Special to realvail.com
China: the sleeping snow-sports giant
February 9, 2008 —
They come by the thousands.
First-time skiers willing to strap on rental skis and don rental clothing in a rental shop perfectly designed for moving large numbers of people. They then attempt to ride, drag or climb their way to the top of the beginner slope, drop into a low position as demonstrated by those before them, and just point it straight down the mountain. They hit speeds upwards of 30 mph on their first attempt. They do this with the enthusiasm of children on a sledding hill.
While in the U.S. we do everything possible to make the sport of skiing as approachable, comfortable and safe as possible, here in China they add the safety after the fact. Mainly because huge numbers of people just keep coming to try it out.
Rather than requiring the newcomers have the ability to turn or stop before they head up onto the hill, resort operators just pad everything up that they might hit and give the beginners the tools to just do it. Their athletic heritage saves them from too much damage.
The resort developers have designed the slopes to embrace the no-holds-barred attitude of the Chinese culture. In other words, they have designed the beginner slopes as you would a sledding hill for children who do not have fear and are very pliable. They design them with long run-outs bordered at the bottom with safety nets to catch those that may overshoot a bit. At least this is how they do it in the resort of Jundushan, China.
Jundushan is located just outside Beijing by less than an hour of drive time (60 million in population surrounding this little ski area), and is comprised of man-made snow strategically carved into an arid mountainside. Itís a real genius resort by design.
This little area with its amazing snowmaking, rental program and lift system has the potential to introduce more people into the sport than anywhere on the planet. Designed from the vision of a sports enthusiast, with limited knowledge of the sport of skiing itself, Mr. He Ping has done an amazing job putting this puzzle together.
Ping has put together a business plan unique to any ski area Iíve ever been to, but with some amazing similarities. There are things he has thought of that I wonder why more experienced resort operators have not come up with by now. Still, there are fundamental elements missing that he has danced around that if he was introduced to might blow the little resort ownerís mind.
We can learn a lot from what is taking place here in Jundushan, while they can learn a lot from our visit. This trip was made possible by two entities helping to not only increase the communication between our western resorts but also helping increase travel and trade of skiers between the two continents. Just as one day I would like to bring some North Americans to China, I hope the Chinese come visit us in Colorado.
As I arrived at the resort, the entire scene fascinated me.
Men and women show up in street clothes, rent boots, skis and perhaps ski clothing by the thousands. In some cases, they wonít even rent the clothes. They will just go with what they have on and give this snow-riding thing a shot with no guidance. They will just head to the top of the hill either by being dragged up by a surface lift unsuccessfully or they will walk up if they fail to hold onto the lift.
Without a second thought, these same men and women will then just assume the position and drop in. It would be like me paddling out in North Shore Oahu (on a small day) thinking that I can do this, why not? It looks easy and it is only water, right? I mean, who needs instruction? Iíve been in a full bathtub before.
I wonder what they think as they place these foreign objects on their feet, assuming the tuck position and just point it straight down the hill covered in white stuff. All they know so far is that it is cold and things slide on it. In a few seconds they will try it, most likely crashing if not into one another than into the ground with a force that would break most of the bones in my body and for sure blow some ligaments.
Then without question they get up and do it again and again until eventually they have enough balance to go straight from the top to the bottom. Who knows how many will actually take to the sport doing it this way by the end of the day? But right now they have the thousands coming and trying it this way.
Thatís thanks to the resort operators who have had the foresight to introduce the sport so close to a massive and very enthusiastic population that is starting to grow economically. Can you imagine if we could harness this energy and introduce them to the sport in a slightly less destructive way?
Each of the five beginner slopes at Jundushan is designed ingeniously - every one of them slightly increasing in angle and allowing very little chance of hitting or running into anything truly solid. So there really is no reason to learn to turn. Yet turning is safer in the long run and will help these skiers improve their ability as to be able to visit more complex resorts.
I just wish I had the Warren Miller Film crew here to document the progression from parking lot to hill, and then the antics that take place in between the two spots. It is an amazing sight.
At one point I watched a lift operator leave his position to run over and help a cute young lady get off the ground while her skis were pointed straight down the slope. Getting her back on her feet was not working, as her skis were running away from her. But this did not stop them from trying, or blowing out her knees. My knees were in pain just watching it.
He had her halfway up when another skier who was pointing it straight down the hill took them both out. The collision made me cringe. As they were untangling, another skier took all of them out again. They were laughing their asses off in the end.
They are tough, flexible and beyond passionate. Plus, I have this theory that Chinese must have better built ligaments than westerners. Which brings up a question: do they have ACL injuries here? Because what I saw bodies doing here would take Vailís Steadman-Hawkins Clinic to a Microsoft level of medical application.
This turns out to be why Iím here in China along with two other instructors from Aspen. I think we are meant to demonstrate that with a little instruction and guidance of operations we could help them not only make things a little safer but also perhaps make the sport even more attainable and fun. Perhaps lowering the attrition rate.
One of their ideas of safety measures at this point is a guy at the bottom of the hill on a bullhorn yelling at the first-timers to clear the run-out area. In their minds, if that area is clear enough when runaway beginners dart into it, things will be fine.
