even with a Nintendo Wii and snack time waiting inside the headquarters of the new HEAD Kids Adventure Center, they usually want to stay on the slopes for as long as possible.
“Kids are so resilient that it doesn’t matter if it’s raining or whatever,” she said. “Nine times out of 10, they’re OK.”
Not like a group lesson
Rain was the order of the day at Cataloochee Saturday (Jan. 2), so the Adventure Center saw only a fraction of its season high of 70 kids that day. The good thing about that, though, is that the kids who were around got extra attention, pairing up with instructors in small groups of one to three.
“It’s not like a group lesson,” said Eyster, who spends her weekdays teaching special education in Transylvania County Schools. “When you’re in a group lesson, if all six aren’t ready for the lift, you don’t go on the lift.”
At the Adventure Center, however, kids are divvied among an ample staff of instructors according to age and ability. That makes it a lot easier to target the instruction to each student’s needs.
That’s just what Lance Shallenberger, a freshman at Pisgah High School by week and instructor at Cataloochee by weekend, was doing on the beginner area at the base of the mountain as he taught a group of three brothers ranging in age from 7 to 12. One by one, he talked each boy down the hill for his introduction to the sport of skiing.
“Wiggle your feet,” he coached the youngest one, James. “There you go. Now start to slide. Point your toes. Keep going, keep going.”
And James kept going, sliding downhill until he reached Shallenberger’s steadying hands. Before long, his brothers had joined him.
Just like Olympians
Cataloochee has long had teaching programs targeted to children, but this ski season marks a milestone in bringing them to a whole new level. Before now, the Adventure Center had operated out of a small building that left no space for an indoor getaway when students tired of the slopes. But in 2014, Cataloochee received a sponsorship from sports equipment manufacturer HEAD. That opened the doors to new opportunity for the kids program.
“Basically, it’s more funding so we can expand it and get cool stuff,” explained Sue Reitze, ski school director.
“Cool stuff” includes things like the orange archway kids get to pass through at the base of the practice hill and the racing bibs they wear to identify who’s with the Adventure Center — just like what the Olympic racers wear, Eyster pointed out.
When one of the older kids protests having to wear them, she said, “It’s like, Shawn White doesn’t think it’s dumb.” That usually takes care of that.
The sponsorship paid for a Wii, felt board nutrition pyramid, ski and snowboard equipment and extra staff. Coming up, Cataloochee is hoping to build an addition to house a separate kitchen.
The kids program used to run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., but now it goes from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with a half-day option available. Kids get snacks and lunch in addition to plenty of time on the slopes. Indoors, they learn about different parts of a slider’s — the generic name for a skier or snowboarder — equipment and practicing putting it on.
Ensuring the future of ski slopes
Laura and Kevin Phelan, who drove up from Atlanta with their 4- and 6-year-old daughters, were happy with what they found at the Adventure Center.
“We did it because we thought they would have a more overall experience,” said Laura as she picked her daughters up from their half day at the Adventure Center. “Sometimes if you just do an hour or so lesson, it’s fun, but this is more immersive.”
And, she added, “They’re not thinking so much about ‘when is Mommy going to get back.’”
Annie Phelan, 6, said she had fun going on the lift and skiing down the hill. That’s pretty great, Laura said, because the night before Annie didn’t want to go on the lift at all.
Seeing kids get past those barriers is a big part of why she loves the job, Eyster said.
Making a lifelong skier or snowboarder is pretty much her favorite thing.
It’s amazing, she said, “to create a passion for something that is fun and healthy” — and also “makes sure there will still be ski resorts open when I’m 70.”
There are definitely plenty of kids who have had a good enough time on the slopes that they and their parents decide to come back. That’s important for the kids’ budding sliding skills, helping them build the muscle memory that allows them to become progressively more confident on the slopes. It also makes for some entertaining reunions between students and instructors.
“It was so funny,” Eyster said of a boy she’d seen again this year after teaching him the previous one. “He was talking to some other kids in the group and said [of Eyster], ‘Yeah, we go way back.’ And he’s 6.”
To teach in the kids program, instructors have to go through a two-day training in which they prove and improve both their sliding and teaching abilities. For Dephouse, a high school junior in Buncombe County, it’s the second year she’s taken that training.
“This is my first job,” she said while riding up the lift with Phillip. “It’s a great first job.”
Many of Cataloochee’s ski school instructors have some additional credentials as well. The resort encourages its instructors to get professional certification through either the Professional Ski Instructors Association or American Association of Snowboard Instructors. Those who hold those certifications work to share their knowledge with other staff members.
“We do teaching clinics throughout the whole year so our Level 1 and 2 PSIA and AASI instructors do ongoing clinics,” said Eyster, a Level 1 PSIA instructor herself.
The ski school in general and the Kids Adventure Center in particular are into the teaching of technique, the professionalization of snow sports and developing solid skills out on the slopes. But there’s one thing above all others that drives the program.
“Making a lifelong skier or snowboarder,” Eyster said. “And you can see it when it happens. The light bulb goes on and they get it and they like it and they’ll keep on doing it,” she said.
“I love to ski,” agreed Dephouse. “It’s like my favorite thing ever, but I also like to share it with people.”
Sometimes, that sharing culminates into something special — the birth of a skier. Like Eyster, Dephouse’s favorite moments — aside, perhaps, from silly exchanges like the ones she and Phillip share on the ride up to the top — are those when a student finally, really gets it.
“I just love that feeling,” she said.
Try it out
The HEAD Kids Adventure Center is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., available to children ages 4-12. Sliders of all skill levels spend the day with professionally trained instructors, improving their skills and getting acquainted with the mountain — with fun-filled breaks at the Adventure Center.
$125 for a full day and $95 for a half day, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. or 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Prices include lift, rental, lunch for all-day participants and snack break for half-day participants. Parents should register their children by 8:30 a.m. for morning and full day sessions or 1 p.m. for afternoon sessions.