On the slopes of a growth industry

Times Staff Writer

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."

Taking care of his clients' needs begins in summer, when Wade calls New York, Nashville, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and L.A. with gentle reminders to get in shape. Listening to the client who strictly adheres to the happy-hour diet complain about his excess weight is a ritual they both enjoy. Some of his regulars will ask Wade to round up new ski clothes and equipment before they come to Aspen. As the year's first snow was falling, Wade selected four pairs of boots for the tax attorney and four for his wife -- to leave in Aspen, to take to Paris, to store in Courchevel and St. Moritz -- then supervised the boot-tweaking process after the couple arrived. Many of his clients have homes in Aspen. For those who don't, the town's luxury hotels -- the Little Nell, the St. Regis and the historic Hotel Jerome, known for making a fetish of service -- store gear for regular guests.

On Aspen Mountain, Wade functions as a nurturing parent. He totes dental floss, Band-Aids, gum, candy, nail files, a Swiss Army knife and screwdrivers. He senses which clients want their skis carried and boots buckled, and doesn't judge them lazy or spoiled for wanting "full service." He decides which trail they should ski down and where they'll stop for lunch. "I ski with people who don't know the names of any runs on the mountain," he says, an information gap comparable to a city dweller being ignorant of a subway line's stops.

When Michael Klein, a Harvard MBA and entrepreneur, made a fortune in telecommunications, he bought a house in Aspen and began taking ski lessons. That was 18 years ago. He still skis with Wade, whom he met that first winter. "I wanted to learn how to ski, but I didn't want to work at it," Klein says. "Paul has a great talent for making all the ski jargon accessible. He lets you have fun. I ski well now. I don't ski with Paul to improve my skiing -- I just love him. He has a huge heart and great values, and he doesn't have a bad thought in his mind. He listens. He cares. He doesn't have an agenda. His agenda is making your vacation as incredible as it can be, and that's different for every student."

Klein used to ski about 75 days a year with Wade. He and his wife are in the vanguard of the raw food movement, the high temple of which is Roxanne's, their restaurant in Marin County. Opened a year ago, it's been keeping the couple too busy to ski much, but Wade and his wife, Heidi, visit the Klein family at least once a year in California, and they've been guests at the Kleins' retreat in Kauai. "I've taken Paul skiing in France, Switzerland, to Jackson Hole, Vail, Sun Valley," Klein says. "I've taken him on tour with the Grateful Dead a few times. Our families are close, and our children have become friends."

Under Klein's influence, Paul and Heidi became vegans about 10 years ago. The couple met in 1974 at a small Vermont ski area where they both taught on weekends, and two years later they moved to Aspen. Their daughters, 16 and 19, are superb skiers, of course. One client has offered to write a letter of recommendation for the younger daughter if she decides to apply to Princeton.

Wade is also a distance bicyclist, but he can't afford to be among Aspen's idle fit, exercise enthusiasts who wear out bicycle tires and in-line skates when the snow melts. Instructors, who range from 18 to 78 and can teach snowboarding and telemarking as well as alpine technique, get full benefits from the Aspen Ski Corp. Their pay advances from $11 to $45 an hour, depending on their level of experience and how much they work. A full-time instructor can clock a maximum of 800 hours a season.

Even with tips, which they are reluctant to discuss in case the IRS might be listening, most instructors cobble together a decent income by doing a variety of jobs. Nearly 200 of Aspen's pros follow the snow, teaching in the southern hemisphere in summer. (Fifteen of the 45 instructors in the Portillo, Chile, ski school also teach in Aspen.) Michael Pettit, 46, an instructor for 15 years, runs a landscaping and gardening business and considers the opportunity to get summer business from private skiing clients a job perk. Wade works as a contractor and carpenter in the off-season,teaches fly-fishing and kayaking, sells Solomon ski equipment to pros, runs teaching clinics and examines instructors for the Professional Ski Instructor's Assn. Heidi is a part-time instructor, logging about 200 hours a year.

"I'm kind of amazed that I'm still able to teach skiing, day after day, after 31 years," Wade says. "When I first started, I thought it would be an easy job, I could just ski and enjoy being outdoors. I realize now there is more to it. Every day has to be a peak experience for the client. You finish skiing with someone for a week or 10 days, and when they leave you go right to the next person, who expects something epic too. I have a normal family life. Doing yoga really clears my head. I live out of Aspen, 30 miles down valley in Carbondale, and that's huge. I play jazz guitar for fun. I have a really good balance in my life. And I get to meet incredibly interesting people a normal working person would never get to meet. They want you to be at their birthday and anniversary parties, and at their kids' weddings. They want you to meet their friends. You're more than just a ski instructor."

