By Everett Potter
“You’re going to ski on a level you’ve never skied before.”
We are sitting at the Sundeck restaurant on Aspen Mountain, 18 seasoned skiers listening to these words and every other word that is spoken, shouted and barked by a handsome, tanned and fit 60-something named John Clendenin, the founder of the Clendenin Ski Method.
“All conditions, all terrain, no problem,” asserts Clendenin, still something of the cocky kid who was twice World Freestyle Champion back in the 1970’s before evolving into one of the most sought-after ski instructors in the United States. His clientele is demanding, Aspen executive-types like Jim Crown and super-recruiter Dennis Carey. Denise Rich had recently requested her private lesson be moved to Sun Valley, so Clendenin dutifully boarded her jet and flew to Idaho for the day.
But Clendenin is demanding, too, and his acolytes—many of whom have taken the three-day camp multiple times—wouldn’t have it any other way. Some of the women in our group exude the mellow, half-dazed aura of groupies, and one couple in their early 70’s admits that this is their 20th time. This doesn’t mean that the Clendenin Method doesn’t work. It means that skiing, like fly fishing or golf, is a sport where you can always get better.
The raison d’etre for the camp lies in some simple math that Clendenin readily spouts: “About 90 percent of skiers stick to the groomed runs, which is about 20 percent of any mountain. I want to take you away from these freeways into what I call the Kingdom – the 80 percent of the mountain with moguls and powder that’s virtually empty. But in order to do that, we need to know how to ski bumps, in control at all times.”
We break into four groups with instructors steeped in the Method while Clendenin spends the day skiing between the groups. He’s always effusive, hugging the women and bellowing at the men like some overgrown frat boy, shouting “Soft edges are what you need!” and “Everything starts in the feet!” The bravado and the grin turn out to be the tools of a great instructor. You will hear praise, but you won’t hear flattery.
Day one is a struggle, even on the gently rolling groomed terrain where we get used to the Method. The demon Clendenin is trying to rid you of is the stem turn, the awkward turning of the ski that’s acquired by beginners and stays with many for a lifetime. As I occasionally slip into a stem, I’m called out like a kid caught chewing gum in school.
“When you turn, your feet should be like two private jets flying parallel to each other,” says Clendenin, using a metaphor that is readily grasped in Aspen.
At the heart of his Method, which he freely admits is based on watching Jean Claude Killy ski, are the “Four Words,” which he repeats like a mantra: drift, center, touch, tip.
You drill each of these concepts repeatedly, a serious rethinking of skiing that requires a willingness to let go. Your goal is what Clendenin calls “The Love Spot,” a phrase which makes me think of some Barry White song but in fact refers to that perfect (and elusive) moment in skiing when it’s all working and feels effortless – you’re in control and floating. Some 4,500 people have come in search of “The Love Spot, including, with the group I joined, Gerry Goldstein, best known as the late Hunter S Thompson’s attorney. I watched him fly down the mountain, which he attributes entirely to Clendenin, saying “He has converted an awkward, middle-aged skier with knee replacements into someone who can ski anything with comfort and no pain.”
On day two, I learned that when it begins to work – and it does, even if you can’t get Barry White out of your head — you have an incredible sensation of effortlessly floating down the mountain. As it gets steeper, you adjust. As you go faster, you learn to control the speed. By the end of day two, we were doing laps on mogul runs, the no-excuses-follow-me kind of skiing, where you are turning in the tracks of your instructor, who is three feet ahead of you, faster and faster, on ever steeper and tougher black diamond moguls. You feel like you’re steering a jet and you can’t cheat – if you fall back to stem turns, you’ll lose speed and crash. The only way to do it is their way. At the end of a run, you feel like a genius.
Is he the best ski instructor in the United States? As a veteran of every major ski teaching method in the country for more than 20 years, I find these words in my head at the end of the day. By the final day, there’s no question mark and “Is he” is now “He is.”
We ended the final day on Volkswagen Beetle-size moguls on Ridge of Bell, a double back diamond run that leaves your heart in your throat when you view it from below. We were finally in Clendenin’s Kingdom, and skiing it with some aplomb. The man with the keys to the Kingdom watched us, still barking, still shouting, and always grinning.
The Clendenin Ski Method camps are three-days long and are held seven times a winter in Aspen and twice in Park City. Every September, Clendenin brings his camp to Portillo, Chile. There are Basic Camps for $989 and Camp Plus, which includes a half hour training session on a ski simulator, use of high performance skis, and access to the Aspen Club & Spa, for $1,149.