Men of the Mountain

More than fifty years ago in southern Vermont, avid skier and former Greenwich resident Frank Snyder joined forces with a local landowner, “Tink” Smith, and a state senator, Edward Janeway, to build an upscale, family-oriented ski resort. From the outset, Stratton attracted an enthusiastic community of skiers from Fairfield County. They came as much for the lively social scene and European ambience as for the mountain’s varied terrain and excellent ski school, whose founding director, Emo Henrich, hailed from the Arlberg region of Austria. Henrich’s Stratton Mountain Boys, a musical ensemble dedicated to traditional Tyrolean music, could be found entertaining visitors après ski and evenings in the base lodge.

Since the first lift began carrying skiers up the Suntanner run in December 1961, Stratton has grown from a modest ski mountain into a world-class resort with a sprawling base village, sports center, private homes and condominium developments, even the elite Stratton Mountain School for emerging Alpine, Nordic and snowboarding athletes. The ski school, now the Stratton Snowsports School, has flourished, too, with a staff of nearly 500, offering everything from group ski lessons to specialized clinics in steeps, moguls, racing, freestyle, snowboarding and more. “There are so many programs, it’s hard to keep them all straight,” says director Craig Panarisi, with a laugh. “On a Saturday or Sunday, we might do lessons for 1,600 kids.”

The thing that makes it all possible? A dedicated staff of part-time instructors. “We couldn’t run this business without them,” says Panarisi. He estimates that a quarter of the part-time instructors are from Fairfield County; at last count there were ten from Greenwich alone. Their job is to go where they are needed. “Last week I overheard a part-timer speaking on his cell phone. He was a high-end surgeon and he was discussing a complicated procedure. A few minutes later he was taking out a group of four-year-old little girls in pink helmets.”

Recently we caught up with three Greenwich residents who devote their cherished downtime from busy careers to teach the sport they love.


John Gelb, Riverside

During his first season with the Stratton Snowsports School three years ago, John Gelb was standing at the bottom of the mountain during the morning lineup, waiting for the ski school director to finish assigning the day’s private lessons. Five inches of sticky new snow had fallen overnight and Gelb was in no hurry to get out on the hill. “Everyone was checking their watch, no one was making eye contact; bumps and crud were the last thing I wanted to do. My knees just aren’t what they used to be. And that’s when I realized: I signed up to be a ski instructor. I waited five seconds and said ‘I’ll do it.’”

The morning turned out to be memorable in more ways than one. For one thing, the student was a good skier, and they were able to head straight to the top of the mountain. For another, he was able to pass along some advice based on his own experience. “He was a typical middle-aged guy who was only skiing with his wife and kids and his technique had plateaued. I told him I’d been in the same boat and that he should look for any opportunity to ski with people who were better than he was.”

Born and raised in Manhattan, the Riverside resident has longtime ties to the Stratton community. In 1966, his parents bought a condominium in one of the original developments behind the Stratton Mountain Inn. Every Friday afternoon they’d load up the station wagon and head north. The trip took about five hours from their home on the Upper East Side. “We’d pick up food at the Madison Deli on 86th street, pack a thermos of broth and head out, my parents, two sisters, brother and an eight-track stereo playing Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking” over and over again.”

Gelb skied Stratton for years, through college at Yale and while working in the banking industry in New York City. After a six-year hiatus when his job took him to Texas, the Gelbs returned to the Northeast in 1987. That winter, he promptly enrolled his two sons in the Stratton ski school and took up snowboarding. “I needed a new challenge,” he says. “I realized I could scare the daylights out of myself on a trail like the Tyrolienne.”

As his kids got older and they started playing ice hockey, skiing got placed on the back burner. “We’d squeeze in a weekend or two but mostly we just went to hockey games.” When his sons went off to college, Gelb continued to ski sporadically. After a lifetime of skiing, he longed to find a way to reignite the passion he’d once felt for the sport. Three years ago, he had an epiphany: Why not call up the ski school and see if they were looking for part-time instructors? That was in October of 2010. The woman conducting the interview asked about his ski history, and the last lesson he’d taken. “It was the spring of 1968,” he says. “It was one of those drippy, slushy spring days and we were all wearing garbage bags with holes poked through them to see. She hired me on the spot.”