The resort network

Aspen has a come a long way from the rough-and-tumble silver mining town it was a century ago. Now the clocks at the top and bottom of the lifts on Ajax Mountain are by Bertolucci, the streets are chockablock with designer boutiques, and homeowners bestow rustic names on mega-cabins they occupy only a few weeks a year. If tourist visas were issued, they would have to include a sense of entitlement for anyone lacking their own.

Where the competition for status is fierce, it can feel like a privilege to be accepted by the right decorator, hairstylist or ski instructor. Sought-after instructors become master networkers. "If I'm having drinks with a group after skiing, other people I know will be genuinely interested in meeting them," Wade says. "The people I ski with get to know the lift operators, the bartenders and waitresses, the shop people and workers who tune their skis. A big part of having a guide is getting that feeling of belonging to an area, and having people know who you are. People I ski with very quickly get integrated into the town, and they like that."

In some circles, the value of a staff of personal employees lies in the bragging rights. "I called a client in New York, and his secretary patched me through to a meeting he was in," Wade says. "The client said there wasn't one guy at the meeting who wouldn't drop everything to take a call from a ski or tennis pro. After we talked, he told everyone, 'That was my ski instructor in Aspen. He wanted to tell me how the snow was.' "

Highland Bowl, a legendary wilderness area on the Aspen Highlands mountain, was made safe enough to open to skiers a year ago. Being able to ski the steep slopes of the back-country bowls makes the 45-minute hike from the top of the lift worth the effort. "It's a real mountaineering experience," Wade says. "If the conditions are right, it isn't super difficult, and the views are huge. It isn't something a lot of people would want to tackle on their own, but when I take them there, they have an incredibly fulfilling experience. At the top you're at 12,400 feet, and when they get up there, people usually want to call someone on their cell phone. They say, 'You won't believe where I am!' "

In an expensive playground where people come to see and be seen, subtle demonstrations of power are noticed. Any skier who's fought weekend crowds at a busy resort knows that waiting 45 minutes to get on a chairlift can kill the euphoria of being at the top of the world. On most mountains, separate lines are marked for regular skiers and those with instructors: Instructors with clients have the right to whisk in front. "There was a time when you'd hire an instructor so you wouldn't have to stand in line," Klein says. "Since more high-speed lifts have been put in, you almost never encounter lines in Aspen anymore. Many days the instructor lines are longer than the regular lines."

Skiing is a risky sport made safer by the buddy system. Ergo, buddies required. A private instructor sometimes functions as a paid friend, one who will accommodate the client's pace and schedule. One week a month, a woman who lived in Aspen before she married a financial planner from San Francisco returns to the Rockies to ski. "She skis hard, for six days in a row," Heidi says. "She doesn't know anyone who wants to be out on the mountain from 8 in the morning till 4 in the afternoon, so she says, 'I have to hire someone to hang out with me.' "

Some people would rather hire an instructor to be a surrogate friend for their mate. Then it's the pro's job to tolerate whining, to encourage and cajole. "The most difficult people to ski with are those who feel they've been forced by a significant other," Pettit says. "The husband is an expert skier, and he hires me to improve his wife's skiing, and she'd rather be shopping. When someone feels forced, they often try very hard not to enjoy the experience."

Not every private client is looking for a pal. While many instructor-pupil relationships span decades, other skiers run through instructors like dental floss. Eyes roll when the name of a New York socialite with a home in Aspen comes up. "Very high maintenance," an instructor says. "She's skied with many, many different people, and whatever you do, she's never happy." Wade says, "To some people, you're just help. They're used to having so much help, and some of them were taught not to speak to the help. They're not interested in you at all. You're like furniture."

A wing chair never tattled. One of Pettit's clients sometimes comes to Aspen with her husband. When he stays home, a boyfriend might join her and her instructor on the mountain. What's a God-fearing pro who wasn't born yesterday to do? Perfect a poker face and remember that a gift for discretion can be as valuable as freshly waxed skis. Ultimate secrecy protection comes with nondisclosure agreements. About 50 skiers a year, usually high-profile politicians, athletes or entertainers, insist that their Aspen instructors sign such documents. Wade doesn't think his clients are in danger of having infidelities exposed, but a desire for escape is a frequent occurrence. "Guys come here by themselves to catch a day or two of skiing -- without their wife or girlfriend," he says. "When it's time for them to call home, they say, 'OK, everyone be quiet. No one can know I'm in Aspen.' "

But their trusted instructor knows.

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