It’s a bluebird day on top of Aspen Mountain and a handsome, tanned and fit 60-something named John Clendenin, the founder of the Clendenin Method Camps , is saying “You’re going to ski on a level you’ve never skied before. All conditions, all terrain, no problem.”
A dozen acolytes, all “good” skiers by many measures, are listening and nodding. Many are veterans of his three day clinics, which have become legendary in the ski world. The author of the Clendenin Ski Method and director of the Clendenin Ski Method camps, Clendenin’s three-day program is designed to teach skiers of all ability levels how to ski moguls and off-piste conditions.
“About 90 percent of skiers stick to the groomed runs, which is about 20 percent of any mountain,” Clendenin says. “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.”
That’s a tall order for most recreational skiers, who tend to avoid bumps and ungroomed terrain as terra incognita. Clendenin knows that all too well, and manages to help skiers of all abilities not only ski a whole lot better but deal with the fear factor.
Clendenin, who manages to grin when he’s speaking to you like a Marine drill instructor faced with a particularly dim recruit, still has something of the frat boy cockiness that he must have had in spades when he became the World Freestyle Champion twice back in the 1970’s. That was before he evolved into one of the most sought-after ski instructors in the United States, with a clientele as demanding as he is. People like Jim Crown, managing partner of the Aspen Skiing Company and a director of JP Morgan Chase & Co. Super-recruiter Dennis Carey, vice chairman of Korn Ferry. Singer and philanthropist Denise Rich, who often flies him up to Sun Valley for private lessons. Not to mention many more from the roster of the rich and famous who populate Aspen who’d rather remain anonymous.
But while billionaires may seek him out for private lessons, Clendenin also runs a yearly series of camps like this one around the US, France and in Portillo, Chile. They are aimed not so much at the private jet set – though there’s a good sprinkling of those in my group — but for mature skiers – read anyone over age 30 — who wants to ski bumps, crud, powder and any expert-level terrain safely, with as little effort as possible.
“Skiers who think they look great on groomed runs often look like they’re riding a wild pony in the bumps,” Clendenin says. “They just can’t figure out why their technique does not work in the bumps. It’s because they don’t have any! We want control first and 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, bumps become easier and easier, and speed becomes less of a factor.”
We break into four groups with a handful of instructors steeped in the Method while Clendenin spends the day skiing between each group. He’s perennially 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.
At the heart of his Method, which he freely admits is inspired by the legendary Jean Claude Killy, are the “Four Words,” which he repeats like a mantra: drift, center, touch, tip. They are repeated and demonstrated again and again.
We start on the gently rolling groomed terrain where we get used to the Method. The demon Clendenin is trying to rid most of us of is the stem turn, the awkward turning of the ski that’s acquired by beginners and stays with many skiers for their 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.
Clendenin is demanding, and his acolytes—many of whom have taken the three-day camp multiple times—wouldn’t have it any other way. The repeat factor is north of 50%. 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 one of those sports where you can always get better. Assuming you’re smart enough to know that.
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. You have what Clendenin calls “The Keys to the Kingdom.”
When it clicks, you do in fact have the 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 almost immediately. The only way to do it is their way. It’s exhilarating and at the end of a mogul run, you feel like a genius.
We end 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, because we were now in his rarefied mountain world.
The Clendenin Method Camps are three-days long. In the 2017-2018 season, there will be 10 Camp sessions, in the following locations: Aspen, CO; Beaver Creek, CO; Steamboat Spring, CO and Park City, UT. The cost of the three-day Camp is $1,349 (airfare and lodging not included) . There are also camp trips to Val d’Isère, France and Portillo, Chile, which include lodging and transportation to and from the airport. The price is dependent on room selection and can be found on the website.
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