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On the slopes of a growth industry

For wealthy resort-goers, a ski instructor can be much more: companion, confidant and social networker.

March 09, 2003|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

Aspen, Colo. — On a clear February morning, the view from the top of Aspen Mountain is so majestic that anyone fortunate enough to take it in believes he is master of all he surveys. The 38-year-old tax attorney sipping hot chocolate in front of the picture windows of the Sundeck Restaurant is used to that feeling, even when he isn't looking down from 11,212 feet above sea level. He lives in Paris and skis in the French and Swiss Alps, but he has been coming to Aspen, the jewel of American ski resorts, for 15 years.

A financial prodigy who made his first million long ago, he checks into a suite of rooms at the Little Nell Hotel during Christmas week and again later in the season, accompanied by three secretaries, six computers, two fax machines and one wife. He begins work at 3 in the morning, when the business day in Europe is in full swing. At 9 he goes out to ski, but first completes a transatlantic cell phone conversation in the 15 minutes it takes the Silver Queen gondola to carry him and his instructor to the summit.

The presence of Paul Wade, a 47-year-old professional ski instructor who has taught in Aspen for 26 years, is essential, because the compulsively busy man who pays $460 a day for Wade's expertise and companionship knows the limitations of a winter paradise. Even when the scenery is spectacular, the snow conditions ideal, the equipment state of the art, the crowds light and the temperature mild, skiing isn't much fun when it's lonely at the top.

Renaissance pros

Ski instructors were once considered close kin to beach resort employees -- dashing jocks who enjoyed outdoor sports by day and indoor sports after dark, providing willing vacationers with happy memories that wouldn't qualify as Kodak moments. Teaching skiing was something hedonistic slackers did before they grew up and got real jobs.

That image is as passe as leather ski boots. Today ski instructors in prime resorts like Sun Valley, Vail and Aspen are a different breed. The average Aspen instructor spends 20 years in the job, and his relationships with clients last longer than some of their marriages. By turns therapist, personal trainer, baby-sitter, bodyguard and social networker, he or she (40% of Aspen's 1,300 full- and part-time instructors are female) is a skillful experience manager who knows just how to enhance a day on the slopes for people who aren't casual about anything, including their leisure pursuits.

The rewards reaped by elite instructors go way beyond receiving generous tips, working in a place of surpassing natural beauty and being able to make a living at the sport they love most. Their grateful pupils, who sometimes become good friends, invite them on trips, offer them access to their private jets, vacation homes and yachts, give them cars and stock in their corporations, and provide down payments for new houses. John Phillips, 57, considers all of his pupils friends, and describes himself as their long-term coach. A client from Chicago invited Phillips' son to live with his family for two summers while the young man interned at his law firm.

Such spoils go to instructors who are unflappable, flexible, patient, intuitive, engaging and fun. In other words, the job isn't as easy as it sounds.

"When we interview new applicants, we're looking for reasonable athletic skills, but what we really hope to find is personality, because we can't teach that," says Rich Burkley, managing director of the Ski and Snowboard Schools of Aspen. The ski school offers group lessons for $105 a day per person, but the demand for private instruction is triple that for classes. "Multi-day privates are our biggest product, and clients want to be with instructors who are agreeable and worldly. So we're looking for that Renaissance pro -- an excellent athlete with a high social IQ who's well balanced spiritually."

Popular for a reason

Enter Paul Wade, who is booked for the season by the end of September. Neither tall nor ostentatiously muscled, he seems aerodynamically designed for maximum athletic efficiency, his no-frills style punctuated by a cleanly shaved head. He is an animated conversationalist with catholic interests and a self-deprecating sense of humor, nice but never unctuous. Although he recognizes his ability to get along with anyone, his understanding of his popularity with clients goes deeper. "Most of the people I ski with are extremely wealthy and successful," he says. "Everyone they meet wants something from them, a business deal or something. All I want is to have a nice day outdoors. They're good skiers who are very driven, and they want to make good use of their time, so they appreciate that I take care of things. It's relaxing for them to not have to worry about getting hurt, and they like being with someone who isn't trying to get into their pockets."

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