Besides a short orientation and several on-snow training sessions, new instructors are required to shadow a full-time instructor for a day before they are allowed to take a class out on their own. “I was getting a little nervous about the teaching,” he says. “In my day we learned the wedge turn and the snowplow. Now with the new shaped skis, they want people to learn parallel right off the bat. The instructor was this tall guy, Otto Egger, who I’d known as a kid. He was one of the original Stratton Mountain Boys. He taught the way I remembered. He showed me it was possible to blend the old and the new and use it to my advantage.”

Since then, Gelb, owner of the online eduction company At Peace Media, has spent nearly every weekend and holiday at Stratton. He still stays at the family condo, which is filled with memorabilia from the old days—ski school pins and race results and season passes from the ’70s. He passed his Level I Professional Ski Instructors of America (PSIA) certification test this past December; he has started to build a repeat clientele. His overarching approach is simple: No one should ever be afraid.

“When you’re fearful, you can’t learn anything,” he says. “You’re just hanging on for dear life.”

It’s a lesson he learned the hard way, while trying to teach his wife, Jan, soon after they met in 1981. “I kind of forced her to learn,” he says. “I had her do something too hard and she sat down on the run and started crying.” He paused. “She still skis a little bit,” he says with a rueful smile.

Part of the Club

Joseph De Muyt, Greenwich

Mention the word “cold” and Vermont skiing in one breath, and part-time Stratton ski instructor Joe De Muyt just smiles. “You want to see cold?” he says. “Come to Wisconsin.”

That’s where the Greenwich resident learned to ski growing up in Burlington, near Lake Geneva. He was seven when his next-door neighbors set him up on a pair of long wooden skis with bear-trap bindings. They brought him to the top of a small hill near the lake and let him go. He was hooked.

Largely self-taught, De Muyt endured icy conditions and bitter cold nights, as he progressed from the wedge to linked parallel turns. He was fourteen when he signed up to become a ski instructor at the nearby Americana ski area. “It was then that my skiing improved tremendously,” he says. He trained for a year before the resort let him start teaching on his own at the age of fifteen. “We had corporate customers who would bring busloads of their employees skiing for a day,” he recalls. “I would have groups of ten to twelve students that I had to teach in an hour, using the rope tow to get up the beginner hill.”

De Muyt draws on that experience today, where most weekends find him teaching everything from groups to private lessons with adults and children. For De Muyt, teaching is a nice way to offset a demanding career as a global account manager for a large IT company and to spend time with his four teenage children, one of whom is a sophomore at the Stratton Mountain School.

A relative newcomer to the Stratton scene, De Muyt and his wife, Patty, moved to the Northeast from Chicago in 1999. They spent seven years in Bedford before relocating to their current home off North Street. In 2000, the family attended a corporate ski event at Okemo, where De Muyt put the then three-year-old Joseph into ski school for the first time. “Teaching our kids to ski brought us back to skiing,” he says. Friends introduced them to Butternut, a small day area just over the Massachusetts border; and it was there that the four De Muyt kids (Joseph, Jacqueline, Christopher and Harry) really got their ski legs. “Typically, as soon as one of them got to be five or six, I’d put them in ski school so I could focus on the younger ones. I got a little better with each one,” he says.

In the spring of 2009, young Joseph, then twelve, won the Tri-State Giant Slalom race and the recruiters from Stratton Mountain School came calling soon after. “When Joe decided to go to Stratton Mountain School, I was like, OK, I’m going to start being a ski instructor again,” De Muyt says.

He was drawn to the resort’s congenial, clubby atmosphere. “There’s a nice tradition at Stratton,” he says. “It can seem like a melee, especially on weekends. But you can find your places, especially when you get into seasonal programs.” He and Patty started volunteering on race days and joined the Stratton Ski and Snowboard Club in order to meet other couples with children. “There’s a reserved seating area upstairs in the base lodge and we can stow our gear and have a place for lunch,” says De Muyt. “And there are always adults around looking out for one another’s kids.”

