At Sugarbush, cutting-edge teaching practices are skillfully paired with a philosophy of fun on the slopes.
I was helping finalize the daily schedule for one of Sugarbush’s Women’s Discovery Camps when an email caught me by surprise: “John Egan is available as a guest coach.” A man coaching a women’s ski clinic? It rumbled the foundation of what supposedly made women’s ski clinics successful: women teaching women. In theory, by removing the coed social dynamic, women relax, are less self-conscious, and are more willing to challenge themselves. Within the nurturing sisterhood of other gals of similar ability, a shy cat could become a tigress, able to purr with precision on the blue squares and bound down the baddest bumps.
I was skeptical at first about adding a guy to the mix, but John was an old friend and a pied piper of snow sports, so I designed a schedule in which he spent a half day with each group. The women loved it!
You have to have an open mind when it comes to the Sugarbush Ski & Ride School. It’s like no other ski school in the country, melding an adventurous “can do” attitude with a variety of teaching methods that speak to anyone who wants to glide downhill more adeptly. It caters to everyone, regardless of age, ability, and learning style. Egan, whose official title at the mountain is chief recreational officer, sets the tone. “I’m the Vice President of Fun,” says Egan. “My job is to bring a sense of adventure and fun to everyone at the mountain.”
Egan points to the Women’s Discovery Camp as an example of his teaching philosophy. “I asked the women, ‘Why are you here?’” explains Egan. “They said, ‘To get better so we can have more fun.’ Then I said, ‘Why don’t we have fun, and I bet you’ll ski better.’ It’s all about how comfortable I can make the guest.”
By “comfortable,” Egan means finding one’s comfort zone on the slopes—which may sound odd coming from a guy who spent much of his adult life on some of the most extreme snow-laden pistes around the world, making dramatic descents for movie cameras. Egan says that phase of his life laid the groundwork for his approach to teaching Sugarbush guests today, not in terms of the risk taking but of the breadth of skills he acquired.
“My rat pack was world-class skiers from Germany, Austria, Russia, France, Romania,” Egan says. “It was a constant learning experience, very intense, very rich educationally, even though it was not through PSIA [Professional Ski Instructors of America]. In films, I had to learn to ski all conditions and make it look good.”
Egan not only made it look good to everyday skiers watching the latest Warren Miller release, he also impressed the skiing elite. “A few years ago, I got to ski with Franz Klammer at Beaver Creek,” says Egan, recalling the legendary 1976 Olympic gold medalist in downhill. “I was thrilled to follow him skiing really fast. He stopped at the top of a mogul run, but I kept on going full speed into the bumps. Klammer said I was crazy, which was funny coming from the original kamikaze.” It was a telling moment for Egan about just how far he had come in his skiing, which he credits in large part to Sugarbush.
Egan grew up skiing at Blue Hills near Boston, Massachusetts, in a family of seven kids (he’s the third oldest). Each winter, his parents took the family to Mt. Cranmore, in New Hampshire, on a ski trip. Later, in junior high school, he rode the Blizzard Ski Club bus to Mt. Sunapee on Saturdays. After high school, he moved to Sugarbush.
“In 1976, I sailed with a guy named Lou Anderson whose company did the accounting for Sugarbush,” remembers Egan. “He said, ‘If you really want to learn to ski, go to Vermont. That’s where the real skiers are.’ My first experience keeps me here today. It’s such a family here. Everyone really opened their arms to me.”
When Egan arrived in the Mad River Valley, Sigi Grottendorfer headed the ski school, and his staff represented a mixture of teaching philosophies. Some of the instructors were certified by PSIA—the national organization through which thousands of ski instructors have received standardized training—some were Austrian ski racers, and all were schooled in the Centered Skiing Program.
Longtime Sugarbush ski instructor and native Vermonter Mary Ann “M.A.” Raymond is a disciple of the Centered Skiing Program. “I had just come back from Taos and wanted to teach under Sigi Grottendorfer,” says Raymond, who joined the Sugarbush Ski School in 1979. “It was known as one of the best ski schools in the country. Sigi’s progressions were way beyond what PSIA was doing at the time.”
Centered Skiing uses common analogies to improve one’s skill and confidence on the hill. “It’s a mental approach,” explains Raymond, who has been named among the Top 100 Ski Instructors by Ski, Skiing, and Vermont Sports magazines. “For example, in the bumps, I think of a mogul as a scoop of vanilla ice cream. We’re the syrup flowing over the top and sides. The language in your mind determines how you ski.”
Raymond loves teaching skiing, and her passion for her chosen profession is contagious. “I always wanted to be an instructor,” she says. “And I’m still one. I get the most pleasure when people get it, when they’re happy. At Sugarbush, we want to help people create a new magic on the hill.”
Part of the magic is matching the skier with the right ski instructor. Last winter, Dave Gould, a twelve-year veteran ski and telemark teacher, clicked with a five-year-old boy. “One day, he said he wanted to be a ski instructor like me,” says Gould. “Instructors can really have an effect on someone’s life.”
Gould sees Sugarbush’s programs as unique—because of the way they combine the structure of PSIA with the John Egan philosophy. “Skiing is all about movement and balance,” says Gould. “John has more of a Zen philosophy. When you combine his personal experiences with PSIA, it’s a huge wealth of knowledge. We learn to watch skiers in many different ways. It gives us an edge.”
Instructors at Sugarbush have a large inventory of teaching tools and terrain at their disposal, which is one reason whyfamilies flock to the mountain. Take as an example Tom and Lynne Naughton of Hanover, New Hampshire, who bought a condo at the mountain and enrolled their daughters, Katie and Lia, in the mountain’s Blazers program.
“I don’t know who has more fun, the kids or the instructors,” says Lynne Naughton, who spends every weekend from December to April with her family at Sugarbush. “Our girls can’t wait for the weekends. They might ski NASTAR in the morning, then go backcountry on the Long Trail from Heaven’s Gate to Castlerock in the afternoon. After skiing, they’re bursting at the seams to talk about what they did that day. We’re all in bed by 9 p.m. with smiles on our faces. Coming to Sugarbush was the best decision in twenty years for our family.”
Naughton credits John Egan for setting the tone at the mountain for weekenders like her family. “We didn’t want a racetrack for our kids. We wanted a lifetime sport that we could do together. We love the vibe. We found grounded, genuine people who embrace skiing as a lifestyle and culture, not just a sport.”
And that’s exactly as Egan likes it; Sugarbush is a mountain where the line between fun and learning is blurred in a good way. “Sugarbush is a great place if you’re eager to ski better,” says Egan. “The mountain has always been cutting edge about its teaching philosophies. I’m just continuing that tradition.”