New School: Aspen's Evolving Ski Instructor Roster

Curtis Wackerle | December 18, 2019 | Lifestyle

Aspen Skiing Company instructors also serve as mountain guides, giving people ski lifestyle tips

Aspen Skiing Company instructors also serve as mountain guides, giving people ski lifestyle tips

There are ski schools, and then there is the Aspen Mountain Ski & Snowboard School. No surprise that the crown jewel of North American resorts has an instructor corps that is the among the most experienced, best paid and well regarded in the industry.

But it is a group that is shifting in demographic; a large cohort is getting ready to retire, and there are fewer foreign instructors due to immigration and visa issues. In the eyes of Aspen Mountain Ski & Snowboard School General Manager Andy Docken, it was in need of an infusion of new talent representing core local skiers, regardless of whether or not they have a traditional instructing background.

Docken has made the game-changing move of hiring a set of ski instructors directly into the Aspen Mountain ski instructor roster. That, historically, is a post that up-and-comers must earn their way into, teaching at Buttermilk or Snowmass for years before getting the nod.

Lange Adams, now in his fifth season with the ski school, was one of the first new hires under this program. He grew up in Telluride and Aspen, and, in his youth, trained with Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club while he aimed for a spot on the U.S. Ski Team. He moved on to the free-ride world, where he competed on the Freeskiing World Tour. He then returned to AVSC, where he was a racing program coach for four years before he joined the ski school. Adams is also a founder of the local whitewater rafting outfitter Elk Mountain Expeditions.

That diversity of experience in the ski industry makes him more adaptable as an instructor, Adams says. As he works his way up through Professional Ski Instructors of America certification levels, he has his eye on joining the regional demonstration team, where he would be responsible for training other instructors. He noted that ski racing, ski instructing and freeskiing all have governing bodies that share similar values, but have different approaches. It’s like different dialects of the same language, he says.

Plus, there is the draw of working on Aspen Mountain, an expert skier’s paradise. “I don’t think I would want to teach anywhere else,” Lange says.

That sentiment holds true as well for Chris Tatsuno, who joins the Aspen Mountain Ski & Snowboard School this winter and is proud to be sharing his favorite mountain with other people interested in the sport. Tatsuno also was a longtime Freeskiing World Tour competitor before moving on to coaching, where his specialty was with AVSC’s Adaptive Program. He also has served as one of freeskiing’s most visible ambassadors from his years emceeing the Warren Miller film tour and getting paid to visit and promote ski resorts by the Canadian government and Colorado tourism interests.

He said he’s always considered himself a student of the sport.

“Coming in ready to learn is my approach,” Tatsuno says. “Like [fellow nontraditional ski instructor] Pat [Sewell] and I always say, ‘Your ego is not your amigo.’”

Docken says the most common request that clients have when looking for an instructor is “young and fun.” The recent nontraditional hires fit the bill, but it’s not as if he’s going up to random good skiers in the gondola line and tapping them on the shoulder. He looks for people who are gifted in how they relate to others and who have a compelling background that brought them to instructing. That helps the new guys and gals attain credibility in the locker room from other instructors who might have a natural inclination to see them as interlopers.

Docken says there is also an aspect of “applied credibility” with the broader local ski community that nontraditional instructors help broker. He realizes it’s important for the legacy of the ski school to be seen as representing die-hard local skies recognized for their progressive talent.

“I think the people we are bringing in are so talented,” Docken says. “They represent a piece of local culture that is increasingly in demand by the ski school’s clientele. You don’t hear a lot of that in terms of requests,” meaning guests asking for an instructor who is a local fixture and who knows everything from the best line through the Shoulder of Bell to the best bar special on any given night, “but we hear about the benefit after people experience it.”


Photography by: Aspen Skiing Company