For De Muyt, who is working toward his Level II PSIA certification, one of the best parts of his job is the variety of students he encounters on any given day. “I approach each student individually and try to figure out what skills they need to develop and how I can help them,” he says. He especially likes working with kids. “I love introducing them to the sport and giving them the kind of confidence that my neighbors gave to me. For some kids, this is the only active thing they have in their lives.”

it’s in his bones

Jon Singeson, Cos Cob

A successful ski instructor knows how to go with the flow—especially when it comes to kids. “I had two sisters that were in an age category that can be challenging to work with,” recalls part-timer Jon Singeson. “Style and fashion were crucial elements to their days. So was hot chocolate.”

With three boys of his own, Singeson is adept at motivating young skiers. “They didn’t realize they could be better than they were,” he says. “It was great getting on their wavelength. That it wasn’t something I was making them do or their parents, but something they wanted to do.”

It’s all part of the process for the Cos Cob resident, who started sliding around his backyard on wooden skis as a kid. Growing up in Newport, Rhode Island, Singeson and his family spent nearly every weekend at areas like Loon, Waterville Valley and Sunday River. “I’ve skied for as long as I can remember,” says Singeson, who is also an offshore sailing instructor at the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point. During college at the University of Rhode Island, he spent time with his cousin, a ski patroller at Copper Mountain, where he learned about the safety procedures involved in running a big western ski resort.

Singeson moved from the finance industry to selling Nordic and Telemark gear in 2001 and skied every chance he got. “One winter I skied forty days,” he says. “Life is invariably better having that kind of outlet, especially in the wintertime.” He rented a house at Sugarbush for several years with some ski buddies before eventually buying a place at Killington with his now former wife. After the couple separated in 2010, Singeson started spending time with friends near Stratton. One of the aspects of the mountain that appealed to him immediately was its low-key charm. “As well developed as this area is, they really value the authenticity of southern Vermont,” he says.

Looking for a way to utilize his ski skills and spend quality time with his three young sons, Singeson signed on as a part-time instructor in 2011. “Besides being a great place to ski, the mountain is very supportive of its employees,” he says. “They make it really easy to bring kids into snow sports.”

So far so good: The oldest, seven-year-old Ethan, whose vocabulary is laced with words like “ripping,” “shredding,” and “pow-pow” (powder) is getting close to skiing parallel and is already talking about ski racing and freestyle programs. Five-year-old Jackson, following in his brother’s footsteps, did his first jump over the holidays. “Clearly there was air under his skis,” says Singeson, “so I’ll give it a big thumb’s up.” As for three-year-old Colby? “He brings out his boots, size 14, the smallest I can find, when the other boys get theirs on. I’ll try to get him on skis this March. It will be warmer and the snow will be soft and great for learning.”

For now, the part-timer rents a place near Magic Mountain and teaches every other weekend. He has quickly come to feel like an integral part of the Stratton community. He’s gotten to know some of the full-time instructors, thanks to clients who are mutual friends from the sailing world. And he often runs into folks from Greenwich, both in the base lodge and on the hill. “It’s a small world here at Stratton, more so than any other ski area in Vermont,” he says.

Already he has earned his Level I PSIA certification and is on track for Level II by the end of 2013. One of the most rewarding aspects of the teaching job, he says, is seeing that moment when something clicks in a student’s head. “It’s almost audible,” he says. “Taking a client who has never, ever skied and bringing them through the process to have a wedge with controlled speed and a turn, and then maybe even linked turns, in less than two hours is really rewarding.” Last year, when the snow conditions were spotty, he took the opportunity to participate in mini-clinics with Stratton’s upper-level instructors. “It was a great way to get aspects of my own skiing sorted out,” he says. When he’s free skiing, Singeson heads straight for the trees and bump runs. “I always want to improve,” he says. “My brother, who lives in Denver, tells me I make it look easy, like I’m not working at it. Trust me, I’m working.”

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