Friday, November 23, 2007

Seventy-one years old and going strong

Sun Valley Ski School has programs for all ages, skill levels

Express Staff Writer

Otto Lang was a driving force in establishing the Sun Valley Ski School in its early years. Photo by Mountain Express

Often considered one of the best spots in the United States to learn the art of skiing, the Sun Valley Ski School opened its doors to the public over seven decades ago in the winter of 1936. It was the same year the world's first chairlifts began running on the hills behind the resort.

Ski instruction in those early years was a mostly European-style affair, in part due to the first six Austrian skiers who came to the Wood River Valley to teach their craft.

Early heavyweights who taught at the ski school included Otto Lang, Emile Allais, Stein Eriksen and Tony Matt.

Some seven decades later, the ski school is still going strong, and now employs up to 240 ski and snowboard instructors during the busiest times of Christmas and Presidents' Week.

For young and old, highly experienced to new on skis, the school offers learning opportunities for individuals and large groups. Its programs run the gamut from traditional alpine skiing to terrain park skiing and boarding.

And while it's definitely known as a destination for those wanting to travel to improve their skills, the ski school shouldn't be ignored by local skiers and snowboarders, said Director Hans Muehlegger. A former junior ski racer, Muehlegger was born and raised in Austria but has been teaching at the school for 41 years.

In an Austrian accent that he has still not shed, Muehlegger extols the virtues of Sun Valley's 9,151-foot Bald Mountain, whose characteristics he considers perfect for teaching the art of skiing and snowboarding, "especially for intermediate and advanced (skiers)."

For the more inexperienced skiers and snowboarders, Dollar Mountain is one of the best places anywhere to learn, said Katie Hagen, ski school office manager.

"There's not the worry of trees in the way," Hagen said.

Both Muehlegger and Hagen are quick to point to the ski school's programs for children and teenagers as some of its best aspects. They're especially popular with the locals, they say.

One of the more popular of these is the Freeride Program, which is designed for children age six to 18.

The popularity of the youth programs also means space is often limited, as up to 300 children may be taking part in the programs during the busiest times.

"That's why reservations are necessary," Hagen said.

Hagen said that for all of the ski school's youth programs, the emphasis is on building confidence. She said instructors are continually monitoring their proteges and will move them over to a more appropriate group if they determine they're skiing above or below the skill levels of their fellow skiers.

"We want them to have a good time. We want them to have a good time and get hooked on skiing," she said.

The same goes for adult learning. Hagen said the most flexible are the ski school's private lessons, which can be tailored to fit the needs of all skill levels and group sizes.

"You get to control what you want in the lesson. You can really focus on what you want to learn," she said.

Hagen said the ski school's instructors are thoroughly groomed for their jobs. She said the application process includes an outing to the mountain.

"It's basically an on-snow job interview," she said.

Successful applicants are then required to go through a six-day training period before they ever meet their first client or clients, she said. Experienced instructors go through regular training clinics to keep up with changes in technique and ensure a continuity of teaching style.

For more information about the Sun Valley Ski School's many programs, call 622-2289, or log on to

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