A TALK WITH THE ASPEN SKI DOCTOR, JOHN CLENDENIN
I’ve been lucky enough to ski in Aspen every winter since the early 90’s and it seems to me that I’ve heard the name "John Clendenin" mentioned each time that I’ve visited. He is one of Aspen’s legendary ski instructors, his name invariably invoked by a local, who speaks as if they’re letting me in on a state secret.
Clendenin is a former two-time world-champion freestyle skier, author of the Clendenin Ski Method, and director of the Clendenin Ski Method camps, a two- to three-day program designed to teach skiers of all ability levels how to ski moguls and off-piste conditions.
When I decided to do Clendenin’s camp a couple of years ago, I approached it with more than a little scepticism. Like many skiers, I had been force-fed the latest method and styles by a series of ski gurus. Some were great, others less so. I couldn’t imagine that Clendenin’s camp would be substantially different.
But when I got there, I discovered a devoted team –passionate, accomplished and gifted teachers all. And I found Clendenin himself to be a potent combination of grin and authority. On the mountain, he can come across as a tough guy with a big smile. But underneath, he’s a dedicated teacher, very driven, even a tad messianic. What John teaches sounds easy, but like all such things, it isn’t easy at all. But it does make sense. More sense than anything else I’ve learned about skiing in the last decade. I spoke with him recently in Aspen.
Okay, if you can already ski, why take lessons? So many skiers I speak with tell me that they can only get away for one or two ski vacations a year. These are short getaways, they explain, and taking a day off, let alone two or three, for a class doesn’t sound like fun to them.
Look at any sport and you see two group types: (1) those that are addicted and always want to improve; (2) those that have the basics and find enjoyment without a desire to improve. Thanks to the first group, those addicted to skiing, I have plenty of business. And besides, our lessons are fun. The risk factor may not be an issue in sports like bowling, badminton or curling, but in skiing, the risk factor diminishes as you get better. And I still have never been able to relate to the lack of desire to improve in any sport.
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Stupidity. If Tiger takes lessons, so can we! The best have always been coached. Besides looking better, good technique makes you a safer skier. Of course finding the right coach is always an important issue.
Tell me how you came up with the Clendenin Ski Method (CSM). What was its evolution?
Based on a competitive career and a couple decades of successful instruction, I developed CSM. It attracts Baby Boomers because of its versatile approach to skiing, with a focus on control and confidence by managing speed. First-time skiers breeze through the method while advanced skiers develop technique that can be applied anywhere. I am equally concerned with students’ understanding of skiing, as well. To bring skiing into a more familiar realm, CSM is based on "four words" to describe a skier’s actions from one turn to the next: drift, center, touch and tip. A skier utilizing the "four words" improves quickly and is able to handle a greater variety of terrain. The theory behind CSM is that modern technique and equipment should not be limited to high-speed carving, big air, and terrain parks. Less athletic and less courageous skiers can enjoy safe, effortless skiing with speed control anywhere on the mountain, including moguls. Everett, you even commented that the four words stuck in your brain and helped.
The Method is based on the fundamentals of how all great skiers in all disciplines have skied for decades. I just broke it down to drift, center, touch and tip. The CSM, even though it’s great for beginners, really shines with more advanced skiers or the majority of existing skiers. In CSM we want control first. Clients need to ski bumps slowly without stemming before we give them a hall pass to go play. Understand that speed is a crutch for bad technical skiing. Speed on the groomed runs masks flaws that get downright dangerous in the bumps. If you’re skiing correctly (not stemming), bumps become easier and easier, and speed becomes less of a factor. It’s like learning to dance with gravity…you can slow dance or fast dance, tango or waltz…. it’s learning the different dances that’s fun.
Okay, so let’s say I’m a skier who goes between blues and blacks but never feels totally comfortable on the latter. What will it take to make me feel good on the blacks?
