Mt. Spokane Ski School director aims to mold skiers for life
If you want youngsters to grow up enthusiastic about fishing, Cheney psychologist Paul Quinnett recommends three things: wait for a beautiful day; choose somewhere they’re sure to catch fish; and quit 30 minutes before they’re bored.
Maxine “Max” McIntyre cultivates lifelong skiers and snowboarders. But as director of Mt. Spokane’s Ski School, she doesn’t have the luxury of waiting for perfect conditions.
So her formula for success is to give beginners the latest equipment, passionate instructors, “and make sure they have lots of fun.”
“I’ve had people learn in the worst conditions,” McIntyre said, “but they were successful, so they came back for another lesson.”
Eighteen days from now, expert skiers and snowboarders will descend on Sochi, Russia, for the XXII Olympic Winter Games. And if history is any guide, Mount Spokane will see a corresponding surge in aspiring Olympians eager to carve their first turns in the snow.
During a recent interview, Spokane native McIntyre discussed how teaching skiing and snowboarding has evolved, and what she looks for when hiring instructors.
S-R: When did you start skiing?
McIntyre: In high school, in the late ’60s.
S-R: Did you take lessons?
McIntyre: No, I taught myself.
S-R: What inspired you to start instructing others 21 years ago?
McIntyre: I was a stay-at-home mom, and I heard that if I taught skiing, the second year my whole family would get season passes.
S-R: How did you learn to teach?
McIntyre: Mount Spokane’s training director and instructors worked with the candidates, and then they hired the best ones. Somehow I made the cut, started teaching and discovered I loved it.
S-R: What months do you work as ski-school director?
McIntyre: From mid-October to mid-April.
S-R: How important is the school to the overall health of the Mt. Spokane Ski and Snowboard Park? (Editor’s note: The ski area is operated by Mt. Spokane 2000, a nonprofit organization headed by Jim Meyer, husband of Betsy Cowles, chairwoman of the company that owns The Spokesman-Review.)
McIntyre: It’s huge. Mt. Spokane is known as a family mountain and teaching mountain, and we are the department that develops lifelong skiers. Because of our proximity to Spokane, we teach more lessons than any other mountain around here. In a typical year we have about 5,000 students.
S-R: Do you ski or snowboard?
McIntyre: I mainly ski. When I first started, there was no snowboarding. But about six years ago, one of my instructors forced me to learn to snowboard.
S-R: Which technique do students prefer?
McIntyre: It used to be 50-50, but now we teach about 80 percent skiing and 20 percent boarding. I think it’s because the new skis are so wide and short that you can do more things in the terrain park (that caters to aerial moves) when your legs work independently.
S-R: What’s the overall ratio of skiers to boarders at Mount Spokane?
McIntyre: Probably 65 percent skiers and 35 percent snowboarders.
S-R: Is one technique safer than the other?
McIntyre: Both have their risks. Boarders tend to injure ankles, wrists, shoulders – and heads, because most of the younger snowboarders go into the terrain park, where there are a lot of crashes. With skiers, it’s more knees and backs.
S-R: Which is easier to learn: skiing or snowboarding?
McIntyre: It’s easier for never-evers to learn skiing. But once you learn how to turn and stop on a snowboard, you progress much quicker than skiers. It takes a long time to get very good on skis.
S-R: If someone doesn’t have a preference, where would you suggest they start?
McIntyre: I’d put them on skis first, so they can build confidence right away. Then I’d switch them to snowboarding.
S-R: What do you look for in potential instructors?
McIntyre: If I ask them about their experience working with youngsters – teaching swimming or babysitting – and they get a big smile on their face, I know they enjoy being around children. Some who apply are only doing it for the free season pass. But many times I can develop instructors who didn’t know they had a passion for teaching.
S-R: How much do they earn?
McIntyre: New instructors make minimum wage. But there’s also a national certification process, and once you’re certified, your pay goes up dramatically.
S-R: How has ski instructors’ image changed over the years?
McIntyre: When I first started, most instructors were men – single men – and I don’t think they took it as seriously. It seemed like they were just trying to pick up single women. Now it’s serious. Our goal is to develop lifelong skiers in three lessons.
S-R: Has the way skiing is taught also changed?
McIntyre: Quite a bit. When I first started teaching, skis were straight and narrow, and longer skis meant you were a better skier. Now the skis are shorter and hourglass-shaped, so less tip and tail come up off the snow during turns, and we’re able to eliminate several steps in the teaching progression.
S-R: How long does it take a beginner to feel comfortable getting on a chairlift, getting off and coming down a beginner run?
McIntyre: If they take a lesson, one hour.
S-R: By the end of three two-hour lessons, what should beginners be able to do?
McIntyre: They should be comfortable skiing any intermediate run on the mountain.
S-R: Did the recession impact the ski school?
S-R: How about weather?
McIntyre: That has a huge impact. If there’s no snow in Spokane, people think there’s no snow on the mountain and they stay home. Once it snows in town, our guest services go through the roof, along with lessons.
S-R: How’s this season’s snow been?
McIntyre: We got a couple of feet right away, which developed into a really good base. Then we didn’t see any new snow for quite a while. But Mount Spokane has an awesome grooming crew, and they can perform miracles.
S-R: What’s your definition of a perfect day at Mount Spokane?
McIntyre: Bluebird skies, 20 degrees and a foot of fresh snow.
S-R: What are you most proud of about your job?
McIntyre: Our cadet program for kids 13 to 16. We train them the same way we train instructors, but they’re volunteers assigned to veteran instructors who teach students ages 3 to 6. They sit on the chairlift with the little ones, pick them up when they fall down, and have a lot of fun with them. I like developing the cadets’ teaching skills and passion for teaching. I have 30-year-old instructors who started out as cadets, or went on to college and became teachers.
S-R: What do you like least about your job?
McIntyre: Instructors don’t get paid very much, and I can only pay them for the two or three hours they teach. But I ask them to check in all day, because we don’t know on an hourly basis how many students we’ll have. No one complains, but I hate not being able to pay them for hanging around all day.
S-R: What else would you like to change about the ski school?
McIntyre: My instructors and I work out of a yurt, and I would love to have a building. And a new parking lot!
S-R: What’s your favorite run to take beginners on?
McIntyre: Half Hitch and Lamonga Pass are my two favorites. They’re longer runs, so you don’t spend as much time on the chairlift. There are some steep parts, but once they get over those, I stop and say, “Take a look at what you just did.” And they go, “Wow!”
Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.