This is broken up by announcements on the PA system repeating their version of the skier responsibility code, which I wish we would actually inherit for the I-70 corridor. It is straight and to the point, basically telling people to get out of the way, or push all accidents to the side immediately as not to hold up traffic. And finally, do not ski intoxicated.
Basically, we hope to alter their culture of the sport a bit through some influence by example. In doing so we hope to have more skiers enter the worldwide system of ski fanatics, only safer and with the proper technique to go anywhere.
In doing so, the ski school will be utilized more (driving more revenue to the resort), the hill will become safer and the attrition of the thousands of skiers showing up will be less. Ultimately, meaning in the case of this ski area, designing more entertainment for the intermediate and advanced skier. As of right now they have beginner terrain and one expert funnel.
Ultimately, if you can move skiers, especially ones this tenacious, out of the beginner market and into the more advanced levels, then our industry will really benefit.
While the two Aspen instructors (Jeanne Buck and Bjorn Sutton) took on the task of teaching the local instructors some teaching progression models after observing their current strategies, I was given a group of never-ever kids ranging from 4 to 15 in age. I had observers from the ski school and an interpreter.
This group of kids was dropped off at the resort by their parents and left in our hands for four days - their regimented schedules packed with activities that included writing in their daily journals, naps, meal times and ski instruction time with me as the teacher. And let me tell you, they were on the minute with this schedule. As employees are plentiful in China, a specialist to that task supervised each element of the childrenís day.
I wanted to show that I could take these fresh young minds and teach them with a technique that would not only have a few of them on the one expert slope in four days but also have them skiing safer and in more control.
The language barrier did not present much of a problem. It might have even helped. Teach by good example, simplify the instruction and use hand signals rather than too much talking. It worked with the kids. The one difficulty was overcoming the employees.
Obviously, wages are not too much of an issue in China at this point. The amount of workers for each and every task was amazing. But since they have been hired and perhaps given one task to accomplish, they will only focus on that one task, with no variation.
So here comes this group of freethinking Americans with their ideas throwing everything into chaos. For example, all of a sudden we had kids turning across the hill instead of going straight down. Even worse was when I took the poles away from the kids and set them up as control gates to give the kids something to turn around.
Boy, oh boy, did this mess with all the employees on the hill, including the security guards. You would have thought I was jumping behind a bank counter with a mask on my head to rob the place.
My battles would end when I would conference with the resort boss via in interpreter and explain the function behind the practice and the future benefit. Next day I would have an overwhelming amount of people not only embracing the technique but also helping to perfect it. It was like a light switch had been flipped.
But every change came with this obstacle, especially when Bjorn and Jeanne introduced moguls at the top of the expert slope. This about killed the men hired to groom this part of the hill with shovels. Now they know how to maintain them.
The kids seemed to be picking up on signals with little resistance, which brings up another point. The kids, each coming from a one-child home (as that is the law), are resilient despite the cold and pain and do not complain. I had yet to see a crying child in the population so far. If I did, it only lasted for a moment, as everyone just said get over it and move on. If not, you are going to be left behind. And they would (get over it).
This group of kids was more competitive than any I have ever witnessed, but in a healthy way. Not sure how to describe it, but I used it to my advantage. The leadership of my little grommets was constantly changing, since the front-runner might get a bit too comfortable with being there, and his peers would progress and knock them out of the position until they made another leap of improvement.
It increased the learning curve by days. Rather than slowing down for the weak we turned it up for the strong. I find that sometimes in our culture the squeaky wheel gets most of the attention, slowing development of the group. Not here.
The progress was amazing, and along the way I think I was able to explain to the boss, Mr. He Ping, that the introduction of a race hill and club might be a very good option for him to add to this cool little resort.
Not only would it help to improve ski technique, it would help people to learn to turn and ski safer. Then he could start having night races or club races, thus having something entertaining for his growing advanced and expert skiers to do. I think he was getting it, at least from what I was told, as he was researching it on the web.
I mean, this place could be the ultimate little slalom training facility, and if we can convince him to get a winch for his cat, he could groom the steep expert slope into an amazing GS hill. These are all dreams I had when I looked at the place Ö and then passed them on.
As the week progressed, we did start to notice some changes in culture. The instructors were teaching turns. Less people were going straight, and the top skiers were super excited about the moguls that had been introduced by Jeanne and Bjorn. In fact, at one point all the best skiers on the mountain, including Mr. He Ping himself, were up doing laps through the mogul field looking for guidance. It was exciting to see.
We would end every day in the bar with some tea - very good tea, I might add - and conference with Mr. He Ping while workers made sure we glasses were always topped off. Some of the conversation went astray, but most focused around the operations of a ski area.
By the end we were told that Ping was now going to rip out the bar area and make it more user friendly for the ski fanatic. I have a feeling if I get to return the bar will be faced toward the slope with big windows and races will be going on at night.
The entire experience, including the food, was amazing - discovering a culture that has embraced the sport I grew up with and really wants to make the most of it for everyone In the end, my 12 kids all graduated and received plaques of honor. I met several of the instructors and worked with them and spent a lot of time on the hill with the club members. I just hope that when I leave they all keep turning.
I hope we taught them a lot, because I certainly walked away from the experience more enriched.
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