Consider the CSM as an anti-stem school. We work on developing the inside/uphill ski first, eliminating the stem for turn and speed management. Purge the stem (I call it skiers flu) and skiing becomes smooth and controlled while reducing the effort required. The exploration of what can be done with the inside/uphill ski in terms of all-mountain skiing has not been touched by any other ski teaching methods. For example, you feel a lot more comfortable riding a horse through the forest when you’re sure you can slow her down and turn her left and right. The inside/uphill ski is like the reins on your horse.
I personally feel it’s a lot safer and it’s more fun to ski the less crowded areas of any mountain. Something like 80 percent of skiers and snowboarders stick to the groomed runs, including people who are pushing the speed limit. That’s a bad combination for everyone’s safety. Speed is a false and dangerous measure of ability. I like to take my clients away from these freeways into what I call the Kingdom — moguls, powder, and the natural fun areas of the mountain. In order to do that, we need to establish a comfort level in all terrain. We need to know how to ski bumps.
In your years of skiing and teaching, you’ve seen a lot of skiers and teaching methods. If you look out on Aspen Mountain from your perch in the gondola on a given morning, how good are the skiers you’re watching? Do you see talented skiers or people in survival mode?
It’s amazing how many skiers who consider themselves solid intermediates or experts use a stem entry for their turns. Skiers who think they look great on groomed runs often look like they’re riding a wild pony in the bumps. They just can’t figure out why their technique does not work in the bumps. It’s because they don’t have any. Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of great skiers on Aspen Mountain. But it’s sad that due to poor technique, the majority of skiers are missing out on the best fun on the mountain.
You’re also a golf pro. What are the connections, if any, to your ski teaching?
The PSIA (Professional Ski Instructors Association) is underdeveloped compared to the PGA (Professional Golf Association). I belong to both. For example there isn’t a brand identity in ski teaching. In the golf business you have famous teaching brands. You have David Ledbetter, Jim Flick, Hank Haney, and more. Butch Harmon, Tiger’s old coach, happens to be the model I use. He doesn’t travel much and I don’t like to travel. He has his own school in Las Vegas and people come to him for his camps and his coaching. That’s the way I’ve set up the Clendenin Ski Method Camps, and the Ski and Board Doctors (indoor simulator school) here in Aspen.
Okay, tell us about the CSM Camps in Aspen?
The Camps are specifically geared for mature skiers wanting to ski bumps, crud, powder, and any expert-level terrain safely, with as little effort as possible. So much of the ski industry has been focused on carving and cliff jumping with the advent of shaped skis that we have forgotten the majority of skiers just want a safe, enjoyable experience, without being intimidated. The Camp takes intermediate to advanced skiers to all corners of Aspen Mountain, allowing them to develop at their own pace with like-minded skiers. With the CSM, video analysis and limited group size, the Camp encourages skiers to work closely with their coaches and each other in order to change basic movement patterns. Most campers leave thrilled.
Our complete package — the indoor simulator, two days on the mountain, use of new demo skis, video, and closing party goes for $795. The three-day camp is $989.
And in summer, you head down to Portillo, Chile. What makes that special?
The CSM camp in Portillo provides an opportunity for the whole group to ski with each other during the day and socialize at night. And to keep doing it for a week. Needless to say, the pace is mellow. Portillo is beautiful — sunny skies above the tree line overlooking Inca Lake. It’s a fabulous place to be on the slopes in September.
Do you have plans to do a DVD of the CSM?
Absolutely, but the book is a great place to start. It’s required reading for our Camps. The DVD will add a new dimension to the book, making technique assimilation that much easier. It’s even better at a lesson or camp where you get lots of feedback and interaction on the snow. Then you can take the DVD home and review it to really anchor what you’ve learned. Our goal with our program and all our teaching aids is to provide each and every student every opportunity for a breakthough. Period.
To order the Clendenin Ski Method book, either as a download or paperback, and to learn more about Clendenin’s Ski Method Camps, visit www.skidoctors.com .