On-the-Job: Ski Instructor

Christian Ball worked at Copper Mountain Ski Resort in Summit County, Colorado. A self-described ski bum, Christian taught skiing part time near his home in New York before deciding to move to Colorado.

Getting a job was really pretty easy. I started out washing dishes at a restaurant before ski season started, and then I landed a sponsorship from a ski manufacturer for mogul racing.
Unfortunately, I broke my arm the next day and had to give up the sponsorship. It was a major bummer to be out of commission, but when I got the cast off in December I showed up at Copper Mountain and talked to the ski instructor supervisor. I told him I had some part-time experience teaching in New York, and they basically hired me on the spot, since they were pretty short on instructors.

Related: A Pro Trains at Copper Mountain

I started out at the bottom of the totem pole for a ski instructor, teaching mostly kids and beginners, but the more classes you teach and the better you get to know the supervisors, the higher level you can instruct. Teaching kids was okay with me because I was able to watch their improvement. Sometimes I was also just like a friend to them, since they were usually on their own until their parents picked them up at the end of the day. On the other hand, everyone wants to teach the more advanced courses, because then it becomes just like doing your own skiing: you’re up on the black slopes cutting and skiing and giving advice to some wild twelve-year-olds who ski pretty fast.

The money wasn’t great but it paid the rent and kept me fed. I usually brought home around $400 every two weeks, and was working six or sometimes even seven days a week. You could also supplement your pay with tips. The best tips were from the adult classes, and some of the instructors who taught a lot of adult classes could really work the tips and make some pretty good extra cash. You didn’t do too well with tips when you taught kids, but at the end of the day we always met with the parents and told them how their kids were improving and how they skied that day.

A lot of parents don’t know that it’s customary to give a little tip, so I would usually stick a couple of bucks on my clipboard to give them a hint, which worked pretty well. I made about $20 a week in tips, which was probably worse than any other instructor on the mountain because I had the lowest seniority and was the youngest instructor. A great benefit (and the key to surviving as a ski bum) was cheap food. As a ski instructor I got free lunches in the ski school cafeteria. I’d usually eat the equivalent of three lunches in the cafeteria, and then didn’t have to worry too much about food the rest of the day.

Some instructors made a lot better money by giving private lessons. You could arrange to give your regular lessons later in the day and have early morning private lessons. You have to split the money from those lessons with the ski school but it still pays really well. In addition to the extra pay, those instructors could pull in over $300 a week just in tips! Usually you had to be pretty established to give many private lessons, but some instructors were good at working it. If the pupil was a kid, you could tell the parents that little Johnny was showing a lot of promise and improvement and suggest that you might have some extra time the next morning if they were interested in a private lesson.

I really don’t think there are many drawbacks to being a ski instructor. Some people complained about the ski school because they had to spend all day teaching other people and didn’t get their own ski time, but I looked at it like this: I got to ski 146 days in a row last year and got paid for most of it. Sometimes I would be stuck on the beginner hill all day, but I didn’t mind because working with kids was really fun and it always reminded me of when I learned to ski myself. Other days, though, I’d go out with advanced pupils and get to ski black diamond runs all day, which was awesome.

Getting hired is really not too difficult if you’re a decent skier. At Copper Mountain and a lot of resorts, they run a hire-in clinic at the beginning of the season. You have to pay $70 to $100, and they basically teach you how to be an instructor. You learn a lot of great techniques, and it even helps your own skiing, so it’s probably worth it even if you don’t get hired.

There were some people in the clinic who seemed like pretty lousy skiers, but they were very friendly and great with people so they got hired anyway.

The resorts in Summit County are very family-oriented, and you can’t have pierced body parts or really long hair or anything. I have dreadlocks, and last year it was fine because they were short enough to fit under my cap, but this year they’re longer and they told me I wouldn’t get hired unless I got them cut.

I don’t instruct anymore. Now I have a job as a cook at a Breckenridge restaurant. The job’s ideal, because I get to work at night and ski all day long, plus I get access to plenty of cheap food. I don’t go out much at night, so my expenses are pretty low and I have money to keep my mountain bike and my ski equipment up-to-date. In the off season I mountain bike and “poach” – ski the resorts that are shut down and use forest service roads to drive back up the slopes again. It keeps me busy until ski season starts again.

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